The Rhode Island Department of Corrections has contracted with Family Service of Rhode Island to provide Victim Impact classes for offenders in five state prisons. There are waiting lists for the classes, which are offered in the two women’s facilities, Maximum, Minimum, and the John J. Moran Medium Security Facility. Utilizing a national curriculum, the classes address property crime, crimes of violence, domestic violence, crimes against the elderly, child maltreatment, assault, sexual assault, robbery, DUI-related death and injury, homicide, and gang violence with the goal of making offenders aware of how different types of offenses impact the victim, their families, and the community. Students are expected to understand the immediate, short, and long-term impact of their crimes on all of these individuals and groups.
On a recent Thursday morning in the Dorothea Dix Women’s Minimum Security Facility, nine women whose crimes include possession, prostitution, assaulting a police officer, selling drugs to a police officer, and violating probation are asked to reflect on a time when something was stolen from them and how it made them feel. The week’s topic is Property Crime and Robbery, and instructor Jeanne Sherman leads the at times emotional discussion. Jeanne is normally joined by co-instructor Fred Zucconi, who happens to be on vacation. Both are Licensed Clinical Social Workers employed by Family Service of Rhode Island.
“I’m having a hard time with this because I can’t remember anything being stolen from me, but I’ve taken things from people and never thought of it this way. It’s really sad,” says Stephanie, a middle-aged inmate. Another, Mackenzie, talks about stealing hundreds of dollars from her father and how she never gave much thought until now to the impact her stealing had on both her and her dad. “He worked hard to get where he is,” she reflects. “The person who’s supposed to be watching his back is the one he has to watch his back from. He tried to provide me with what he didn’t have, and what I was doing was spitting in his face by taking more.”
Each person in the room has a unique history and is in a different place in the journey toward a return to healthy, responsible living. Rhonda shares the painful story of a cousin whom she supported through many personal difficulties who repeatedly stole from her. “Almost everybody in my family has turned their back on me,” she cries. “I want to change so bad, but every time I do, no one seems to care, so why bother?”
Later that day, a dozen male inmates in the hot Maximum Security’s education wing are focusing this week on Drugs in Society. The men are slower to share than the women, so Jeanne gets the discussion started by describing a crack baby she’d worked with in foster care and asks “Has any of you known a baby whose mother did drugs while she was pregnant?” She shares a vignette from a book about a 16-year-old mom who is using crack cocaine while holding her baby, with her dealer in the room, and asks provocative questions such as “Who is the victim here?” and “Why do people sell drugs to begin with?”
One inmate is asked to repeat a story he’d shared the week before about how he used to taunt his victims, yelling out orders like “Don’t pick up that phone until I leave the room.” He stopped when he began to imagine how he would feel if someone did that to him. Inmate Jose shares, “The change comes from within. You can’t use excuses and keep doing the same things. It’s imperative that you keep looking forward.”
Victim Impact Classes were taught for three years by Rhode Island Victim Advocacy and Support Center (RIVASC) with Federal funding from Serious and Violent Offender Reentry Initiative (SVORI), but when that funding ran out, the RIDOC put the Request for Proposals (RFP) for the classes out to bid. Family Service of Rhode Island, under the auspices of Dr. Susan Erstling, submitted a competitive proposal and was awarded the contract. Teresa Foley, the RIDOC’s Transitional Services Coordinator, was instrumental in ensuring that the classes would resume in the facilities noting, “Anytime we have done it, offenders have said it’s made a world of difference to them. We MUST do victim-related work if we want them to transition successfully. It’s about restorative justice.” Teresa, who has spent most of her adult life working with offenders, sees the classes as critical to the Department’s prisoner reentry efforts. “Nothing drives released offenders back to prison faster than having guilt, vs. being whole,” she shares. “When they deal with the impact of their crimes on an emotional level, it has a positive effect on their families and children, which also reduces recidivism.”
Family Service of Rhode Island partners with the Providence Police Department to respond to critical incidents and works closely with the Attorney General’s Office and the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence. They have a grant from the Department of Justice to provide services to children who are witnesses to violence, work with the Department of Elderly Affairs to provide after-hours service for abused and neglected elders, and contract with the Rhode Island Parole Board to provide victim services.
The eight-week curriculum called Listen & Learn includes video vignettes and written exercises and focuses on a different type of crime each week. Inmates who complete the class receive one day of earned credit off their sentence. Jeanne, the instructor, has a military background and has been with Family Service of Rhode Island for three years, working primarily in Children’s Intensive Services and emergency services. She calls the experience of teaching adult offenders, “A real eye opener,” saying, “I knew they could spot a phony in a minute.” Her calm demeanor and easy rapport with the students seems to put them at ease. She begins each class with national and state statistics about the crime topic to give the offenders perspective. She offers positive feedback to anyone willing to share, saying things like, “It’s good that you recognize that,” when someone makes a particularly astute observation.
Holly, a participant in the class at Women’s, says the class has had a big impact on her already. “I used to fake my way through programs,” she admits. “I wouldn’t apply anything to my life. My attitude would be, ‘Just let me get through this so I could say I did it.’ But we’re not like cars. We need daily maintenance.” Holly has been in and out of prison for minor offenses several times. “I’ve only been on this wing (the Spectrum drug treatment wing) for five weeks, but they’ve been the most important five weeks of my life. I’m finally seeing the ripple effect of my behaviors.”
While the RIDOC doesn’t yet have statistics on recidivism rates for class participants, Family Service of Rhode Island’s Susan Erstling is hoping to partner with the University of New Haven’s Mario Gaboury whose research study, “A Preliminary Evaluation of Behavioral Outcomes in a Corrections-Based Victim Awareness Program for Offenders” finds that African American adult males in the treatment group exhibited significantly fewer A-level (most serious) disciplinary problems than did their comparison group counterparts.
Teresa Foley would like to see the Department add victim mediation as a next step.