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Westerly Reentry Council Takes Proactive Team Approach to Meeting the Needs of Returning Ex-Offenders

On a recent Monday afternoon at the invitation of Teresa Smith, Adult Probation & Parole Supervisor with the Rhode Island Department of Corrections, and Westerly Police Chief Edward A. Mello, an interdisciplinary team of professionals in law enforcement and social services gathered in a conference room at the Westerly Police Department to review a list of ACI inmates who would be returning to their Westerly neighborhoods within the next six months. In addition to the RIDOC’s Probation and Parole and discharge planning units, the agencies represented included the Westerly Police Department, South County Community Action Program (SCCAP), Pleasant Street Baptist Church, the WARM Shelter, Wood River Health Services, Phoenix House, Westerly-Pawcatuck Chamber of Commerce, South Shore Mental Health, Westerly Housing, and the Westerly branch of the Department of Human Services.

As a RIDOC discharge planner read the name of an offender due to be released, Chief Mello would check records on his department laptop and various providers in the room would review their client lists looking for any past involvement with the individual in question. In most cases, the person had some contact with the police and had received assistance or treatment from one of the agencies in the room prior to incarceration. By comparing notes and sharing specific knowledge of the individual, the group collectively discussed what would be most helpful for the offender upon release. In some cases, his or her file was handed over to a particular team member for targeted follow up.

In most cases, a questionnaire on each offender was completed during incarceration listing self-identified needs, past services, programs completed while inside, and family and support network information. Offender A, who did only ten days for a DUI offense, stated to his discharge planner that he would be living with his dad, but the police had him on record as stating he didn’t know the whereabouts of his dad. Offender B, it turns out, had a search warrant out of Superior Court and shouldn’t be on the release list. Offender C was a “chronic non-compliant” with treatment providers and had mental health and substance issues that needed to be addressed. Offender D needed housing assistance. When the list was exhausted, one social service provider announced that she had 21 tickets available for Thanksgiving meals should anyone have clients in need. The Chamber of Commerce representative expressed her organization’s need for project help should anyone on the release list or on probation have community service hours to complete.

This is the new model for corrections and is not unique to Westerly. The RIDOC, like many corrections departments across the country, has gradually redefined its mission of public safety. It is no longer enough to simply lock offenders up to keep the public safe. The RIDOC, along with its partner agencies, must also ensure that the time criminals spend incarcerated is focused on preparing them for a safe and successful return to their home community. The efforts begun behind the walls must continue on the outside in order for the returning offender to overcome the many obstacles he or she will face upon release.

Westerly’s Reentry Council has been meeting for about six months and follows the same basic model as similar councils in Newport, Warwick, Pawtucket/Central Falls, Woonsocket, and Providence. While each council operates slightly differently depending on the unique characteristics of the community, each engages a group of professionals representing law enforcement, social services, and the faith-based sector – all of whom are serving individuals and/or families of individuals returning from prison or under DOC authority on probation, parole, or community confinement. In Westerly, Chief Mello and P.O. Smith have worked hand in hand every step of the way to select appropriate members for the group and schedule the meetings.

Corrections Director A.T. Wall II, the driving force behind the Department’s emphasis on prisoner reentry, applauds Westerly Police Chief Edward Mello’s personal leadership in the Westerly area. “Chief Mello has gone above and beyond in his investment in this important public safety initiative. We at the RIDOC are extremely grateful for his visionary leadership and partnership.”

Roberta Richman, assistant director for rehabilitative services with the RIDOC, has been instrumental in getting the reentry council model up and running. “Even when people are well intentioned and have skills,” Richman notes, “there are barriers and obstacles facing them upon release, and many fail.” She continues, “In a state like Rhode Island where there are virtually no intermediate sanctions, the kind of partnerships formed on our reentry councils are critical to breaking the cycle and keeping our citizens from falling into the same traps that brought them to prison in the first place.”

Terry Smith, who has worked with probationers in the Westerly area for decades, is enthused and energized by the work of the Westerly council. “In a short time, I can really see our collaborative efforts paying off,” she says. “The people around the table all have tidbits of knowledge which when put together, completes the puzzle. This kind of sharing can ensure that someone doesn’t fall through the cracks, and that their individual needs are addressed.”

Westerly Police Chief Edward Mello, says of the Council “The collaboration of these community stakeholders to better prepare inmates for the release will pay tremendous dividends. From the prospective of law enforcement, we are insuring that the probationers are given the direction to keep themselves out of trouble. This will in turn have a positive impact, not only on those being released but the community as a whole.”

RIDOC statistics show the following: Population on 09/30/09: Sentenced = 2,876 Awaiting Trial = 753

Commitments FY09: Sentenced = 4,114 Awaiting Trial = 11887

In addition, of the almost 28,000 probationers in the state of Rhode Island, there were over 600 men and women on probation and parole in Westerly (434), Charlestown (100) and Richmond (81) at the end of 2009. As of the fall of 2008, incarcerated parents from the above towns reported having a total of 65 children hailing from these same communities.

The Westerly Reentry Council meets monthly at the Westerly Police Department.

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