Friday, March 22, 2002
Concord Prison volunteers make an impact
Before there can be any discussion of the Concord Prison Outreach, Inc. there are certain prison facts one needs to know.
Massachusetts prison statistics
In Massachusetts, there are approximately 9,720 individuals incarcerated in the state prison system and 11,880 imprisoned at the county level. The state prisons are ranked maximum, medium or minimum security, and prisoners are sent to each according to the crime that has been committed.
Now, because of recent state budget cuts, the Department of Correction (DOC) is closing down several minimum security units in area prisons, including those in Shirley, Lancaster and Bridgewater, and moving those prisoners into bigger facilities that can handle a larger prison population.
Consolidations cause increase in Concord inmate populations
Closer to home are the prisons in Concord Massachusetts Correctional Institution (MCI-Concord), a medium-security prison, and Northeast Correctional Center (NCC) also known as the prison farm, a minimum-security prison. Both are all-male institutions.
MCI-Concord had an inmate population of 790 as of January 14, but will be growing as the consolidation of units throughout the state take place due to the budget cuts. NCC has approximately 100 inmates at the moment, but its inmate population will be growing, as well. The two prisons have a combined capacity of 1,500.
Cows to leave
The DOC has recently announced the closing of the dairy farm at NCC. The farm, says the DOC, is not the moneymaking enterprise it had once been, and to help cope with the $10.7 million budget cut, the cows are to be sold off. No longer will there be 220 cows grazing on the fields between Route 2A and Barretts Mill Road in Concord. The demise of the cow population at NCC however, does not mean there will be fewer inmates assigned to the institution. The 20 inmates who have managed the dairy farm will be assigned other duties.
According to the MCI-Concord Fact Sheet, the role of the prison is to be the reception, diagnostic, and classification center for all male offenders sentenced to the state correctional system (those given sentences of two and one half years or more). Out of the total prison population at MCI-Concord, 100-150 inmates remain there as the permanent population assigned to jobs that keep the institution functioning. The rest are there for an average of four months awaiting completion of their classification and transfer to another facility of the required security level.
Because of budget cuts, many of the programs offered at the prison and staff members who run them are being eliminated. At MCI-Concord, all but one of the teachers in the Graduate Equivalency Degree (GED) program has been let go. Last week, Justin Latini, spokesman for the DOC, said they are proposing to reinstate these teachers. In the meantime 26 volunteer teachers are planning to fill in until the teachers are re-hired.
Concord Prison Outreach
Concord Prison Outreach is a non-profit, volunteer community organization serving the prison population at MCI- Concord and NCC. It was begun in 1986 with volunteers from many faith groups, who were later joined by individual volunteers from surrounding towns. Its programs include a wide variety of educational and personal growth programs. A sampling of programs offered include Anger Management, Book Discussion, Alternative to Violence, First Aid, Art, Music Appreciation, Emotional Health, Calligraphy, and Job Search. As speaker Robin Casarjian noted in her talk at Kerem Shalom, "Prisoners will change while they are in prison; they will either grow and become more responsible adults, or they will become more wounded, alienated and angry. The experience people have in prison determines what kind of neighbors they will be." These ideas expressed by Casarjian seem to be shared by Concord Prison Outreach volunteers whose goal is to try to help inmates prepare for a return to society as responsible, productive citizens.
Dealing with men in crisis
The Concord Prison Outreach volunteers, who numbered over 100 in the fall, are dedicated individuals who receive orientation and training for the programs that they facilitate. Their volunteer involvement is done in cooperation with the administration and staff at MCI-Concord and NCC.
Recently I spoke with Carolyn Shohet of Carlisle, co-chairman of the board of directors of Concord Prison Outreach, Inc. Shohet is completing her third and final term heading the board but is looking forward to having more time next year to spend working inside the prison. "We deal with men in crisis," said Shohet. "It's a wonderful opportunity for reflection and learning. The men we work with have an average age in the mid-30s. Many are fathers of kids who don't have their dads [as was the case in many of their own lives]. We try to help them break the cycle and turn their lives around."
One program that Shohet is especially enthusiastic about and one she has been involved with over the past 12 years is Alternatives to Violence, a 16- hour weekend program that begins on a Friday night, is continued on Saturday and then on into Sunday. As Shohet explains it, it's a program that tries to give the men a sense of building a community together; it builds communication skills and is an opportunity for people from all walks of life to work things out together.
As I was speaking with Shohet in her home on Bedford Road, her husband Dick was in the next room viewing videos and trying to decide which Shakespeare- related film to show to his Book Discussion group that evening at the prison. He was having a great time looking at clips of "Shakespeare in Love" and the updated "Othello" that recently appeared on PBS. Although the next book to be read in Dick's book discussion group is "Othello," he made it very clear that "we read the best and the worst from Shakespeare to Stephen King."
Dick goes to the prison every week. The inmates have commented, "School was never like this." Dick, a former Lexington High School English teacher, has promised it won't be like school. "The men I work with insist they are good people who have done bad things," said Dick. "They don't want to be called bad people. Pausing a moment he added, "If there were no alcohol or drugs out there, there would be no need for prisons."
Speaking of the Concord Outreach program and what it has meant to her personally, Carolyn had this to say. "It's an opportunity to share with people you might not meet otherwise. It's added lots of meaning to my life I really like being a prison volunteer."
Dottie Harris, another volunteer from Carlisle, and Edie Murphy from Concord, together teach a four-week calligraphy course to a group of 12 to 22 inmates. "We meet in the evening from 7 to 8:30 p.m.," said Harris. " This helps the men focus their minds. Concentration is good self-discipline. It's also a wonderful way for them to communicate with their families through [hand-made] birthday cards."
"These are people who don't have tools to deal with anger. They have had few positive role models in their lives," continued Harris. Other programs to which Harris has made a commitment are the Alternatives to Violence and the Self-Esteem Workshop. "It gives me hope that there are people out there who want to transform their lives. They just need the tools to achieve this," she added. "With all the negativity in the prison, any program that brings in positive seeds for growth is of great value."
There are other prison volunteers here in Carlisle, as well. Carol Peters, Kathy Rubenstein and Hal Sauer volunteer in prisons in Shirley and Lancaster. Marcella Shepherd and Marjorie Stickler are members of the steering committee of Concord Prison Outreach, Inc.
It is obvious that a program like the Concord Prison Outreach is crucial to the inmate population, even more so in drastic cost-cutting times like these. For those interested in volunteering, please call Lenore James, Executive Director 1-978-369-1430.
© 2002 The Carlisle Mosquito