Centre County recognized for helping released prisoners succeed

Last year, 784 men and 189 women were released from Rockview state prison, pictured, and the Centre County Correctional Facility.
Last year, 784 men and 189 women were released from Rockview state prison, pictured, and the Centre County Correctional Facility. Centre Daily Times, file

Last year, 973 Centre County inmates were released after serving their sentences. Once out, they had to overcome a grim statistic: Nearly two-thirds of state prisoners are rearrested within three years of their release.

About two-thirds of prisoners re-offend within three years, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.

To combat this problem, Centre County has assembled resources to help former prisoners, and it has been recognized for its efforts.

In March, the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania selected Centre County as the honorable mention for the County Criminal Justice Advisory Board’s best practices award. The McKean County Criminal Justice Advisory Board won the award.

A ceremony for this and other awards given by the association is planned for June 20 in State College.

Centre County took a big step in dealing with the re-entry problem of former inmates when the Centre County Re-Entry Coalition was established in 2014. The coalition provides practical training and work-release opportunities for inmates so they can build a life outside prison walls.

The coalition also has developed resources to help with housing and finding jobs, and, while inmates are still serving their sentences, with developing life skills. Counseling and other support is available for mental health problems.

The resources are compiled in a book, and all police officers, social workers, judges and volunteers have copies. The guide is also available to all inmates and can be found on the Centre County Correctional Facility’s website.

Mark Fraily, a member of the Centre County Pennsylvania Prison Society and the re-entry coalition, said he thinks the county is ahead of the national average on re-entry.

“It’s not always politically correct to do what we’re doing,” said Fraily. “The political and popular thing is to be tough on crime — lock them up and throw away the key. But that’s changing ...

“Important people in the county have come together, all the right players have come to the table, identified a problem and admitted there’s a problem, and have said, ‘Let’s fix it.’ ”

Based on the performance of the coalition in Centre County, other counties in Pennsylvania have asked for support in developing their own re-entry coalitions. Fraily said he has traveled to Blair County to talk about the coalition and how Blair can work toward establishing its own.

Centre County Commissioner Michael Pipe is chairman of the coalition, which has more than 20 members. Representatives come from the courts and a number of criminal justice, social service, law enforcement, mental health, faith-based and community organizations.

Among the members are Centre County Correctional Facility Warden Richard Smith, State College police Chief Tom King, First Assistant District Attorney Mark Smith and Chief Probation Officer Thomas Young.

The coalition meets every other month in the community room of the county prison. Its next meeting is June 10.

One of the goals of re-entry is to prepare inmates to get jobs. Last year, 784 men and 189 women were released from Rockview state prison and the Centre County Correctional Facility. The resources serve those who stay in the county.

Between the Centre County Correctional Facility and Rockview state prison, almost 1,000 prisoners were released last year. About four out of five were men.

Both the correctional facility and Rockview have collaborated with several local businesses and organizations, including Centre Peace, to provide work-release opportunities.

Centre Peace, established in 1994, sells used and refurbished furniture, appliances and household items. It employs inmates from the two local correctional facilities.

Thom Brewster, the executive director for more than 10 years, has ample experience working with inmates At Centre Peace, they are referred to as trainees.

“We don’t call them inmates or prisoners because here, that’s not what they are,” said Brewster. “Here they’re working, not serving time.”

We don’t call them inmates or prisoners because here, that’s not what they are.

Thom Brewster, Centre Peace

Trainees learn how to reupholster furniture, stain wood items and even work on their own projects. Brewster explained that a favorite part of his job is seeing trainees’ reaction to the sale of an item they worked on. He noted how accomplished and proud the trainees feel, which teaches them that hard work pays off.

Despite community uncertainty when it opened, Centre Peace has become an example of how a re-entry program can succeed, Brewster said.

Hundreds of inmates have worked there, and he said he has seen how rehabilitating inmates rather than punishing them can help a community develop an understanding of the penal system rather than fearing it.

Other developments also have taken place to try to deal with the recidivism problem in Pennsylvania, which releases an average of 56,000 inmates each year.

On Feb. 16, Gov. Tom Wolf signed Senate Bill 166 into law. It allows individuals who have served a sentence for nonviolent third- and second-degree misdemeanors to petition the court to seal their criminal history from public view. Law enforcement will continue to have access to their records.

The legislation will take effect in November. Proponents say it is likely to help curb the high rates of recidivism and give those with lesser infractions another chance at entering the workforce.

Similarly, a “ban the box” movement aims to get rid of the spot on job applications that asks if applicants have a criminal record. This does not prevent employers from conducting a background check, but it allows a former inmate to be judged by other characteristics and qualifications before being judged by their criminal history.

In 2012 in Pittsburgh, the Fair Chance Law was passed to remove the question from applications. It applies to city employment and city contractors. In 2011, Philadelphia became the first city in Pennsylvania to do so for both public and private work positions.

Maria Canales is a Penn State journalism student.