By Evan Johnson
RUTLAND—After serving a lengthy jail sentence, reentering a community and adjusting to an unstructured life can be a daunting task. Thanks to a group of volunteers in Rutland, that obstacle becomes easier for offenders to overcome.
Circles of Support and Accountability (CoSA), is a relatively new program at the Rutland County Community Justice Center at BROC Community Action that assists high-risk offenders returning to the Rutland area.
Lisa Ryan, program manager for the Rutland County Community Justice Center, said the role requires a special kind of volunteer.
“It’s extremely hard because of the population you’re working with and the time commitment,” Ryan said. “It’s not something I would ever send a signup sheet around for,” she said. “To work with this population, you have to be invested. You have to care.”
The model originated in Canada in the 1990s and has been implemented in the United Kingdom and in a few U.S. states, including Vermont and Minnesota. The program at the Rutland County Community Justice Center at BROC Community Action is under a year old and more volunteers are needed.
“It’s very important for us to get the right people at the table who are invested and care and want to help make Rutland county a better place for everybody,” said Ryan.
West Haven resident Joan Eckley is one of these volunteers. For 27 years, Eckley worked in the Vermont Department of Corrections as one of the first woman correctional officers at the Marble Valley Regional Correctional Facility where she co-facilitated the pretreatment sex offender program. She found she enjoyed working in contact with the inmates under her supervision and chose to stay a caseworker for the duration of her career.
“I stayed a caseworker, I did not rise within the system,” she said. “Every time I looked at rising within the system I would lose contact with the inmates and I would have to compromise my own principles.”
After retiring from corrections, she wanted to continue with inmates who were about to be released. “I didn’t feel like my work was finished,” she said.
After working in the program for about seven years, she looks forward to the weekly meetings, which are held in a group-meeting setting to help offenders navigate social life outside, develop relationships and be held accountable to their victims and the community.
“We start with ‘How are you?’ and it goes from there.” she said.
Joining the circle
In Vermont, members in the CoSA program are on a conditional release status such as furlough or probation.
Three or four volunteers commit to weekly meetings for a period of 12 months with one individual, called a core member. Core members bring their concerns and share what they’ve been experiencing in recent days.
“Whatever a person brings up sets the stage for what we talk about,” Eckley said.
Members talk about their living situations, experiences with groups and what they’re doing in the community. Those emerging from an extended prison sentence can find themselves in a world completely different from the one they knew at the time of their imprisonment. Even a simple trip to the grocery store can provide a rush of overwhelming sensations. Members may struggle with banking, transportation without a car, using a smartphone, a laundromat or more.
Eckley recalls one individual who after his release suffered from carsickness and became ill when he stepped on grass for the first time in years. “That’s how profound it can be,” she said.
At a CoSA meeting, core members can talk candidly about experiences while volunteers act as a sounding board for these concerns and offer feedback.
“You’re walking a fine line between support and accountability and I enjoy walking that line,” Eckley said. “It’s a challenge of all of me – mind, body and soul.”
One often-discussed issue is housing. Until recently, sex offenders living in Rutland were prohibited from living in much of Rutland City. The ordinance, which was adopted in 2008, prohibited any offender convicted of a sex crime against a child from living in the city within 1,000 feet of a school, day care or recreation area. A Rutland judge struck down that ordinance in December, 2017.
After years isolated from family and friends, relationships are often strained. It’s another area that core members want to discuss in meetings.
“When a man or woman has been away for a decade or more, relationships are a driving thing for them,” said Eckley. “These people are lonely.”
Changing a system
According to Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform, in 2016 there were approximately 1,750 men and women incarcerated in the state system, in seven facilities in the state and one out-of-state prison. About 150 of those were women. In the summer of 2017, Vermont signed a contract with the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, which committed Vermont to pay for 250 to 400 beds for three years at a rate of $72 per inmate per day. Under this agreement, the state signs over custody and control of Vermont prisoners, making them prisoners of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. There are currently about 262 Vermonters in the state prisons SCI-Camp Hill and Graterford in Pennsylvania.
Prior to the 2017 move to Camp Hill, Vermont’s out-of-state prisoners were sent to North Lake Correctional Facility in Baldwin, Mich., owned and operated by GEO Group, a private, for-profit prison corporation.
“It may save money on the short run but in the long run it’s destroying our people,” she said. “Vermont prisoners should be housed in the state of Vermont.”
CoSA programs started in Vermont in 2005. Since then, there have been a total of 379 CoSAs started, and members of the Community Justice Center insist the program is working.
“A big part of this is about is what kind of redemptive opportunities can be found for people simply by investing a little time and effort in them,” said CoSA volunteer Andrew Carlson. “Even if you’re not involved in a moral or ethical perspective, … the expense to society of warehousing these people is alone a good enough reason for trying alternate ways of managing their difficulties.”
In a 2013 executive summary completed for the Vermont Department of Corrections, University of Vermont sociology professor Kathryn Fox wrote:
“[C]ore members expressed more positive sense of self as contributing members to society, a commitment to pro-social relationships, a sense of mutual obligation toward and trust of circle members, and somewhat greater optimism for the future.”
Joan Eckley is in the unique position where she has worked with several individuals during their incarcerations and seen them complete the CoSA program when released. “I’ve known them at the beginning and at the end,” she said. “That’s very rare.”
She accompanied one man to his parole board hearing where he was granted parole. The man has since been able to maintain a job and has bought a house. They are still trying to arrange a date when they can get lunch again.