Who are the inmates that make up Idaho’s prison system?
This is a story of paint and prisoners, beginning at a small house in Boise’s North End.
The house is one of 45 being painted by NeighborWorks using 700 volunteers and $17,000 in paint donated by Sherwin Williams. Now in its 20th year, Paint the Town helps those with modest incomes — typically older single women — remain in their homes once the houses are painted and cleaned up.
Thirty of those volunteers are former inmates preparing to return to normal, productive lives while living at “re-entry centers.” For several weeks they’ve been painting area homes without pay (although they already receive $100 monthly to spend or save).
The Treasure Valley has three centers with 371 beds. Residents volunteer at the Idaho Food Bank, the Boise Bicycle Project, the Veteran’s Administration, the Humane Society, Rake Up Boise, Paint the Town, the Idaho Suicide Hotline, Habitat for Humanity, Special Olympics and other programs.
Some residents will also enter regular, full-time employment before being released, while giving 35 percent of their income back to the ir centers for room and board.
The 45 homeowners are thrilled, of course, but the other happy people are the re-entry volunteers. A group of women is consistently joyful and laughing as they paint. Consider the picture above. Might you hire Brittany Ward, Tawny Maki, Cassie Yoakum, Amanda Diaz or Donna Vaughn if you had the right job for them?
Women are pretty successful staying out of the corrections system, says their supervisor, Jim Dixon, because they’re often returning to children and families (or, in Donna’s case, horses and dogs). Men have a harder time.
At another painting site, I met with Jerry Hambrick, who has been in and out of prison for 20 years, and Sgt. Jim Brandner, Hambrick’s supervisor and a 23-year Idaho Correction Department veteran, to talk about a new approach to corrections called the Principles of Normalcy.
I’m told most male prisoners have poor social skills, are often co-dependent, blame others, and choose instant gratification to cope with anger and pain. Prison interrupts this too little — negatives still looping on negatives. Plus, prisoners are isolated. It’s really hard to start over after this when leaving with no money.
Under this new approach, Idaho’s prisons are slowly beginning to function more like a more normal environment. Prisons may look a little different, for example, with colored walls and couches. More significantly, prisoners are given choices, experience their positive or negative consequences, and will eventually find more to live for, more reasons to succeed.
In re-entry centers, life becomes even more normal, with constant opportunities to “give back” to society.
“We feel successful and valued while volunteering and love giving away our limited income, like to Toys for Tots,” Hambrick says. “I’ve got a good chance this time.”
Brandner agrees but says he’ll miss Hambrick. Then I asked Brandner who his heroes are. Instead of naming, say, the corrections director or a supportive legislator, he points to the guys with the paint brushes. “These are my heroes,” he says. “It’s hard, but they stay strong every day!”
For me, this scene is touching and inspiring. After all, they’re guys.
More than a thousand inmates have applied to join the four re-entry centers. Two more centers are on the way, but more are needed. We all will benefit when prisoners can paint our towns as they step back into society.
Jerry Brady is a former newspaper publisher and a member of Compassionate Boise. email@example.com
Corrections Director Josh Tewalt on falling in love with staff and prisoners
Something called the “Principles of Normalcy” motivates the Idaho Department of Correction, says its director, Josh Tewalt, who studied its success in Norway. Here are some of his thoughts on how to reduce crime and make Idaho safer:
“Historically, prisoners have been given one choice: comply with the system or not. But that’s not normal. Instead, we must give prisoners more decisions to make, as in normal life, with good or bad consequences. We treat inmates like people. Let them practice what is normal. Nearly all will return to society but this time better prepared, without the stark difference between inside and out.”
“Our best beds are re-entry beds, our best investment. We’re building two new centers but will still be far short of what’s needed, both for security and to keep costs reasonable over time.”
“Today’s re-entry residents want to give back, to make amends, to start over. They love volunteering. They want to be normal and proud of themselves, as they should be.”
“I love the challenge and the people. Both staff and many of those in custody are trying so hard. There’s never enough but we cannot wait. We owe it to the people and each other not to punish but to restore.”
— Jerry Brady