Offenders in work programs are gaining a valuable, positive sense of themselves

A few years ago some Arizona Correctional Industries (ACI) staff members noticed that the rank and file security officers at many of the Arizona Department of Corrections (ADC) facilities across the state had very little knowledge about ACI. They wanted us to create a little handout they could share with these folks to illustrate how ACI benefits ADC in their shared missions to make communities safe and improve reentry results. We came up with this 5.5” x 8.5” piece that is now well into its third printing:

  • ACI is a vital part of the Arizona Department of Corrections.
  • ACI assumes security responsibility for nearly 2,000 inmates a day, freeing ADC staff to perform other duties.
    FY2017 ACI Inmate Work Hours: 4,300,000
  • ACI instills a sense of purpose for inmates who otherwise would use their free time in prison in very unproductive and negative ways, then return to their communities upon release without any new productive skills.
  • ACI creates good work habits and positive routines for inmates; a tired inmate creates fewer issues on the yard.
  • ACI generates inmate compensation that offsets a portion of ADC room and board costs, allowing ADC resources to be used on staffing and infrastructure.
  • FY2016 ACI Inmate Room & Board: $2,908,176
  • ACI helps ADC keep costs down on items purchased from owned and operated shops, like: clothes, bedding, mattresses, bunks, exercise equipment, tables and chairs, office furnishings, signs, plaques, awards, printing…
    Working with ACI helps reduce recidivism by 31.6%.3
  • Every year, part of ACI’s net income is reinvested to create new work opportunities for inmates and maintain ongoing operations.

Since then many things at ADC have changed as it has begun to focus more on reentry and reducing recidivism. Here at ACI we have noticed that there is more awareness throughout the department of the vital role ACI plays. But to learn more about how ADC security staff views the work that ACI does, we spoke with Deputy Warden Ruben Montano.
Ruben Montano is currently the Deputy Warden at the Arizona Department of Corrections/Florence Complex, Central Unit. He has been working in correction/detention for 30 years. His background has been in all custody levels, Inmate Classification, Detention Standards, Policies and Procedures, Accreditation, and Training. Ruben currently has a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration/ Management, Master’s Degree in Organizational Management, and a Master’s Degree in Educational Leadership.

Do you think that ACI helps improve offender reentry results?

Deputy Warden Montano: Definitely. From a security perspective there are two kinds of offenders:

1. Ones, like those who work with ACI, who can successfully participate in programming
2. Ones who are the non-programmable – who are just career trouble makers

Most guys from both groups will be getting out of here at some point. We know that a majority of the second group (the non-programmable guys) will soon be back inside. But we can really help the guys who actively participate in programs like drug rehab, education, psychological treatment and, of course, ACI. These are the ones who we can expose to resources they may have never had access to before their convictions.

These are the guys who can look ahead; look toward their release time and start planning for a future that’s radically different than their past. There is no better feeling than witnessing that transformation, when an offender you’ve been supervising has that “ah ha” moment! When he or she suddenly grasps the importance of what they’ve learned at their ACI job. They suddenly see that this great new computer skill or craft they’ve mastered could put them on the path to a successful career. They could get that home, properly take care of their family, be one of those successful people they always only saw from afar.

So offenders working in ACI programs are easier to supervise?

Deputy Warden Montano: Of course. These are guys doing important jobs each day, just like me. They learn their craft, complete their tasks, get regular evaluations on their performance and, at the end of the day, can feel good about what they’ve accomplished. The only difference between us is where we go after we punch out.
When the work program guys get back to their cell blocks they just want to eat, relax and get themselves ready for the next day. They don’t want to deal with all the stuff happening on the yard. And I’ve met guys who have been addicts their whole lives who say they haven’t thought about getting high since they started their jobs.

Think about that. Work, having a job, a place to go, a contribution to make to some goal outside themselves, can actually help these guys overcome their addictions. A job, structure, direction can be just the therapy they need to get straight for good.

That’s why it’s so important that we help make them more employable when they get out.

Do you think that their future success depends more on the technical jobs skills they learn or something more basic they gain through their work experiences?

Deputy Warden Montano: It’s both, but just learning good work habits, how to work as part of a team that makes the biggest difference. Getting up every morning and going to a job, where other guys depend on you, where you can interact with folks from different areas of ACI, like sales and accounting, and even, occasionally directly with customers. These kinds of things that we all take for granted in our work life, many of these guys have never experienced before:

  • someone asking for their opinion – and really listening to it
  • or a manager taking the time to show them how to use a new machine or read a product drawing

So when they are a part of these types of positive transactions, throughout the day, day after day, they start to feel like a part of normal, civilian life. Though they aren’t outside the wall, the work they’re doing definitely touches people and organizations out there.

And for the offenders who have the opportunity to work with private businesses through ACI partnerships, it’s even more real. They are working with employers, working side by side with civilian staff, outside the gate. And many of these private companies recognize the investment they’ve made in training their offender work crews and offer them jobs after their release.

So these offenders are gaining a valuable, positive sense of themselves. They see that what they do has real worth. And getting that job offer after their release is the best confirmation of their worth.

ADC has other work programs, like Inter Governmental Agreements (IGA), that in many ways can bring the same kinds of behavioral changes. Could you tell us a little about IGAs?

Deputy Warden Montano: IGAs are great ways to instill many of the positive work habits and improve offenders self esteem, as they provide valuable services to communities all across Arizona. For a couple of years, I was supervising one such program out in the mining areas in Central Arizona. As the mining industry declined many rural communities like the Cities of Globe and Miami and the Town of Superior saw revenues drop significantly as unemployment rates soared. Keeping the streets and sidewalks cleaned and the dry brush cleared during wild fire season became a challenge. But by working with ADC, these communities were able to provide these essential services by employing offender labor.
Without the brush being cleared these communities were in real danger of devastating wildfires. It’s like the famous “cycle of poverty” when communities go through tough times. They need to cut here and that leads to something devastating there. But thanks to the labor we could provide and the business people who pitched in to help get the weed-wackers repaired, these small towns were able to stop the domino effect and reduce the fire hazard and concentrate on recovering.

During economic downturns like these, when the need for volunteer services, such as meals on wheels, are at their highest, the availability of volunteers to provide these services are scarce. Again IGA offenders were able to come in and prepare the much needed meals for community volunteers to deliver through the Meals-on-Wheels program. Again, helping to prevent a bad situation from getting much, much worse.
From the perspective of changing offender behaviors, these programs give them most of the soft-skills necessary for every job and certainly make them feel better about themselves as they see the impact their work has on these communities.

Working Together to Improve Reentry Results
ADC has set an ambitious goal of reducing recidivism by 25% in the next ten years. That means cutting the current recidivism rate of 40% down to 30%. At the same time, ACI has set a goal of increasing the number of inmates working in its diverse programs across the state from the current 2,000 inmates a day to 3,000 inmates per day in the next five years.

Should ACI reach its goal of putting 3,000 offenders to work each day in its programs by 2022, it will have made a significant contribution to ADC reaching its goal. Studies3 have shown that offenders who participate in ACI-type work programs are 31.6% less likely to return to prison. This means that the recidivism rate for those inmates currently working with ACI is around 27% (3% less than the department-wide goal for 2027). Looking at it by the numbers, about 20,000 offenders are released from Arizona state prisons each year. If none of them have worked at ACI, then chances are 8,000 of them will be back inside within three years. If all of them had had the opportunity to work at ACI, then only about 5,400 of them will return. That’s still too many, but it will make a significant difference.

The department has already made some important strides toward its goal by dramatically reducing the number of ex-offenders returning to prison on technical violations by 10%. By opening Reentry Centers in Tucson and Phoenix, ADC can offer an alternative to incarceration for community placed high risk offenders that will reduce recidivism rates, prison admissions and taxpayer subsidies while at the same time address violations of supervision in lieu of incarceration. Housed within the facilities are sanction/work release programs for community supervision offenders, inpatient drug treatment programs, and shelter services for homeless offenders released from ADC facilities.

Working hand in hand, ACI and ADC are making a positive impact for offenders in Arizona. And with new partnerships with the Arizona Department of Economic Security (DES) and private businesses and associations, they have already created two job centers where offenders can prepare for their release by getting help with their resumes, learning job interviewing skills and begin applying online for jobs. The Central Arizona Homebuilders Association has helped bring in local contractors to provide construction trade skills training at one of these centers, where specific crafts can be learned in the months leading to release. In many cases, the offenders in these programs are tested and interviewed prior to release and have job offers in hand as they walk out the door.

This is just the start. ADC and DES plan to create more job centers and they are working with ACI on plans for an employment summit for later in 2018. As they work together to change offender behaviors they have made huge strides in changing the behaviors of these government agencies as well. All changes for the better that will positively impact the communities they serve.

1. ACI FY2017 Annual Report
2. ACI FY2016 Annual Report
3. A Profile of the Inmate Population, March 2010, authored by Dr. Daryl Fischer

Arizona Governor Doug Ducey, 2018 State of the State Address, Phoenix, January 8, 2018 (excerpt):

    If someone has paid their debt to society, the last thing we want is for them to find themselves back in trouble with the law, and our policy can play a role.
    At second chance centers we launched last year at prisons outside of Tucson and Phoenix, we’re teaching life and career skills to inmates who are scheduled to leave prison soon. Dozens of employers are participating, and hundreds of inmates who have graduated through these programs to date. Many are leaving prison with multiple job prospects. So let’s expand these programs, with capacity for 975 more inmates to participate each year.
    I’ve learned a lot from these people. From their letters, and from meeting with them. One said: “For future inmates, a word of encouragement – God placed you here for a reason. You must want to help yourself in order to be successful.”
    One example of that is Donald Stevenson. Donald spent 10 years behind bars. Nearly his entire 20s. At age 29 he was released, and found stability in the form of an entry-level job at Austin Electric. Three years later, Donald has his life turned around, he’s risen through the ranks, owns a home and is now focused on helping others: Training inmates to become skilled electricians, like him.
    I want to salute Donald, as well as Toby Thomas – president of Austin Electric – and Connie Wilhelm, with the [Central Arizona] Homebuilders [Association] who are private sector partners in giving people a fresh start and a real second chance.
    These efforts and others are paying off. We’ve seen a 10 percent drop in released inmates going back to prison on a technical violation, and Arizona is experiencing the largest drop in the number of inmates in our prisons since 1974.
    So let’s keep going… Let’s get people off the streets; and in a job – with the goal of shutting down prisons, not building new ones.

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