BELFAST, Maine — The re-entry center and the sheriff who instituted it at Waldo County’s jail have earned a national award from the National Association of Counties for the program’s success over the last two years.

Use of the center to retrain nonviolent inmates in life skills has resulted in an $800,000 reduction in costs in operating the building and a major drop in the number of former inmates who return to Maine’s correctional facilities.

How it works

Nonviolent men who have come out of long jail or prison sentences may ask to join the Maine Coastal Regional Reentry Center, which screens potential residents using specific criteria. Only people who are not sex offenders and who show they are willing to change their lives are allowed. They also must be highly likely to go back into the corrections system once released.

To figure out who is most likely to reoffend, the potential residents all take a test that evaluates their risk factors.

“We only take people with medium and high scores. They’re the ones most likely to return to prison. Why waste money on people who won’t recidivate?” said one of the center’s case managers, Jerome Weiner.

Each of the center’s 23 men has “prescriptive programming.” Whereas many other re-entry centers in the United States give the same classes and programming to all inmates, Waldo County designs individual programs that address each man’s risk factors that could land him back in prison. People who need substance abuse counseling get it. People who need anger management go to therapy. People who need to get their GEDs take special classes, and so on. The men stay at the center between five and 18 months.

The re-entry facility works with the men to make sure they get jobs, find housing and have an exit plan by the time their sentences are served.

“Once they gain employment, they pay for room and board while they’re here to get them in the habit of paying bills. They also pay off their fines and restitution so they can have a clean slate when they leave. Some earn back their licenses while they’re here. Some people earn enough money to buy a car,” said Waldo County Sheriff Scott Story.

Story has partnered with several local businesses who help give the residents jobs.

“We’ve had a lot of employers step up to the plate,” Story said. “The men would much rather have a job than do nothing. They’re great workers.”

To help them through their time at the re-entry facility and after, many of the men are paired with a local volunteer mentor who acts as a support resource for the men when they get back into the community.

“You can give a resident a great exit plan, but without support, they don’t deal with it well. The mentor helps them stay on track,” Story said.

The result

The re-entry facility is starkly different from what it was before 2009, when the center was created. Before 2009, men got out of their steel-barred cells and went directly back into the community with no support. Many of them didn’t have homes or jobs waiting for them.

“We were just a jail,” Story said. “Now we’re trying to break that revolving-door syndrome.”

In 2008, the recidivism rate in Waldo County was somewhere near the national average of about 45 percent. It has dropped to closer to 15 percent. Story is quick to say that the re-entry center has only been in use for two years, and the 15 percent number may increase as the 23 men who have graduated from the program have more time in the world outside of jail.

The state has a lot to gain by dropping its recidivism rate. Maine spends about $44,000 per prisoner per year, which soars above the national average of about $29,000 per prisoner per year, according to the National Institute of Corrections, an agency within the U.S. Department of Justice Federal Bureau of Prisons. According to the agency, Maine has the seventh-highest cost per inmate in the nation, exceeded only by California, New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Alaska and Vermont.

“This [facility] in the long run will reduce costs and reduce recidivism,” Weiner said.

A lot of the changes that helped drop the recidivism rate are subtle. For example, don’t call them inmates, they’re residents. The residents’ tables and beds are made of wood not metal. Give the residents alarm clocks and stop having staff wake them up.

The result is respect from the residents and an increase in self-reliance that leads to confidence.

Before, when the jail had a sterile feel, inmates acted out and destroyed toilets, tables and anything else in the building. Now residents clean without being told.

“They take pride in it,” Story said.

“In jail everything is so regimented. Here, we hand the responsibility back. It’s on them,” Weiner said.

The better the residents behave, the more rewards and freedom they have. Men start by sleeping in a section of housing with 12 beds. As their behavior improves, they may live more independently in dorm-style living spaces.

“It’s a relaxed environment,” Story said. “You don’t feel like you’re in jail.”

Bookshelves full of donated books line the walls. Televisions and vending machines are in a classroom with a row of computers. Residents meander about and even leave the building; there is no fence.

Each resident must complete community service time to remain in the program. The men who are finishing up their jail time help in community gardens, food kitchens, churches and other places where volunteers are needed.

The re-entry program also has lowered operational costs. In 2008, when the facility was still a jail, the budget was $3 million annually. Now it costs $2.2 million to run, mainly because the jail required five full-time correctional officers on patrol at all times. The re-entry facility needs two.

However, the county has not seen any savings. The $800,000 that would be saved because of the lowered operational costs is given to other correctional facilities to board Waldo County’s jail inmates. The re-entry facility has four beds for jail space. People brought to the jail portion of the facility are held for 72 hours before being transferred to a longer-term jail.

Why it matters

“I’ve been in corrections for 35 years now. What we know is punishment is not a deterrent. Everyone in jail is going to come out and return to our communities, except for the very few people who are in for life. They’re not prepared to reintegrate back into the community [without help],” Weiner said.

Jail administrator Robert Walker has seen both sides of the equation. While he lives a lawful life, his brother has been in and out of the correctional system for more than 17 years now.

“I’ve seen both ends and I want it different,” Walker said. “We want to give [the residents] what we have.”

To do this, Walker will bring residents to the grocery store to teach them how to shop. Some of them had never used a debit card before they entered the re-entry center.

These types of lessons give the men skills to cope with the outside world in a lawful way.

“I had one resident who said, ‘I don’t want to be a bad person, I just always do bad stuff and I don’t know how not to.’” Story said.

That’s the case for Zach Wright, 20, of Winterport.

“I knew right from wrong, but I just didn’t do it. Now I want to do the right thing,” Wright said.

Wright has been in the re-entry facility for three months now. In that time, he has taken myriad classes, which he said have made a huge difference.

“I was jobless. I was smoking marijuana and drinking all the time. I hung out with the wrong people. Now I have full-time employment, health insurance, dental and a 401K. I’m doing well. I quit smoking,” he said. “It’s turned my life around.”

Wright is in jail for his second time: on a charge of receiving stolen property. He does not expect to go back to jail again. This time, with the training he has received, it will be easy to stay out, he said.

“Life is pretty awesome,” Wright said.