Warden: Several programs in place to encourage parolees to stay out of prison

Many people consider jails to be a place where you lock people up and protect society from them, but that’s only one aspect of it, according to Brad Shoemaker, who recently was appointed warden at the Lycoming County Prison.

Speaking at the Rotary Club of Williamsport’s meeting this week, Shoemaker said the prison system is more dynamic than that.

“Partially, jail is punitive, but there’s also a portion of this: that the people in that facility are eventually going to end up back in our community,” he said.

Jails and prisons have changed focus to incorporate rehabilitation to reduce recidivism in order to get the number of people coming in less than it was before, Shoemaker said.

The Lycoming County Prison has 89 full-time corrections officers and administrative staff and 43 staff members at the pre-release center. The local prison population includes both pre-trial and sentenced inmates, according to the warden.

“The difference is that if someone gets arrested in Lycoming County today, if they cannot make bail, they come to us. We are going to house them until such time that the court either releases them or sentences them.”

People who have been sentenced to less than two years remain at the local jail, while inmates sentenced for longer periods of time are transferred out and sent to state prisons.

“Inmates come in a lot of different categories. You have your inmates that come in because they have violated their probation or didn’t pay child support,” he said.

Shoemaker said the prison also houses what he called “front page news” inmates, who have been arrested for crimes such as assault or homicide.

“We’re going to house them initially and the staff has the task of supervising them all day and providing for them what we call care, custody and control,” he added. “You don’t know the difference between the gentleman sitting in this chair who might be somebody who violated probation and has a drug problem and the person sitting next to him that’s going to probably serve life in prison and may be facing the death penalty.”

The corrections officers are then tasked with trying to treat everyone equally regardless of race, religion, gender or why they have been incarcerated, Shoemaker said.

Statistically, the prison does about 2,500-2,800 commitments and releases a year, which, he said, means that every day people are being released back into the community.

“Many of the inmates come to us come with underlying drug and alcohol problems.,” Shoemaker said. “Additionally, we find out that many of them have some mental health concerns. It’s no secret we’ve had a recent upswing with issues, especially with heroin use in our community.”

Addicts coming into prison often come with a set of specific treatment needs.

“Not only medically needy, but (they have) emotional, spiritual and mental health needs,” Shoemaker said. “We have a lot of programs in place where we will work with them to try to get them started on a pathway … because we know that they’re not going to be with us forever, but we’ll be handing them off to agencies on the outside.”

Overcrowding in the prison and how to deal with it was an issue that was evaluated in 2012, Shoemaker said.

One suggestion was to build a bigger jail, but, he said, in addition to the expense and time needed, that idea doesn’t deal with the root issue of recidivism.

“You can build a bigger jail,” Shoemaker said. “They’ll fill those jails up. Society will fill those jails up, but, again, those people will eventually be back in our communities and how do we stop the revolving door?”

Shoemaker said at that time they considered ways of not incarcerating people or at least not incarcerating them for so long. One of the ideas was the establishment of treatment courts, such as drug courts, DUI courts, mental health courts and veterans courts.

“These are court-operated and supervised programs. They are very intensive on supervision, meaning that those persons that are in those programs are usually not first-time offenders. They have had multiple offenses,” he said. “They’re identified with a drug and alcohol problem. And they are given opportunities to be involved in their intensive levels of treatment and supervision, hopefully to readjust or realign their thinking or their behaviors and to hopefully get them on a correct path to not going back to jail.”

Re-entry programs also are in place, where offenders meet with counselors and case workers and are taught life and job skills which help them to be successful in securing a job.

There also are jail-to-treatment programs that are operated in conjunction with the West Branch Drug and Alcohol Abuse Commission. In these programs, offenders with treatment issues are identified and released directly into an intensive treatment program to help address their problems.

Other programs include a bail release program where pre-sentence cases are reviewed to determine if the offender can be placed in the community with a monitoring system to control their movements. Shoemaker said it enables them to get back in the community and employed.

“Instead of keeping them incarcerated and in jail, it might allow them to continue living life on the outside,” he said.