FEATURE STORIES

A Chance for Change -
River City Correctional Center


by Christine Grote
Sept 2008

 

A sentence to River City Correctional Center in Cincinnati, Ohio is an opportunity for individuals who have committed a felony to change their lives for the better. As stated on their website (http://www.hamilton-co.org/hc/rccc), the mission of RCCC is “to assist felony offenders in restructuring their values by instilling self-worth and hope through education, vocational training and the development of practical life skills.” A sentence to River City is a chance for them to become the people they were meant to be.

“The focus here is on change and becoming different, better, pro-social members of society. It is on some levels an option not to go to prison,” Danisha Burnett, Case Manager Co-coordinator, explains. “I’ve never been in the courtroom when the judge has sentenced someone to River City, but I’m sure it’s presented to them as ‘Hey, do you really want to go to prison, or do you want a chance to change your life?’”

When I arrived at RCCC Danisha met me in the lobby where the drill was the same as at most correctional facilities: I traded my photo ID for a visitor’s badge at the security window, passed through the metal detector, and accompanied Danisha through the security doors.

Once inside though, River City doesn’t resemble a jail so much as an educational institution. That’s largely because RCCC is a Community Based Correctional Facility (CBCF)—one of 18 presently operating in Ohio.  The facility is divided into four self-contained pods each accommodating 54 residents. The pods have their own classrooms, art room, dorms, bathrooms and dayroom floor where residents spend a large portion of their time.

As we walk down the hall, past two dining halls on our left, and a closed door to Pod D, the only women’s pod, Danisha points out a row of wooden plaques lining the wall on our right, each containing small brass plates inscribed with the names of residents who earned their G.E.D. while at River City.

Danisha opens a door at the end of the hall and we enter the Pod C dayroom—a large room that is two stories high and reminds me of a gymnasium in size. Doors from a walkway on the second level lead to dormitories. Offices and classrooms line one wall. Forty to 50 men sit in folding chairs arranged in a large circle and participate in a lively discussion led by a man in the middle.

Danisha points out a cork board, just inside the door to the dayroom, displaying photos of a young boy in a soccer uniform, a smiling kindergartner girl in a white graduation cap and gown, a dog curled on a carpet, a cheerleader, two children sitting side-by-side on a brick hearth, an ultrasound.

It’s their “Poster of Commitment” Danisha explains and was inspired by speaker and author, DeRon Smith who visited RCCC in September. In the dedication of his book Innocence of a Child, DeRon shares that all the changes he made in his life, he did for his son. The Poster of Commitment with its photos of residents’ loved ones reminds them that other people matter and that what they do is not just for them.

Danisha leads me further into the large room where we stop beside the circle of men who continue their discussion as she points out a bright mural on the wall, hand-painted by a resident, depicting a shield or banner and the word Renaissance—the name used by Pod C. The banner is flanked on both sides by large posters listing the house rules. Most rules are moral-based Danisha says: don’t lie, no name-calling, no profanity, no disrespect.

The conversation in the circle pauses and Danisha introduces me to the men who immediately begin to applaud in welcome.  One gentleman stands up and the applause escalates into a standing ovation. I simply smile, thank them, and slip behind the chairs following Danisha into her office.


River City as a Therapeutic Community

 “There are different types of theories that people use in community based correctional facilities,” Danisha explains, “but the underlying theme is that everyone works together and forms a community.”

Three of the four pods or communities at RCCC are Therapeutic Communities, or TCs. The fourth pod is being converted into a cognitive behavioral therapy community or a CBT as part of an efficacy study initiated by the University of Cincinnati.  Although both are community-based programs, the CBT is a staff-driven model where the staff is constantly teaching, reviewing and planning, whereas the TC is a peer-based program.

TC “is about them learning to work together and moving everyone together in the recovery,” Danisha says. In a TC pod the idea is that everyone is part of a family—everyone works together, everyone lives together, everyone eats together, everyone succeeds together and everyone fails together.

Failing together is the part that the residents don’t like. If somebody in the pod wins a facility-wide contest, like a pumpkin carving contest for example, even though only one or two residents actually carved the pumpkin, everyone in the pod shares in the success. If the pod wins a pizza party, they all enjoy the pizza. But if one or two people “screw something up,” Danish says, “they don’t like that. We have to remind them—sink or swim. We sink or swim together.

That’s a lesson that they have to learn as it relates to taking care of their families. Danisha says the clinical teams, formed of caseworkers, and education and employment specialists, often remind the residents, “Your families are suffering right now because you’re not there. Your daughter didn’t do anything; your son didn’t do anything; maybe your wife or your girlfriend didn’t do anything. You made the bad choices and now they are all suffering.”

Empathy and helping residents learn respect and compassion, she says, are just a few of the 14 TC components they try to teach and instill at RCCC.

Everyone in a TC pod has a position within a hierarchy and everyone is on a crew with the possibility of getting promoted up the chain of command into a leadership position.The residents largely govern themselves with oversight by the staff and have to hold each other accountable to the rules. When they break the rules, they have to be made aware of their negative behaviors. “Which I think is important for offenders,” Danisha says, “because they don’t have any accountability. They do what they want. They are above the law. They are outside of the law. And in here, they come in and are put in a place where ‘here is the box. You now have to learn how to live within the box.’”

If it is a time of day when quiet is required, there is a resident in a position in the hierarchy who says, “We’re on silence.” The residents have to learn how to respect each other and respect the jobs and follow directives given by peers, as well as to learn how to give directives to their peers.

“I definitely enjoy TC,” Danisha says, “Because it brings an inclusiveness to it where it’s not just my job to have all the answers. It’s not just my job to figure out your problems. It is your job to go and find the answers, which in the real world is what we all have to do.”


The Group Dynamic

At RCCC, pretty much everything is done in a group setting. “That is probably their biggest complaint,” Danisha says, “but it’s also the best asset. There is always somebody to talk to, or somebody to look at you and say, ‘Hey, are you okay?’ I love watching them rise to the occasion, when you think this person is just heartless or that person will just walk over somebody.” To show compassion is part of the TC learning, she says.

There are opportunities to be in small groups at times, and RCCC has a quiet library. If it’s a nice day and they have time, they can go outside and sit on the picnic table, “but it is a rare occasion when they are isolated,” Danisha says. It’s one of the biggest differences between RCCC and prisons where you can be in your cell and not have to deal with anybody else. “Here you’re constantly being confronted with people, constantly being confronted with your negative behaviors and constantly being shown what you’re doing right,” Danisha says. “A lot of people who have criminal behaviors have an anti-social behavior pattern.” One of RCCC’s goals is to help them learn pro-social behaviors and practical life-skills. Sometimes that’s as simple as learning how to say “please” and “thank you.”  Sometimes they hear from one of their peers, “‘Hey, you need to be more polite,’” Danisha says. “That’s what a therapeutic community is all about.”        

The residents are working on difficult issues and life changes. Sometimes someone gets emotional, upset or disruptive and will have to be “put out” of the group or “benched”—a physical bench in the corner of the room is used as a tool where residents can go to cool off and calm down. “It doesn’t have to be a behavioral problem,” Danisha explains, “it could be that we’re talking about something that is a little too emotional and he might need some time to go and just breathe and get his thoughts together.”

In their discussion groups, sometimes people share their treatment assignments, the things they are learning about themselves or the problems they are having. Theme groups are held on topics such as anger management, self-esteem, or spirituality. Voluntary groups like AA or NA are also held at the facility.

Most groups throughout the day are randomly arranged process groups where residents can be in a different group one day to the next. It’s an opportunity to get feedback from different people and perhaps a new insight. Additionally, the case manager pulls his or her caseload into a group once a week.  Because it’s a closed group and the residents know the people are always going to be the same, some individuals may feel more comfortable sharing what they are working on with this group. Most of the people do well in both groups, Danisha says.

“Community as method” is the focus of treatment at RCCC, not providing intensive therapy. “I am not going to cure you,” Danisha says. Residents work with the peer community, engage with each other, and help each other. “I think TC kind of works on the principle that it takes one to know one,” Danisha says. “I know a liar because I am a liar, or I know a thief because I am a thief, so I can point out all those characteristics in you and say, ‘Hey, you need to change that.’”


Phases of Therapy

River City opened as a low-level, non-violent offenders facility and typically gets offenders with four- and five-rated felonies (on a scale of one to five with five being the least severe).  Sometimes they will get a three- or a two-rated felony depending on the case, and on the judge. Individuals can ask to be sentenced to RCCC, but generally the judge makes the decision. An individual who is in prison can file a motion through his or her lawyer for judicial release to come to River City.

Residents stay at River City for four to six months. Some residents are sentenced to the maximum allowable stay of six months or 180 days. Otherwise, the length of stay depends on the progression of the person as he or she works on recovery.

There are three phases of treatment. Residents in the first or orientation phase of treatment wear green shirts. When an individual first arrives at RCCC he or she has to make a “Who Am I?” presentation to the family of the pod they are assigned to.  During this time they are asked to be as honest and open as possible while telling the family who they are, their family history, their drug of choice, and criminal history. If the family believes they have been honest and open, they will welcome the new individual into the family.

“It’s a way of assessing how can we help you and are you going to be safe?” Danisha says. “They want to know, ‘Are you going to help us swim or are you going to sink us?’”  When people do come in, perhaps from prison, and they say they’ve got an extensive violent record, “That can be unnerving,” Danisha says. “We remind them (the residents) that even though this person has a violent background, generally he is sitting there just as afraid as they were when they first got here.”

In the three years Danisha has been there she has experienced only one occasion where she felt some tension and concern that there could be a physical confrontation, “but most of the time it’s a very calm environment.” she says. “Because the atmosphere we try to create here is not threatening, that side very infrequently comes up. And if it does come up, we have ways to deal with it.”

Once a resident has achieved the goals of the Orientation Phase of Treatment they will be given a yellow shirt and move on to the Primary Treatment Phase, which they will be in the majority of their stay as they work on recovery.

In the yellow phase many residents work with educational specialists to sharpen their skills, prepare for college, or earn their G.E.D. The education specialists work a lot like coaches, providing information and materials, but the real strength of being a TC is that the residents are peer teachers and tutors for each other. Although the education specialists might suggest to the peer tutors that they work with someone on particular reading or math levels, the residents really do help and tutor each other, Danisha says.

The fact that many residents successfully achieve their G.E.D. in the short time they are at RCCC, as evidenced by the Hall of Fame, shows a couple of things. “It shows sometimes just the determination of the individual," Danisha says. "Even greater, I think, it shows the strength of the peer community, because they tutor each other.  Some guys come in, they don’t know how to read and write. And they teach them how to read and write. They’ll come in and say, “Can I see that Dr. Seuss book because we need to help him.

“That’s part of the process; it’s not just how much therapy do you do, or how much treatment work do you do. Even that part is therapy treatment because here is someone who does not care about anyone, who would shoot you, or sell you drugs, or rob you, sitting down with someone else equally as corrupt and reading, ‘I do not like them Sam I am.’ And I think of the power of this model or this theory to bring people together, who would not have come together, but learn how to here. And they learn how to put their pride down and say, ‘Hey, this guy needs some help.’ The goal of that hopefully, is that they can take those same skills out and be helpful, productive people who give to the community versus people who take. So the G.E.D. is a good measure, I think, of a successful program to show how you work together.”

In addition to studying for the G.E.D, while in the yellow phase residents can also take advantage of the Culinary Arts Program—a nine-week course in food preparation and service, or the Maintenance Assistance Program—six hours of training in basic maintenance skills and forty hours of “on the job” experience.

The final and blue shirt phase is Re-entry. “We expect that by the time someone gets to blue they are ready to be role models,” Danisha says.

Occasionally the RCCC program does not work for a resident even after different interventions are tried and the peer community is used to try to get the resident to make some behavioral changes. “If it’s just looking like this person is really not accessing treatment, is not really growing and is being more harmful to the community, then they will be unsuccessfully discharged,” Danisha says. In this case, the individual will go back to the judge who decides what to do with him or her.

Once residents successfully graduate from the residential treatment at RCCC, they are required to participate in Continuing Care during which they come once a week to a group, something like a support group, where they continue their process of recovery.

Recently two RCCC residents pioneered a Drug Dealers Anonymous group. Although the two individuals have since graduated from RCCC, the group still convenes there with a new name—Operation Rebirth, incorporating the names of the Renaissance and Genesis pods. It is primarily a group of people who sell drugs, but some drug users attend meetings. The presence of drug users is important, Danisha says, “because it gives the drug dealers even another sense of how it was that they have negatively effected and impacted people in the community.”

Residents often develop lasting friendships at RCCC and if they leave with 5 or 6 friends who can support each other on the outside, they are several steps ahead of the game, Danisha says. “I think that is part of what we need, to get them connected to people who are trying to do right, and do it together.”


Rewards of the Work

When Danisha applied for the position of case manager three years ago after receiving a Bachelor’s degree in Education and a Master’s in Counseling, both from Xavier University in Cincinnati, she thought RCCC was more of a treatment center with outpatient work. “I wasn’t thinking ‘jail’,” she says. When she got there and realized it was a jail, she says she had some reservations, but she thought, “God, if this is where you want me, let’s roll with it.”

She quickly found out that it was very rewarding work to be able to go home at the end of the day and say, “Okay, I did something today that impacted someone’s life. And I remind these guys all the time; it’s not just about them. I’m thinking about their children, their wives, their neighbors.  I’m thinking about taxpayers. I think this job has a big ripple effect because if we can send them out better, it’s ultimately going to ripple out and impact different people.”

Danisha says it’s almost impossible not to get connected to the residents, but that works for her because the personal connections she makes help individuals listen and respond to her. “You can use that compassion to model to them what compassion looks like,” she says. “A lot of these residents don’t know what that looks like; they don’t know what it feels like to be a part of a family.”

By the same token, it is a difficult job, Danisha shares, “because when six months are over you have to send them back to a world that maybe doesn’t care as much about them as we have, that is not going to be as nice to them as River City has been. They are going to look at them for the crimes they committed and not for who they are. I worry about them. And I pray for them.”

At River City, individuals have the chance to become the people they were meant to be. Hopefully outside the RCCC walls the same will be true.

 

 

 

 

Danisha Burnett of River City Correctional Center in Cincinnati

Danisha Burnett, Case Manager Coordinator at River City Correctional Center

 

 

River City Correctional Center

Hamilton County River City Correctional Center 3220 Colerain Ave. Cincinnati, Ohio Former site of “Workhouse” in Camp Washington

•Accomodates 216 Residents: 162 male and 54 female

•Average length of stay – 5 months

•Maximum length of stay – 6 months

•Staffed by over 100 full and part time employees

•Goal of treatment: To assist residents in recognizing and overcoming their substance dependency, criminal thinking and life skill deficiencies.

•Treatments include:
Chemical dependency
Remedial education
Employment assistance

Source: Http://www.hamilton-co.org/hc/rccc

 

 

 

Phases of Therapy

Orientation Phase:

1. Learn how you can become part of the Therapuetic Community, the family philosophy and rules.

2. Participate in all TC activities

3. Receive Initial Treatment Plan

4. Complete all job assignments you have been assigned within the family

5. Demonstrate your knowledge of TC

6. Meet the goals on the Initital Treatment Plan

Primary Treatment:

1. Work on your feeings, thoughts, beliefs and behaviours

2. Assist Case Manager in creating an individual treatment plan for your recovery with observable and measurable goals

3. Review treatment plan monthly to track your progress

4. Take educational classes

5. May apply for Culinary Arts Program (CAP) and the Maintenance Assistance Program (MAP)

6. If you have completed all your assignments in a an appropriate and timely manner, you may be given a job on the hierarchy with more responsibility

Re-Entry

1. Begin planning to go back into society

2. Begin working with Employment Specialist

3. Eventually will be allowed to go outside facility to apply for jobs

4. Create a long-term recovery plan

 

 

 

 

Danisha Burnett