In fighting flood, Mo. inmates get chance to give back

Monday, May 16, 2011
Minimum security prisoners from the Southeast Correctional Center in Charleston, Mo., place sandbags along an emergency levee April 27 along Highway 74 at Dutchtown. (Fred Lynch)

When the raging floodwaters threatened communities throughout the region, Missouri's criminals came to the rescue.

From Dutchtown to Caruthersville, scores of inmates from the Missouri Department of Corrections system worked long hours bagging and stacking sand, building temporary levees and toiling in the muck and rain to protect Southeast Missouri lives and property from the ravages of the historic flood of 2011.

From April 26 through May 6, minimum security prisoners from Southeast Correctional Center in Charleston, the Farmington Correctional Center, the Potosi Correctional Center and the Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Bonne Terre labored in the flood fight. Between April 30 and May 4, the peak of the disaster, inmates filled 55,000 sandbags, according to the Missouri Department of Corrections.

Crews varied from 12 to 40 inmates, spread out in places like East Prairie, Miner and Morehouse.

It's not the first time prisoners have been called upon to work in times of crisis, and it won't be the last, said George Lombardi, director of the Missouri Department of Corrections.

"We've always been a resource in times of disaster, taking as many minimum security prisoners as we can," he said. "We did it back 1993 and in the '95 floods. In '95, we had 1,000 inmates all over the state of Missouri, north to south, east to west."

In Illinois, inmates at the Tamms, DuQuoin, Dixon Springs, Hardin and Vienna correctional facilities filled more than 475,000 sandbags for sandbagging operations in seven counties, according to a state news release. And prisoners were washing laundry for Illinois National Guard troops deployed for flooding, while others have assisted with moving files and equipment from flood-threatened state offices in Cairo and Metropolis.

It's a service, many say, convicted criminals should provide, a way to give back to communities for the crimes they've committed. Lombardi and other corrections officials agree. But it's bigger than just putting prisoners to work, they say.

Flood-fighting is among a variety of ways prisoners can earn respect from the outside world and belief in themselves, corrections experts assert, through restorative justice -- a theory of justice that emphasizes repairing the harm caused by criminal behavior. In part, the concept involves community service and other good works. But it also focuses on mediation, dialogue between the offender and the victim, something restorative justice advocates say is essential in healing both parties and restoring criminals to productive citizens.

Watergate redemption

There is perhaps no bigger proponent of restorative justice than Prison Fellowship Ministries.

The international, not-for-profit Christian organization was founded in 1976 by Charles Colson. The former aid to President Nixon knew a thing or two about prison. He spent time behind bars on Watergate-related charges and launched his ministry after leaving prison.

While the ministry is Gospel-centered, it serves anyone from any faith, according to Pat Nolan, vice president of Washington, D.C.-based Prison Fellowship. He said where it has been tried, restorative justice has found success. He recalled an Oregon man who took inmates into communities to work on improvement projects like landscaping or electrical work.

"It helped both the inmate, giving a sense of accomplishment, and it humanized the inmates to the residents who saw them working hard, saw them as human beings," Nolan said. "It happened so many times where an inmate who was released would drive past the work site with pride and point out to his family, 'I did that lawn there.'"

That sense of worth -- for some convicts something they rarely, if ever, have experienced -- can have a powerful positive domino effect, Lombardi said. At the maximum security Jefferson Correctional Center in Jefferson City, Mo., offenders in December made weighted quilts for special needs children at the SSM Cardinal Glennon Children's Medical Center and St. Louis University.

"One girl with autism was very anxious during her follow-up visit," Dr. Rolanda Maxim, associate professor of pediatrics at St. Louis University said in a DOC news release. "I offered her juice and cookies, and we tried to blow bubbles, but all our attempts failed to calm her behavior.

"Once we gave her the quilt, she wrapped herself in it, relaxed, smiled and was able to cooperate during the evaluation. Her mom was really impressed and grateful for the quilt."

Lombardi said the gifts have had a more profound effect on some of the inmates.

"They tear up when they hear things about how they help people on the outside," he said. "Some have done dastardly things and there is no question they should never get out of prison, but if there is something they can do to give back at least in part for their transgressions, we should give them the opportunity to do that."

Restoring debate

The bigger point, Lombardi said, is that 97 percent of the 30,000-plus inmates in Missouri's corrections system will leave prison at some point. Programs that teach value, compassion and community connection have proved successful in keeping offenders from returning to prison, from making more victims, Lombardi said. At a direct cost of $16.39 a day to incarcerate a single offender, recidivism is an expensive proposition.

A University of Pennsylvania meta-analysis of 11 studies showed recidivism was 27 percent lower among restorative justice participants than among defendants not involved in the program.

In a self-study of Prison Fellowship's InnerChange Freedom Initiative, a faith-based restorative justice program included in Missouri's corrections system, graduates were two times less likely to be rearrested.

Restorative justice has its share of critics, including those who argue victims too often are further burdened by their attackers in the meetings.

Nolan asserts restorative justice has proved most effective in violent and sex crimes, because many victims want to confront their abuser if only to ask why.

"They have a chance to tell them how badly they were hurt, and how they still suffer from it," he said.


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