The Realities of Recidivism in Virginia

by Daniel A. Rosen |

In early February this year, the Virginia Department of Corrections sent out a self-congratulatory press release claiming that the Commonwealth has the lowest three-year recidivism rate in the country, at just over 23 percent. My fellow inmates and I find that figure not at all credible; we know they’ve massaged the numbers to claim that level of success. After all, nationwide more than two-thirds of returned citizens will be re-arrested within three years, and four-fifths within nine years.

After spending several years inside the VADOC, I can tell you that the realities look rather different from this end of the lens. And since roughly 9 of 10 people you meet in prison have been here before, something is very wrong with the picture VADOC is presenting.

There are several major omissions in their statistics that drive the number down, according to an article in last year’s News Leader. Not included in the 23 percent are: those arrested for probation violations or misdemeanors and sentenced to less than one year; those arrested but not yet convicted; those arrested and convicted but not yet sentenced; those who plead down to a lesser charge that carries less than a year of prison time; and those serving state time in local jail facilities (an increasingly regular practice). By the more common standard of simply counting arrests, Virginia’s track record is likely similar to the nation’s 69 percent average, in reality.

It’s difficult to counter official statistics with anecdotal evidence, and some may write off this rebuttal as just that – but every inmate I’ve shared VADOC’s press statement with has had the same reaction. “Impossible,” said one. Another just snorted and walked off. “There’s no way that’s right,” said a third. These are inmates who have been all around the system, at facilities across the state.

Particularly galling to every one of us who read this smug bit of farce was the statement that “re-entry planning begins on day one.” As I recall vividly, day one involved waking up at 2:30 am, followed by a cramped six-hour van ride in cuffs and shackles, and it ended with a chaotic in-processing at the Nottoway Receiving Center. There, I was thrown together with inmates of all security levels – murderers, drug dealers, rapists, and burglars for two months.

VADOC further claims that their recidivism success is a direct result of the re-entry services, education and treatment programs tailored to each offender’s needs and risks. And it is nominally correct to say that they produce re-entry plans for each inmate – but you’d be less impressed with how it works in practice.

Around day 400, I had an annual review session where a counselor asked me for my “home plan” and I gave them my permanent address. That was plan enough for them. The “Re-entry Timeline” she printed out for me to sign mandated that I keep a job and not get any disciplinary charges – and that was it.

Today is approximately day 850 – with roughly 550 left to go – and I still haven’t had any planning, courses, or support to help me re-enter society successfully. Counselors will eventually assign most everyone to take two mandatory re-entry classes: “Resources for Successful Living,” and “Ready to Work.” Some inmates will also be assigned to complete GED classes or treatment programs, and take classes like “Money Smart.” These interventions always sound good on paper. But, in reality, many involve a dozen sessions in which inmates read aloud from a common-sense handbook that taxpayers overpaid a private education company for, while a DOC employee facilitator sits by silently collecting a paycheck. Inmates commonly describe these courses as just being “in the way.”

As for GED classes – it’s a subject I’m quite familiar with, from my job teaching as a Classroom Aide. At the last facility where I worked, just one student received his GED certificate in 2018. There were about a thousand inmates on that compound, and about 75 registered for GED class. The wait list was more than double that many. Many days, less than half the students came to class – and that’s when it was held at all. Almost half the time, classes were cancelled for security or scheduling reasons. At my current facility, there’s one classroom operating for over 1100 inmates. Many of the (average 7th grade-level) students who do get enrolled can’t read or do basic math; they get frustrated easily and drop out or get kicked out, and no one much notices. Few will ever earn their GED in here.

Vocational programs that teach skills like Culinary Arts, Computer Repair, Graphic Arts, and Horticulture are also funded by taxpayers and available to many inmates – at least on paper. I’ve been theoretically enrolled in Culinary Arts for eight months – but we’ve not been to the kitchen for training even once since then. So where are those tax dollars going?

Other vocational programs have similar stories of cancellations, teacher shortages, and fitful execution at best. Even in the programs that are working well, inmates are not getting skills that reflect the needs of today’s connected world. The internet is forbidden here because of the potential for misuse – without regard to the simple network security measures that could allow access, should DOC decide to spend the money.

Most inmates leave here on probation. Creative re-entry ‘simulations’ in New York recently have started to show prosecutors and other officials how easy it is to run afoul of probation requirements when housing and employment needs don’t get met due to the stigma of a prison record. Virginia should take a page from New York and institute a similar look at what returning inmates actually need, instead of patting themselves on the back so heartily. VADOC should also publish the real five- and ten-year recidivism rates measured by re-arrests, and be honest with Virginians – and themselves – about what re-entry success really looks like.

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