With more than 80 percent of inmates admitting to substance abuse problems and nearly the same percentage consistently reoffending, Sullivan County officials knew they needed to address the revolving door of the county jail in Unity.
To reverse those trends and decrease the overall number of jail inmates over time, Sullivan County built a new kind of facility and implemented a research-based program focused on rehabilitation and offender reintegration. TRAILS (Transitional Reentry and Inmate Life Skills) is a 90-day rehabilitation program made up of gender-specific courses in drug and alcohol education, criminal and addictive thinking, life skills, job development, parenting, and general education. Sentenced inmates who successfully complete the program can be released earlier and are, ideally, better prepared for a more productive life in the community. Ultimately, the goal of the community corrections approach, which is gaining traction nationwide, is to make better use of time spent behind bars.
Instead of just adding jail space, Sullivan County two years ago built a facility and added grant-funded programs to ensure inmates receive more treatment.
"The majority of the people we deal with are good people who have done bad things and who are struggling in their lives, and if we can provide them with additional tools to be successful and provide them while they’re incarcerated, we’re doing them and society a big favor," says Sullivan County Attorney Marc Hathaway.
A committee comprising officials from the county, court, public defender’s office, and local law enforcement, as well as mental health providers and other project partners collaboratively developed the program. After approval by the Sullivan County Board of Commissioners and local lawmakers, the new facility opened two years ago this month. So far, the CCC has secured more than $1.5 million in public and private grants to support its holistic approach, including funds for a program that targets co-occurring mental health and substance abuse disorders.
Attached to the high-security jail at the county complex in Unity, the 72-bed community corrections center is a minimum-security facility that houses the residential TRAILS program. Jane Coplan, program director for the Sullivan County Department of Corrections, leads a team of DOC clinicians and works with staff from West Central Behavioral Health, a community-based nonprofit mental health agency, to administer TRAILS.
Within their first 10 days in jail, sentenced offenders in Sullivan County are assessed and classified for one of two "tracks" of TRAILS. Track one involves a full day of rehabilitative programming; track two is a half-day. Inmates on track two are put to work on the county complex property for the other half of the day.
To succeed in TRAILS, inmates must participate meaningfully. They are required to support others who enter the program, which continuously admits new inmates. "It’s really a community within a community," said Coplan.
Following successful completion of the 90-day program, the remainder of an offender’s sentence is spent on work release or administrative home confinement (electronic monitoring).
"The TRAILS program, by its very nature, allows the individual to leave the House of Corrections, either through work release or administrative home confinement, more quickly than they would have in the past," said Hathaway.
Jan Peterson is the managing attorney at the NH Public Defender office in Keene, which represents indigent defendants in Sullivan County. A supporter of the community corrections approach, Peterson cautioned that corrections should not be "one-size-fits-all." She said she would like to see the program expanded for pre-trial inmates, "to make sure they’re getting help right away."
Track one of TRAILS includes a full year of aftercare at West Central Behavioral Health’s outpatient clinic in neighboring Claremont. Regular group meetings reinforce the lessons of TRAILS and assist offenders in connecting with community services, finding a job and a place to live, and complying with intensive probation supervision.
So far, out of 165 inmates who have entered track one, 111 have been released to the aftercare program. Of these, 22 inmates have violated the terms of their release during aftercare, a recidivism rate of about 14 percent.
"There have been people who have had minor setbacks and then end up coming back, and there are some people who fail and don’t come back at all," said Kevin Warwick, a corrections consultant who has been working with Sullivan County throughout the development and implementation of the program. "Overall, people are completing and doing well, but we need a little bit more time to have definitive recidivism data."
Warwick says Sullivan County is attracting national attention for its approach to corrections. "I do this work around the country, and this is really a best-practice model that’s being looked at by people all over the country," he said.
Warwick is supervising the collection of 170 data points on each inmate admitted to the program. One striking statistic that has emerged is the number of children impacted by incarceration in Sullivan County. Out of 140 inmates at the CCC, a total of 131 children have been affected. To help address this, the Sullivan County DOC on Aug. 1 started a TRAILS companion program for inmate families and support systems.
Each family has an orientation with a case manager at the CCC, so they can better understand TRAILS and ask questions. The county is also offering three family education modules monthly that focus on co-occurring substance abuse and mental health disorders, addiction, and community resources.
Sullivan County DOC Superintendent Ross Cunningham said the idea behind the community corrections center is to reduce the need for correctional bed space over time, by providing high-quality programming designed to decrease the recidivism rate.
"We’re not necessarily looking to build our way out of the problem," he said, "but to actually work toward [having] fewer offenders in custody and more out in the community being productive."
The collaborative program development process has given all stakeholders in the criminal justice system a voice in how the program works to keep offenders out of jail, said Hathaway, the county attorney.
"I think what’s making this program successful is that we have a lot of people at almost every level of engagement in the criminal justice system, who are committed to the idea of delivering high-quality services to this population, in hopes of ensuring greater community safety, greater hope for rehabilitation, and reduced costs over time."
"I am absolutely a believer in what we’re doing," Hathaway said, "and I also believe it’s capable of being replicated."
Likewise, Superior Court Chief Justice Tina Nadeau says the success of the Sullivan County program should serve as an example for other jurisdictions in New Hampshire.
"Community corrections has really been proven to be an effective tool, if used correctly," she said. "I think if there are counties that need to look at jail expansion or jail renovation, they ought to be looking at this model."
Kristen Senz joined the Bar News as associate editor this month. She also works as a part-time development specialist at West Central Behavioral Health and has done some grant coordination work for Sullivan County.
This article is the third in a series, "Innovations in Tough Times," highlighting new approaches by the courts and the justice system, despite tight budgets. In previous issues, Bar News looked at a Superior Court alternative probation program, "New Hope" and the Model Court project in the Circuit Court that seeks to give children more input during abuse & neglect proceedings.