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In 1867, Nebraska adopted “Equality Before the Law” as its state motto. Hundreds of people moved to the sparsely populated, naturally rich state in search of opportunity and a better life. Today, 152 years later, many of the approximately 5,400 men and women under supervision in 10 prisons run by the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services (NDCS) are in search of in-prison programs that can prepare them for opportunity and a better life upon release. If recent trends are sustained, more than 1,000 people in this state could leave prison by mandatory discharge or discharge with community supervision this year.
There is no question that additional reforms within Nebraska prisons are needed. The state spends more than $34,000 per person in annual incarceration costs, and although the state should be proud of having one of the lowest recidivism rates in the country, there is always room for improvement. For instance, a prison riot occurred in 2015 that left several people dead or injured. Nebraska’s prisons have more people in them than at any time in their history, and the state has the second-worst overcrowding challenge in the nation, prompting the ACLU to file a lawsuit.
At some point, the majority of incarcerated people will leave Nebraska prisons. When they do, they will face the same employment, housing, and educational barriers many of the 650,000 people released from prison each year face. Government officials are working hard to address these issues — but no one-size-fits-all, magic solution exists to remove these barriers.
To get a closer look at what stakeholders in Nebraska are doing to address these issues, we visited prisons, talked to correctional leaders and inmates, and met with several public and private stakeholders to understand barriers and identify opportunities. One noteworthy organization that has stepped up to the plate to address these challenges is Gallup.
There are 2.3 million people incarcerated in the United States. Most of them return to prison within five years, and many reoffend within the first 100 days. People succeed when they focus on their strengths instead of focusing on their weaknesses or flaws. This truth is magnified for incarcerated individuals. Employment is a leading factor in reducing recidivism and increasing well-being, and Gallup’s strengths-based approach is one way to offer support to the reentry of the 95% of incarcerated people coming back to our communities. As Gallup believes, finding that there is infinite potential in developing what is innately right with people versus fixing what is innately “wrong” with them is one approach correctional leaders can consider.
After meeting with a Gallup leader, we participated in five events.
First, we had the opportunity to take part in the first RISE graduation at the Lincoln Correctional Center. RISE’s innovative six-month program focuses on character development, job readiness and entrepreneurship. RISE advocates and elevates transformation through four key developmental goals: Responsibility, Integrity, Strength, and Empowerment. Program graduates receive a RISE completion certificate as well as a certificate in career readiness from the University of Nebraska Omaha.
Second, we visited the Nebraska Correctional Center for Women (NCCW). This is the only prison for women in the state and it takes a different approach on recidivism-reduction and breaking cycles of incarceration by having an incarcerated mother care for her child — behind bars and with professional support. The moms who qualify are given the opportunity to care for their newborn inside the prison nursery while maintaining a standard work and programming schedule. Each woman has a personalized classification and programming plan developed to assist her in addressing personal challenges, and other women in the program also provide support. Nationally, there are more than 200,000 women incarcerated in prisons and jails in the United States, and an estimated 3%-5% of them are pregnant. NCCW is home to the second oldest prison nursery, and it now serves as a model for in-prison nurseries.
In addition, NCCW is home to a branch of the Prison Fellowship Academy. With 40 years of experience helping to empower men and women behind bars, Prison Fellowship advocates for federal and state criminal justice reforms that transform those responsible for crime, support victims, and encourage communities to play a role in creating a safe, redemptive, and just society. Using biblically-based materials, the Academy provides women with programs to build their social capital. The ladies who participate in the program, along with the graduates, are housed in the designed living hall within NCCW and serve as the leaders and mentors of the unit.
Third, we visited the Nebraska State Penitentiary (NSP). NSP houses maximum and medium security inmates, and also maintains three housing units with minimum security adults, including a residential substance abuse unit. In addition, NSP has partnered with the RISE program and intersects with Gallup’s CliftonStrengths and Builder 10 profile assessment through programming and staff. While inside, we spoke with incarcerated men about how they spend their time, what outside stakeholders can do to help them prepare for successful reentry, and what steps they and correctional personnel are taking in preparation for their release.
Fourth, we met with Nebraska’s Governor, Pete Ricketts. The Governor is a very involved political leader in criminal justice reform and a strong supporter of the unique and targeted programming happening in Nebraska prisons, e.g. strength-based corrections in partnership with Gallup. Working towards the stretch goal of single digit recidivism rates, we discussed different priorities to increase access for incarcerated individuals to take advantage of education, entrepreneurship, and certification programs. We also shared with the Governor results from CAO’s “State of Opportunity in America” report, which includes a CAO/Gallup Criminal Justice Index for researchers and policymakers to compare residents’ perceptions of and experiences with their local police and the criminal justice system.
We finished our trip with a visit to the Gallup Riverfront Campus in Omaha. Recently, Gallup and NDCS implemented a three-year project that includes targeted training, development, and measurement to engage team members and increase staff retention by enhancing the practice of behavioral economic management.
In a country that leads the world in both innovation and incarceration, it is time to rethink the link between reentry, education, and an individual’s strengths.
Toiya Smith is an undergraduate student at Dillard University majoring in Urban Studies and Public Policy. She is also the President of the Student Government Association. Toiya is interning this summer at the Center for Advancing Opportunity, where she works on criminal justice and education-related projects.
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