The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections (ODRC) has a dual mandate. This mandate exists in its very name: to rehabilitate in addition to punish. When the department was created, it’s founders understood the importance of rehabilitation, and it’s no mistake that the word exists in its name.
When I began my sentence, get-tough-on-crime laws were the trend, and rehabilitation was considered a nasty word. Nationally, the pendulum of punishment vs. rehabilitation swings to extremes about every 20 years or so.
In 2020, the pendulum is firmly back to rehabilitation. Corrections in the United States has undergone nationwide metamorphosis. This movement started at the federal level during the Obama era, and has filtered down to the state level under the current administration.
In Ohio, the director of the Department of Corrections wields considerable power in being able to affect change. Former ODRC director Gary Mohr, of whom I had the pleasure of meeting in 2014, was the first director in decades to aggressively pursue rehabilitation based policy changes as a priority.
In my conversation with him, he expressed frustration that his policies weren’t always embraced by his peers and that he constantly fought an uphill battle. Why is it, I’ve often wondered, that change in life rarely happens without first being resisted? During the final days of his administration, he stated publicly that his only regret was that he wasn’t able to do more.
Director Mohr truly understood the power of rehabilitation, and that it’s the only way to break the cycle of crime. I credit former director Mohr for encouraging staff to take an active role in guiding offenders toward a path of change. Staff engagement is key in the rehabilitative process, and I discuss this importance in detail in the first volume of my criminal justice series, titled By Unfair Means. I wrote volume one for the criminal justice student and those working amongst offenders in institutional and community corrections.
Current ODRC Director, Ms. Annette Chambers-Smith, has continued where director Mohr left off. At the beginning of her tenure, her appointment was viewed with mixed feelings of trepidation and hope. Would she continue along the path of reform? This was a question I wondered about, and a question inmates, their families, victim advocates, and reform advocates were also asking.
It has been a year since her appointment as Ohio’s Director of Prisons. During this time, Director Chambers-Smith has continued to enact reform-minded policies that encourage inmates to pursue change. Her administration supports the availability and use of programs designed to address inmate thinking issues, from addiction to mental health. Addiction programs are tied to release, and successful engagement and participation by inmates is rewarded through the issuance of ‘good days’ where an inmate may be able to gain an earlier release.
In addition, those inmates who seek an addiction-free future have access to programs that offer medication assisted therapy coupled with comprehensive counseling and addiction resources. It is, in my opinion, exactly what is needed. It lessens the financial burden on society, and it has lasting rehabilitative effects.
Here at my institution, I see a diverse offering of programs designed to encourage prisoners to address their shortcomings and to encourage proper living. We have entire housing units dedicated to programming, and even pre-release preparation. It’s something most of my peers recognize and as a whole are grateful for them. I think the programming and resources that are made available to us here are positive and beneficial. When I see short timers going home now, I feel that the probability of recividism amongst this crowd is less than it used to be just 5 years ago. The pre-release unit offers excellent personal programs and assists long time prisoners in connecting to organizations and resources needed upon release.
During her first year alone, Director Chambers-Smith has rebuilt the Ohio Parole Board by appointing a diverse field of professionals that reflects the diversity and needs of Ohio’s incarcerated citizens. She has enacted parole board policy reform and has approached this in a multiphased rollout. Importantly, she has chosen engagement with all stakeholders from victims and victim adocates, to inmates and their families, and to criminal justice reform advocates.
I’ve watched as a parole board (that was once influenced and controlled by a handful of career appointees) returns to objectivity and to Ohio’s dual mandate. Within the past year, I’ve witnessed more rehabilitated, deserving men gain release than I had in the entire decade preceding them. Most I know.
My peers see these changes too. The collective impact is a sense of hope for the future that one’s rehabilitation and good behavior will be recognized for what it is: a successful outcome of the Ohio Department of Correction’s dual mandate.
If I have the opportunity to meet and speak with Director Chambers-Smith, I’d thank her for continuing to steer Ohio corrections toward rehabilitation. She’s tackling issues that aren’t always popular with the public, and the main one is parole board reform. It is the most difficult issue a director can face.
Most importantly, I’d encourage her to continue seeking input from all stakeholders, including inmates, because at the end of the day inmates are the ones who choose to pursue or shun change.