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A parallel universe
By Ann Coppola, News Reporter
Published: 01/05/2009

Azdc With all of the dismal economic, job loss, and political scandal stories of 2008, it seems most everyone will be eagerly awaiting a fresh start this New Year’s Day. But even during hard times, there will always be bright spots of ingenuity and a spirit for breaking new ground.

Called a “system-wide reform” and a “top-to-bottom overhaul of conventional corrections practices,” the Arizona Department of Corrections’ pre-release program Getting Ready was one of those bright spots this year. The reentry initiative became the first correctional program to win the Innovations in American Government Award from the Ash Institute for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

The Institute’s innovation award has been handed out since 1986, honoring 187 federal, state, and local government agencies. Chosen from nearly 1,000 applicants, Getting Ready was granted $100,000 in recognition of the positive changes it’s created for the community.

Since 2004, the AZDOC program has slowly but steadily transformed the landscape within Arizona’s prisons. It is based on the idea that ex-offenders are more likely to succeed in the community when they’ve had opportunities while incarcerated to acquire real-world skills and face real-world challenges. The department’s goal is to prepare inmates for release from day one of their incarceration.

“Getting Ready fundamentally changes how inmates do time,” AZDOC Director Dora Schriro explains. “We operate our prisons like the real world as much as we can with similar rules, responsibilities and rewards. Getting Ready is all-day, everyday, pragmatic pre-release preparation. It keeps communities safe while inmates are incarcerated and when they go home.”

Remarkably, Getting Ready was developed without any new taxpayer funds and did not need enabling legislation. Sometimes called “a parallel universe,” the program restructures life in prison to resemble life in the community. Inmates are encouraged to complete their basic education earning high school equivalency diplomas. They become motivated to achieve and maintain sobriety, to work full time, and to participate in victim-focused activities and community service during their leisure time.

The department also lines up its own job training and employment with Arizona industries. Inmates’ wages improve when they complete post-secondary job training and earn good work evaluations. Their status advances as their hours of community service and charitable giving accrue.

Corrections Officer II Christina Duran, who works at Arizona’s largest state prison, ASPC-Lewis, says she has noticed significant changes since the program’s implementation.

“Today there are fewer fights and grievances on my yard, and a whole lot of good mornings, so many that I can’t keep up with them,” she says.

In Duran’s experience, even the most difficult inmates have been willing to change their behavior to participate in the program. Her observations have been supported by a number of statistics on the program as well. Getting Ready inmates are 35 percent more successful in the community after their release compared to inmates facing similar risks for failure.

“The Arizona Department of Corrections offers an alternative to the inefficient and costly practices that pervade prisons nationwide,” says Stephen Goldsmith, the director of the Innovations in American Government Program at Harvard Kennedy School. “Their ground-breaking, yet commonsense, approach to reducing violence, curbing recidivism rates and preparing prisoners to be productive citizens is worthy of emulation around the country.”

In addition to the strides made on the recidivism front, since 2004, AZDOC’s inmate-on-inmate violence has decreased by 37 percent, inmate-on-staff assaults by 51 percent, and inmate suicides by 33 percent. Additionally, three quarters of the inmate population earned high school equivalency diplomas and completed jobs training. Plus, inmates have donated more than $1 million to Arizona victims of crime organizations.

Getting Ready also has created a cost-savings boon for AZDOC. The department says the program’s success at decreasing both institutional violence and recidivism has helped reduce spending by about $1.6 million.

After the attention the program received this year, the AZDOC has been contacted by a number of other state correctional systems, several school districts, the British Ministry of Justice, and the United Kingdom Prison Service to learn more. Schriro says she expects the plan to be fully implemented in all of Arizona's prisons within the next two years.

AZDOC’s award-winning program certainly helped the department end 2008 on a positive note. Hopefully, its success will inspire other agencies, both locally and around the world, to follow in its footsteps as they enter a new year.

Related Resources:

Watch PBS coverage of Getting Ready


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  2. ForCommonGood on 12/31/2008:

    We have way too much For-Retribution-Only prison time in California. Unreasonably long sentences, parole denials, and prison time in place of mental health hospitals are bankrupting the state. It is made worse by the revolving door call the parole system. Let's send information from the article, especially the paragraph below, to our governors. In California you can write from the web site http://gov.ca.gov/interact. 'Especially important, "Getting Ready also has created a cost-savings boon for AZDOC. The department says the program’s success at decreasing both institutional violence and recidivism has helped reduce spending by about $1.6 million." Thanks for the excellent article.

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