Community Corrections program termed ‘future of incarceration’

Worcester Telegram & Gazette
By Lee Hammel

WORCESTER — “This is the future of incarceration,” said Worcester County Sheriff Lewis G. Evangelidis.

The sheriff was referring to the Community Corrections program and its close supervision for inmates selected to serve the last bit of their sentence outside of jail, former inmates on parole and people placed on probation.

In an ever more conservative environment, the United States has not stinted in the construction of prisons, leading the world in the rate of incarceration. But the same people who want to lock up criminals also want to reduce the budgets of the governments that pay for the prisons.

“There’s no money to build more cells,” Chief Deputy Sheriff David H. Tuttle said. So the $3,800 annual cost to treat an inmate in community corrections is very attractive to officials who spend $45,000 to incarcerate a prisoner behind bars.

All of the released prisoners in the program are monitored with electronic bracelets, and some of the probationers are too. While the released inmates do not have to go back to jail at night, they have to live with an approved sponsor.

Currently the Community Corrections program has about 50 sentenced inmates from the jail’s Correctional Opportunity Advancement Program. They would be in jail if they had not been approved for one of the three community correction centers in Worcester, Fitchburg and Webster, Chief Deputy Tuttle said.

Worcester’s center is located unobtrusively on the second floor of the Commerce Building at 340 Main St.

The jail has about 1,200 inmates in West Boylston.

So the COAP program is an important tool for the sheriff to meet the terms of a federal court order to cap the inmate population at 1,251. “We’d be close to the cap without Worcester Community Corrections Center,” said Chief Deputy Tuttle.

At any time about 150 people — a number that fluctuates — are supervised at the three locations. The sheriff runs the program in conjunction with the state courts’ Office of Community Corrections, the Probation Office and the Parole Office.

One of 21 centers across the state, it is not new, said Timothy Gagnon, Office of Community Corrections regional supervisor. The Fitchburg office opened in 1998, the Webster office in 1999 and it began in Worcester in 2001, he said.

But Sheriff Evangelidis decided to revitalize it after taking office in January 2011. He was in the community corrections offices nearly every day for his first two months in office, he said, and he put Chief Deputy Tuttle in charge of them.

The program requires random drug testing, and for the highest level of supervision an enrollee reports to the center four to six hours per day five days a week, plus two, four-hour community service shifts per week.

When a lower level of supervision is earned, reporting to the center is reduced to one to four hours per day three to five times weekly, plus one weekly four-hour community service shift.

The program provides classes of all types. While mental health and drug counseling are most important, Program Manager Francis X. Pisegna said, case management also includes GED, other education opportunities and employment training.

The idea is “to make them more successful when they go back to the community on their own,” he said.

By the time Scott Chevalier, 41, showed up last year, he was ready for the center’s approach. That wasn’t always the case.

Mr. Chevalier had just gotten out of jail — for the third time. His assault and battery conviction — the latest manifestation of a 20-plus-year cycle of drinking and doing heroin and cocaine, engaging in crime, going to jail, and then starting the cycle over again — resulted in a two-year sentence, with six months to serve and 18 months suspended with probation, he said.

But this sentence was different. The judge ordered him to community corrections after he served his jail time.

Mr. Chevalier decided Dismas House, a sober program for ex-prisoners, was what he needed, and he showed up at Community Corrections Oct. 28.

“When I came here, I had no direction,” Mr. Chevalier recalled.

Previously, he said, “I was a person who was very, very tough skinned on the outside but very scared on the inside. I was always afraid of rejection. So I hid behind alcohol and drugs. I’ve tried to stay clean, but I didn’t know how.

“This time around I realized enough was enough: Nothing changes if nothing changes. So I finally just put my guard down. I let go. I just surrendered and I let the program help me.”

And so Mr. Chevalier began taking the bus to arrive at the center at 8 a.m. and take three or four classes daily — drug and alcohol abuse prevention, a college preparatory session with education director Anthony Morano, “communicable disease classes, anger management, life skills — whatever they had, I took,” he said.

Mr. Chevalier said the community corrections program “teaches you structure and teaches you how to walk, talk, and be another person. Be a part of society again as a person, not to be that criminal mind against the public, be a criminal nuisance.”

He has become house manager at Dismas House and attends Quinsigamond Community College.

That is a steppingstone, he hopes, to a degree from Worcester State University, becoming a drug and alcohol counsel and “saving the world,” he laughs.

Mr. Chevalier is among the one or two out of 200 or 300 participants per year who achieve all of the steps of the program and leave in the minimum allowed time of 90 days, Mr. Pisegna said.

“Some guys are here a year,” the program director said. “They just don’t get it.”

Mr. Chevalier said: “A lot of people in jail feel this program is just a setup” for failure. “When people feel like that, it’s because they don’t want to do the right thing. They don’t want to change. They know they’re going to do wrong,” he said.

In fact, 88 percent of the drug screening tests at the center come back drug-free, Mr. Pisegna said. Mr. Gagnon said that statewide 30 percent of the participants violate probation or go back to jail through relapse or otherwise reoffending.