By Scott Merrill
The New Hampshire Department of Correction’s (DOC) mission statement says its purpose is to rehabilitate and supervise prisoners and to ensure public safety. Yet, according to a DOC study examining cohorts of prisoners who entered in 2017 and 2018, nearly half (47.85 percent) of those serving time in DOC facilities return within 36 months.
To combat recidivism, the DOC provides programs for its inmates aimed at addressing the underlying causes of the behavior that landed them in prison. But some inmates and attorneys say the trauma of prison itself is overlooked and that some programs would be more rehabilitative if offered earlier in an inmate’s time served.
Programs and Rehabilitation of Inmates
Preventing returns to prison means making sure people are ready to be released. According to the National Institute of Justice, rehabilitation involves programs designed to reduce recidivism by “improving their behaviors, skills, mental health, social functioning, and to provide access to education and employment.”
Evidenced-based programs designed to rehabilitate and decrease recidivism at the New Hampshire State Prison (NHSP) include the Sex Offender Treatment program (SOT) and the Focus Program for substance use disorders. These programs must be completed before inmates are eligible for release. Other programs include education, mental health, volunteering, and work.
Chris Slayback, 52, was convicted in 2014 of aggravated felonious sexual assault and sentenced to a minimum of 20 years in prison. As part of the prison’s workforce, Slayback makes keepsake boxes ranging in price from $40 to $150 through the Hobby Craft program at the NHSP in Concord.
“I had wanted to be an artist when I was younger but with life’s obligations I never did,” he says, adding that 65 percent of the sale of products goes to prisoners, 25 percent to the prison, and 10 percent to recreation and entertainment programs. “Now this is something I plan to do for the rest of my life.”
Slayback, who donates a third of his pay from Hobby Craft to the State’s Victim Compensation program, says he tries to demonstrate everything he can to show he is serious about rehabilitation. This includes sitting on multiple committees aimed at rehabilitating prisoners and making staff aware of problems. He is also the charitable events coordinator at the prison in Concord, which has raised over $13,000, and has worked on a victim impact letter.
The Choose Love Program
Slayback has also completed the Choose Love program. In October 2021, the NHSP began offering Choose Love, which was adopted as part of the State’s Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) curriculum in 2018. The program was founded by Scarlett Lewis, whose son Jesse was killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012. The DOC says the program teaches people how to respond with love and compassion in difficult situations.
“Choose Love creates an environment where people can be vulnerable,” Slayback says, explaining many prisoners have never had that chance. “The program changes perspectives by allowing people to express what’s wrong and asking what happened to them. Most guys in here have a lot of anger, and learning that this is a secondary emotion, derived from something else, helps us understand there are different ways to react to situations we confront.”
Choose Love Program Director Shannon Desilets says one unique design of the program is that it is peer-facilitated.
“We wanted them to have autonomy and to be able to choose what lessons they wanted,” Desilets says. “The first graduating class at the men’s facility in Concord didn’t want to stop with 12 or 14 lessons; they chose to do all 19.”
Desilets says she has received numerous positive testimonies from inmates in the program and from family members of those incarcerated. She says she intends to design a program that families can do at home that will coincide with an inmate’s work.
Truth in Rehabilitation
Oliver Hooper, a 52-year-old inmate currently serving a sentence of 50 to 100 years after being convicted of aggravated felonious sexual assault in 2006, says he would like to see more focus on the good work prisoners are doing.
“The DOC does a great job documenting disciplinary tickets but if you’ve completed the Choose Love program or Family Connections Center, it’s not always weighted correctly,” he says. “It leans toward disciplinary aspects.”
In 2018 and 2019, the Resident Communication Committee (RCC) proposed a way to track a term reduction program – Truth in Rehabilitation – that would incentivize residents to actively participate in their rehabilitation through education, employment, programming, and volunteerism.
Unlike the Truth in Sentencing law that takes a more punitive approach to sentencing, Hooper says Truth in Rehabilitation, which has not been approved by the DOC, was created by Slayback with the help of other inmates. It includes a tracking system and point values for rehabilitative efforts weighed against disciplinary tickets that result in scores that can be used to assist with sentence reduction and in parole hearings.
Hooper, who has chaired the Resident Communications Committee for several years, says the NHSP needs to do better documenting inmates’ rehabilitative efforts but have so far failed to implement the Truth in Rehabilitation program.
“Many people are doing right from the time they enter prison, and the RCC wants to chart that good behavior,” he says. “We want quarterly rehab efforts from the get-go. We want a class board, almost like a yearly job performance review. When someone goes up for parole or has a hearing, they may need to show good work.”
Sentence Reductions for Good Behavior
In New Hampshire, prisoners serving a minimum term of six years or more can apply for a suspended sentence reduction 12 months before they have served two thirds of their minimum sentence. The law, 651:20, is a way for prisoners to demonstrate rehabilitation and to reduce their time served.
While helping to craft changes to the law, Slayback argued that prior to 2021 prisoners could not file a motion to suspend until they had served two thirds of their sentence, which resulted in lost time for some.
The timing of an inmate’s assessment for the sex offender program depends on an individual’s sentence, with the intent to provide 24 months to complete the program when it is recommended according to a DOC policy and procedure directive for male sexual offender treatment services. In general, it states that individuals are considered eligible when they are within two years of the minimum date.
“The DOC has created an impossible condition for some people,” Hooper says. “If you have a 20-year sentence, they wait until about two years before release to get you into the program. Many guys want to start in on rehab earlier, but the DOC wants people to take it right before they hit the streets.”
DOC Public Information Officer Jane Graham says the DOC does not have any residents with complaints that they are having trouble accessing Sex Offender Treatment (SOT).
“Access to SOT was vetted some time ago through an audit showing that most delays in SOT at that time were due to a resident’s misconduct,” she says. “The Department’s internal audits of access to the Focus program and questions on delays have reaffirmed that significant or repeated institutional misconduct has been the primary barrier to an individual’s timely access to a treatment program.”
While Slayback finds the DOC’s response accurate, he says it fails to address the issue of timing when it comes to suspended sentences.
“If I wanted to apply for my two thirds and a judge tells me I need SOT programing, the only way to get in earlier is if they change the structure of my 20-year minimum sentence,” he says. “I can’t get a 651:20 prior to 12 and half years but wouldn’t be eligible for the program until year 17 or 18.”
Attorney Anthony Naro, who represents clients in prison, says he has had clients in Slayback’s situation regarding suspended sentences and others in the Focus program. He says inmates in these situations can petition the court to suspend the balance of their minimum sentence and do treatment on an outpatient basis.
“But then, the question becomes ‘will they then be paroled if the judge grants a motion?’” he says. “That’s a question to be answered.”
Naro’s biggest frustration is that some people are not getting adequate treatment early enough, whether this applies to sex offender treatment or substance use treatment.
“I had a client that stayed over his reduced minimum because he couldn’t get into the Focus program,” Naro says. “What happens in the meantime, is you fend for yourself, and you have to fight off all these demons.”
Hooper says for drug addicts, it takes a couple years to adjust to prison life, and the earlier they can get into a program the better.
“Years three through five would be a good time to get treatment,” Hooper says. “Over time, without treatment, bad habits are reinforced that could be addressed early on.”
Aside from suspended sentences, earned-time credits are another way prisoners can reduce sentences upon completion of various educational and programs. More than 1,000 sentences were impacted through the earned-time credit program from December 2022 to December 2023.
Graham also points to incentive-based programs which can help reduce sentences. She is involved in the Progressive Pathways program at the New Hampshire Correctional Facility for Women, which is designed to assist residents with self-reflection and rehabilitation based on their individual needs.
While people may believe sex offenders have one of the highest recidivism rates in the prison system, Slayback says “this is a total falsity.”
And there’s data to support this.
According to a 2019 US Department of Justice Special Report, “Recidivism of Sex Offenders Released from State Prison: A 9-Year Follow-Up (2005-2014),” people convicted of rape and sexual assault have rearrest rates about 20 percent lower than all other offense categories combined.
Naro says finding the political will to provide the best possible rehabilitation treatment, especially for sex offenders, can be difficult.
“That group is one of the least popular groups of inmates at the prison and they can lose their humanity as a result of the crimes they’ve committed,” he says, adding that most will return to society. “That means we recognize that they have redeeming qualities, and they can be rehabilitated.”
Choose Love Director Shannon Desilets, a member of the Association of Traumatic Stress Specialists and a specialist in Post Traumatic Growth, met Choose Love founder Scarlett Lewis following the murder of Lewis’ son Jesse at Sandy Hook Elementary School. She has been providing post-trauma therapy for the Sandy Hook community for nearly 11 years.
“[Scarlett] would lay on my treatment table and share with me first her vision for her organization,” Desilets says. “When it came to fruition – first and foremost, I’m a mom – I absolutely wanted this proactive and preventative program in my son’s school here in New Hampshire.”
Desilets says Choose Love teaches essential life skills and tools designed to foster compassion and understanding.
In 2018, after Desilets met with Governor Christopher Sununu and his wife, the program was adopted as part of the Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) in New Hampshire Schools. The DOC then included Choose Love in its programming after Commissioner Hanks heard Lewis speak briefly about Choose Love during an Executive Council meeting in 2021.
“I shared with Commissioner Hanks more deeply about Choose Love and all that it teaches, and she wholeheartedly embraced this,” Desilets says. “The DOC administration and staff have been some of the most dedicated people I have ever worked with.”
She says inmates have been able to find purpose in their lives, “no matter their backgrounds or the length of their sentence.”
To date, four Choose Love graduating classes have taken place at the women’s facility, two at the men’s, and both have started their next round of classes. Choose Love is also running at the Transitional Housing Units to help the residents integrate back into society.
According to the 2018 cohort of the DOC study, 568 out of 1,187 people – including 160 female inmates – returned to corrections facilities over a 36-month period after being released.
DOC Public Information Officer Jane Graham says one way of measuring rehabilitation is to look at recidivism rates. Programs involving sex offender treatment, substance use disorders, and educational and vocational programs are designed to provide rehabilitation to hopefully prevent what the DOC calls “returns” in its 2018 study.
From the 2018 cohort, those who returned to correctional facilities fall into two categories: new sentences and probation and parole violations.
Of the 313 people in the 2018 cohort originally sentenced for drug and alcohol offenses, 146 (46.6 percent) returned to prisons. There were 202 people (53.9 percent) who returned because of property crimes, including burglary and shoplifting; and 175 people (45.3 percent) charged with violent crimes, including “any bodily damage to a person,” returned.
Age also matters when it comes to recidivism. The same study shows that the older people get the less they reoffend. The 20 to 29 age range had the highest percentage of returns (53.5 percent), those aged 50 to 59 had a return rate of 34.4 percent, and the return rate for those over 59 was 32.4 percent.