Prison life can be a time warp.
When inmates are locked away – for months, years, decades – society moves forward: Technology evolves, major events occur, pop culture changes. From a personal perspective, families and friends live their lives: weddings, funerals, graduations, births, retirements. All the while, criminals bide their time, existing in a regimented world of cement walls and metal bars.
Almost all of them eventually rejoin society, though.
The transition can be difficult.
It is the goal of the Johns-town Community Corrections Center to help those individuals in their journey from a prison cell back into the community.
“Say somebody is in a (State Correctional Institution) for three years. When they come in, they try to make up for three years’ worth of time with their family, their children, whomever,” said Donald Bachota, the center’s director.
“They try to make it all up at one time. I’m going to try to make up those three years right now, which you can’t do. If you have children, a lot of times they’ve kind of lost trust in you. Your wife or significant other, your parents, whoever the case may be, they – I don't want to put words in their mouths – they can’t trust you yet because you were gone and you did whatever you did to be away from the family.
“One of the benefits of being here is we have steps in place. If you try to make up for a long period of time, you lose focus of actually what you need to do to be successful and to be out.”
Staff workers try to help the residents by motivating them to volunteer or look for work.
“The challenges are some of the harder offenders that have been incarcerated for more than just a couple of years,” said Randy Cummins, one of the center’s monitors. “Those are the ones that, if they were just tossed out on the streets from a prison, like years ago, it (would be) total culture shock because everything’s different, everything’s changed. We’ve had guys in the past that, if they came out and saw a laptop, they wouldn’t have a clue of what it was or how to use it, even a cellphone. The challenges are working with these guys to slowly get them involved with the groups, counseling, getting them out into society to where they can slowly start volunteering, getting used to actually what's going on in the real world.”
Johnstown’s center, which resembles a youth hostel with bunk beds, shared bathrooms and a group kitchen, can house a maximum of 72 inmates. It is usually filled to near capacity.
The facility is home to both parolees and individuals at the end of their state intermediate punishment sentences for low-level, drug- and alcohol-related offenses. Inmates can range from thieves to murderers, including sex offenders. Actively serving Pennsylvania Department of Corrections inmates are no longer placed in centers.
“A major change recently took place within our community corrections center system,” said Susan McNaughton, DOC press secretary. “With the passing of Act 122 of 2012, pre-release was eliminated. This means that the only offenders now housed in our centers are parolees or those in State Intermediate Punishment.”
Residents, who all receive regular drug tests, can get substance abuse counseling if needed, work at jobs, volunteer their time, take classes and spend free time outside the center. Anytime they leave, the residents must inform monitors where they plan to go and provide contact information. Spending time in the community is meant to be a way of acclimating the individuals to society.
“I think it’s beneficial to re-integrate me back into the community, to prepare me for all the responsibility of life,” said Brad Rhodes, an inmate from Reyondsville, Jefferson County.
Stays usually last between one month and one year.
Nobody can leave until he has a home plan in place. The individuals might return to where they originally lived, move to a different community or remain in the Johnstown area, all depending on where they can establish what is considered an acceptably stable living arrangement.
It is then up to the individuals to avoid falling back into their criminal ways.
“How do you cope with it? Just pretty much keep doing what you’ve been doing, don’t stray. Just because you’re out of the center, don’t think you’re free and clear because you’re still on parole and still always have someone watching over you. Just stay focused and do the right things,” said inmate Mark Shehee, a Johnstown resident.
Shawn Marche, a center resident from Brockport, Elk County, added, “Really I don’t think that there’s anything any center can actually do for that. That’s up to the person himself whether or not they’re ready to change. If they change their ways, then they won’t come back if they change places, people, things.”
Dave Sutor is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/Dave_Sutor.