Remarks as Prepared for Delivery
Thank you, Kevin [Kempf] and Anne [Precythe]. I’m really pleased to be here today. My colleagues and I are so glad to have this opportunity to meet with you all, and I’m so grateful to the Correctional Leaders Association (CLA) for making time for us in this very full agenda.
As you can see, we’ve got several of the Office of Justice Programs (OJP)'s leaders here today:
- Karhlton Moore, Director of the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA);
- Nancy La Vigne, Director of the National Institute of Justice (NIJ); and
- Alex Piquero, Director of the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS)
Liz Ryan and Kris Rose, who lead our Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention and Office for Victims of Crime, were eager to join as well. They are all dynamos in their field and bring deep expertise to their work, and they are all incredibly passionate about corrections issues.
I’d also like to recognize that our colleague Alix McLearen is in the room today. Alex is serving as Acting Director of the National Institute of Corrections (NIC) and brings to the role years of experience and expertise in corrections and reentry.
So together, you’ve got a lot of people here from the Department of Justice who have deep roots in your field and a deep commitment to being good partners, allies and resources to you.
I’d like to start on a personal note about my roots in the corrections field. When I graduated from college, I wanted to be a probation officer. I had volunteered and interned with halfway houses and probation offices all throughout college and thought this was my future.
My first job out of college was at the Vermont Department of Corrections, working as a Vista Volunteer with a reentry focus. I was a starry-eyed young person and thought corrections was a place where people who needed it could get treatment, training, education and help – a place where they could get their lives together so they could have a better life when they got out.
That was more than 30 years ago. I’m a lot older and a little less starry eyed than I was then, but I still think that, for those who are incarcerated, corrections can and should be a place where people can get treatment, training and education to help them pave the way for a better life – and where staff can feel engaged, optimistic, safe and productive. And maybe even a little starry-eyed and hopeful about the mission of corrections.
The field has changed a lot in these 30 years. It’s gotten a lot bigger, of course. But there’s also been headway on addressing some very tough issues, and I’m proud of the ways OJP is supporting departments of corrections in your quest to create safe and productive environments, and improve the prospects of successful reentry after release.
For example, in the last eight years, the Departments of Education and Justice launched the Second Chance Pell effort, and it’s now active in 48 states. CLA was a champion for full Pell restoration, and thanks to the efforts of many in this room, beginning this upcoming academic year, federal Pell Grants will be available to incarcerated students for the first time in decades.
That’s amazing, especially because we know that postsecondary education improves the likelihood of reentry success, and the research has born that out: Studies have found that recidivism goes down when incarcerated students receive a post-secondary education, and it pays for itself four times over.
But the benefits go beyond reductions in costs and recidivism. Higher education unlocks potential and allows people to see themselves and others in new ways. It opens the door to individual growth and development. And it has a multi-generational benefit. Kids are more likely to go to college or trade school when their parents do, so a postsecondary education can actually create a legacy of academic participation that carries over to one’s children and grandchildren.
BJA robustly supports this work alongside our longtime partners at the Vera Institute of Justice. And we stand ready to assist as broader implementation goes into effect soon.
With leadership from BJA, we are also supporting what could be game-changing efforts to address substance use disorders with more resources and more emphasis on increasing access to medication-assisted treatment and medications for opioid use disorder. In fact, in fiscal year 2022 more than $180 million went to corrections treatment programs. These programs encourage the expansion of MAT programs in correctional settings, and BJA and our partners at NIC plan to soon release a set of guidelines for managing substance withdrawal in jails, with applicable lessons for prison settings too. I know many of you have informed this development of those guidelines and we are grateful.
We are also working with many of you to find ways to reduce the use of restrictive housing and create safe and humane environments. BJA and our partners at the Crime and Justice Institute are working with four states – Illinois, Pennsylvania, Montana and Iowa – to support reform efforts in this space. And importantly, technical assistance is also available to provide consultation to the field at large.
And then there’s COVID. We know that COVID remains a significant public health threat in corrections facilities. We’re working closely with the CDC to provide technical assistance to corrections facilities as part of the funding from the American Rescue Plan. I hope you are all aware that $700 million went to state public health agencies specifically to help you mitigate the effects of COVID in corrections. BJA has launched training and technical assistance, led by the Center for Justice Research and Innovation (CNA), to help you navigate these opportunities, and we hope you will take advantage of them. Ruby Qazilbash and Sara Sullivan led a session about this and we’re glad to share additional information.
Of course, we continue to support other important corrections priorities through the Second Chance Act and the Prison Rape Elimination Act and this week’s news of the first Medicaid waiver in California will open up huge new opportunities, which should translate to better care, safer environments and better outcomes for those incarcerated and staff alike.
This is very real progress, and probably speaks to some of the reasons that brought you to the field as well. But I don’t want to gloss over the tough realities you are facing, and I want to acknowledge what I know is top of mind for all of you: the health and safety of your officers and the related challenges you face in recruiting and especially retaining your workforce.
As you well know, it’s not just corrections that is having issues with the workforce – this challenge applies to law enforcement and actually across local government. But corrections faces particular challenges, and these were made all the more stark over the last three years during the pandemic. Your work is so difficult, so challenging and so important.
I was taken aback by the recent Blue Ribbon Commission Report by One Voice, which highlighted the stunningly high rates of PTSD and suicide, and the stunningly low life expectancy of corrections officers – which is reportedly even lower than the life expectancy of law enforcement officers.
This is a truly sobering state of affairs, one that you know all too well, but should really be of concern to all of us. It certainly is a major concern for us at OJP, and you will hear from my colleagues shortly about some of the ways we want to be helpful to you.
But before I turn it to them, I want to make one more point. Officer health and wellness, recruitment and retention are all related to the overall prison climate and culture. And I strongly believe that by vastly improving culture and conditions – transforming, reimagining safety in correctional settings – we can have a huge impact on both those who work in corrections and on the individuals who are incarcerated.
As you know, there are many transformational efforts percolating in the field now. You know, because you are leading them. You are the courageous leaders that Secretary [John] Wetzel referenced yesterday. Many of the ideas you are testing are bigger than a program, and inextricably linked to health and wellness, recruitment and retention and the future of your profession.
Several models in many of your states are being explored. Restoring Promise, AMEND, the Great Wardens Program, Little Scandinavia, the Prison Research and Innovation Initiative, the Wardens Exchange, Young Men Emerging, and I’m sure there are others.
These efforts are different from one another, but many contain common elements inspired by prison systems in Germany and Scandinavia. They’re partly about transforming space but are more about changing the dynamic between corrections staff and those who are incarcerated – creating community and a sense of purpose beyond custody and control and shaping a culture that prizes the dignity of both staff and residents.
They relate to a big new discussion about what “holistic safety” looks like in corrections and how it can improve culture and conditions for both staff and those incarcerated.
We’ve got so much to learn from these efforts. NIJ is supporting an evaluation of Restoring Promise, and while results are still pending, early findings point to safer environments with fewer infractions and less violence. Places where staff report high morale, where they say they like their job, feel safe and that it's a calm place to work.
Now that’s encouraging, especially when staff retention is one of your toughest challenges.
I raise this with you as an opening for more learning and more discussion. And while I don’t come to you with a particular pitch or funding opportunity on this front, I would love to hear your thoughts on how we can expand and continue to learn from the innovation underway.
I heard Commissioner [Nick] Deml talk yesterday about how you’re not here to talk about just fixing staff problems but rather redesigning corrections. Again, Secretary Wetzel talked about courageous leaders. Director [Bryan] Collier talked about making a good bet on the seemingly radical idea of reducing counts. Director [Bryan] Stirling may not have said it, but he is leading by example by supporting the Restoring Promise work, and the scrutiny of evaluation.
So please consider this an open invitation – if there are ways we can help you step back and think big, please reach out and let us know. We are ready partners and allies.
Thank you for having us here, and thank you for your leadership.