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Innovators in Corrections: A.T. Wall
By Charles F. Field, Jr.
Published: 03/19/2018

Iic atwall banner  2 The following article is the second in a series titled "Innovators in Corrections" which focuses on people and their ideas that move corrections forwards.

Editors Note: Corrections.com interviewed Director Wall in December 2017 before he announced retirement from state service. The original article has been modified to reflect his departure.

Prior to his retirement in early 2018, A.T. Wall was the country’s longest-tenured director of corrections, serving his native state of Rhode Island for over 30 years; 18 as Director of the RI Department of Corrections. The inmate population is down 30% from its peak ten years ago; the influence of organized crime has been entirely eradicated from the system; and the department’s medication assisted treatment for substance abusers and addicts is a national model. As he looks forward to retirement, Wall spoke with Corrections.Com to talk about his career and his opinions on best practices in the industry.

From Internship to Career

A.T. Wall’s “ah ha!” moment - that ignited his respected career in criminal justice and corrections - came as a junior at Yale University in the mid-seventies.

“There was an initiative at the University to encourage graduating students to get into non-traditional fields by taking internships with state and local governments,” Wall recalls. “They all involved compensation – which was high on my list – but they were too academic: I had enough of reading and writing and was now looking for action, the ability to put into practice what I had been studying.”

Wall was placed as a summer probation officer in New Haven, Connecticut, paired with seasoned probation officers with adolescent caseloads – engaging individuals close to his own age, and as he explained, “Right on the cusp ... they had grown up in terrible circumstances and were making the pivot toward being someone who preyed on others rather than someone who was victimized by others.” According to Wall, it was fascinating to watch that transition and to do what he could to try to send them in a better direction.

“It was a very interesting period for me,” says Wall. “It was an opportunity to see the roots of criminal behavior up close and personal and which interventions might have a chance of success (and which did not). I was hooked and discovered I really enjoyed being a probation officer.”

Wall observed that, in many cases, the root seemed to be within the family constellation: these were young men and women who were trapped in a culture of poverty and who often had relatives that were either in jail or prison, or for that matter, in the mental health system. They were as young as ages 12 and 13 up through their late teens. Wall sensed that by adolescence, the die had already been cast: that whatever he and his colleagues could do was not a match for the social and cultural environment that was conducive toward antisocial behavior, breaking the norms, being somewhat cavalier and not thinking too much about what the consequences could be.

After a few years, Wall was accepted to Yale Law School, “Not to practice law per se,” he suggests, “but to answer the question: ‘Was it too late by the time we begin to work with these young men and women, was the die cast, was there going to be virtually nothing that could change the trajectory of their lives?’”

Wall became a prosecutor in Manhattan and later, joined the Vera Institute of Justice (a non-profit national criminal justice research and policy organization) with the intent of developing and implementing innovative programs, and to examine “the challenges of steering individuals in a different direction when they already carried so much baggage.”

Policy and Practice

A.T. Wall returned to Rhode Island in 1985 to lead criminal justice policy for the administration of Governor Edward DiPrete (1985-1991). Two years later he was appointed assistant director of corrections and was named director by Governor Lincoln Almond (1995-2003) in 2000. In that role, he oversaw all aspects of the state’s adult correctional system: prisons, jails, probation, parole and home confinement.

For many years before his arrival as Director, Wall’s predecessors, John Moran and George Vose, were successful in ridding influences of organized crime from the corrections department in Rhode Island. “The task of professionalizing the department and ridding it of the kind of back room deals that can sometimes get made when organized crime was involved, were things that really had to be dealt with,” says Wall. “Both of them gave a great gift to me because a lot of that hard work had already been done by the time I assumed this post.”

DiPrete, the governor who brought Wall back to Rhode Island, pleaded guilty to state charges of bribery, extortion and racketeering, and was sentenced to a year in prison. In a plea bargain he admitted to accepting $250,000 in exchange for state contracts during his term as governor.

“I thought Governor DiPrete was an intelligent individual who moved the state forward on a number of fronts,” says Wall. “It was a shame that he succumbed to the temptations that can go with public life, and I, for my part, felt so uneasy about the entire event that I did not visit the institution that he was housed in for the entire time that he was there.”

Empathy for Youthful Offenders

As Director of Corrections, Wall managed a department separate from Rhode Island’s Department for Children, Youth and Families. And despite working full time with adult populations for 30 years, his empathy for the youthful offender can be traced to his first experiences with criminal justice as an undergraduate at Yale. He feels that, in many instances, youthful offenders are, in many regards, victims of their environments. He recognizes however, that these same individuals may pose a significant threat to their communities.

“We still debate whether the juvenile justice system would have benefited from the resources we have in the adult programs,” Wall says, “I believe it would be detrimental because there would be a socialization into criminal behavior and thinking if it remained with the Department of Corrections.

“We've seen evidence that in certain circumstances, the juvenile system struggles to deal with juvenile offenders, especially 15 and 16-year-olds who are committing violent crimes. Some argue that they probably belong in the adult system. The trade off there, however, is that they then become socialized into the norms and values held by more sophisticated, adult offenders.”

“The per head cost in juvenile corrections is a good deal higher than it is here in the adult system. One, juvenile and adolescent offenders are still perceived as individuals who may be able to evolve beyond their criminal behaviors with the benefit of the right combination of rehabilitative services, sanctions and empathy. Adult offenders are not privy to as many interventions as in the juvenile system. There's still a belief that if you're in the juvenile system, you may be able to break the cycle because of the services that are provided. “

“Clinicians that work with adolescents point to the brain science that says up until your mid twenties, your brain functioning is pretty malleable. Where there is flexibility in thinking, there is a hope that somebody will be able to turn their lives into a more productive and pro social outcome.”

“Some call it prehabilitation, an interventional philosophy that engages at-risk youths in programs and services early on in their development to discourage them from a criminal lifestyle and prevent young people from making mistakes that land them in the criminal justice system. “

Wall suggests that even by the time they turn 16 years of age, a lot of water has flowed under the bridge. “It takes extraordinary effort for them to do a U-turn at that point, and claim their role as productive and law-abiding citizens,” says Wall. “We must appreciate just how powerful the influences are that have already touched these individuals before we get involved with them.”

Medication-Assisted Treatment

Addiction treatment has become “step one” in the rehabilitation of incarcerated adolescents and adults.

“We are enmeshed in a hurricane of opioid addiction,” Wall says. “Before people in behavioral health sciences and criminal justice recognized what its implications were, opioid addiction had already taken parts of the this country by storm. We now see that there are real opportunities there, and there are ways for people to overcome their addiction and to deal with their mental illness. I often say that “addiction is mental illness's first cousin” because people will take drugs in an effort to calm themselves down from the chaos in their minds. I think there are treatments that can wean people off drugs and give them a productive path forward.”

Rhode Island has adopted a program of medication-assisted treatment, quickly becoming the leader in putting those practices into place. The strategy enables the department to wean people off – while in custody - the serious addictions and to give them a sense of purpose that can supplant whatever they were looking for when they began to take drugs like the opioids laced with fentanyl.

“It’s one of our great contributions to this ongoing struggle,” Wall believes. “Our ultimate goal is to work with the individuals who have been addicted to opioids while they are in custody, and to follow them closely once they're released. When we have individuals in custody who are struggling with addiction and mental illness, we can administer the right proportion of medications and provide positive supports and motivation to change their lives.”

As a result, Rhode Island is building a network of recovery coaches who are former addicts and who know what it's like to labor under the pain of opioid addiction, and as Wall puts it, “to have a missionary zeal when they are contacted by emergency rooms across the state and asked to come to be with somebody who is in the process of withdrawal”.

“I would say that's been one of our great contributions. We actually regard, not that we encourage it, but we actually regard someone's prior experience with addiction as an asset in the work of recovery because they have the lived experience. They know what it's like to be somebody who’s in the thrall of such a powerful drug. They also are living breathing proof that you can come back from that. That part of the program is really working very well.”

The Path Less Traveled By

Wall admits that he was never particularly deliberate about the way he handled his career, citing Robert Frost’s popular poem, “The Road Not Taken.” He also admits that corrections and criminal justice are in his blood. He is excited by breakthroughs in research and the trend that, as a profession, corrections policy makers are taking more seriously the idea that science can contribute to better outcomes.

In no small way, the naturally gregarious Wall is being released from a form of confinement familiar to all public servants who are constrained by professional protocols and pecking order. “I have the ability to remain involved, not necessarily as someone who is in the trenches doing the work every day, but as someone looking at how we can reform the justice system without necessarily being bound by the constraints that exist for people who are in public life.”

The best line that sums up the career of A.T. Wall was published by the Providence Journal, describing him as a “Yale-educated intellectual who found his passion in the despondent world of captivity.”

“That sums it up neatly,” says Wall. “I feel very proud of what the men and women of the corrections department have accomplished during the time that I've been privileged to be here. I've had a great ride.”

Perhaps that ride will continue down “the path less traveled by.”

Charles F. Field, Jr. is a Senior Writer for Corrections.Com


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