Ascending From the Ashes: Are We Turning the Corner?

Once I was in Heliopolis, the “sun city,” or at least the place where the ancient city once stood. This was in the late 1960s, a few months after the seven-day war between Israel and Egypt. A tentative peace was apparent (which has now lasted more than four decades) and birds were back in the public squares. According to Greek history, a bird called the phoenix would make a pilgrimage to this site every 500 to 1,000 years to build a nest, ignite itself and rise with great ceremony from its own ashes.

Just a few weeks ago, I was in Phoenix, another “sun city,” and left thinking that maybe ACA was clairvoyant in choosing a city named after a bird legendary for rising from the very ashes it creates. This could be a much-needed omen that the economy is perhaps improving and that correctional professionals can be optimistic that some recession-era programs are working. My reason for feeling the ashes might be stirring came from what I heard on the exhibitor “streets,” notably:

1. More Participants. While I was not privy to the official count, the exhibition hall seemed more alive than in recent conferences. Or perhaps the attendees were just more conversant, filling the hall with noise that sounded optimistic. We are a long ways from having the type of participation that characterized ACA conferences a decade ago, but the diversity of attendees may be greater. For example, seven different countries were represented at the International Relations Committee meeting, and several representatives were heads of corrections in their countries.

2. Mexico Rules. This benevolent neighbor of ours brought 35 delegates to the conference! Outside the host states, I suspect that this number exceeded any other single jurisdiction. And their reason for attending was to receive recognition for having five facilities accredited by the commission in an emotional ceremony.
The 24-hour, in-your-face media prefers only to report the violence in Mexico and very little about the comprehensive initiative that is under way to reinvent the federal prison system. Seeing the pride in the faces of the Mexican delegates for achieving something that many U.S. jurisdictions cannot, or will not, attempt is a credit to their spirit and the vision of the ACA to promote exemplary practice on a global scale.

3. Mideast Initiatives. Five United Arab Emirates delegates were in attendance to formalize an arrangement with ACA to audit at least one, and perhaps two, facilities in their quest for accreditation. Since the UAE is planning to construct more than 12,000 bed spaces in this decade, incorporating many of our core standards for practice into their prison culture is a significant gesture toward even larger global cooperation.

Not only will an ACA team audit their facility, a senior management-training program will be provided, under contract, by the ACA. These “state-to-state” exchanges have been conducted at governmental levels for years, but to accomplish this form of system-building between an association and a government is a model worthy of note.

4. England Innovates. A delegate from the U.K. told me of a unique program the government is introducing to compensate providers (public, private or non-profit) for success in reducing reoffending. In effect, the government will only pay for what works in delivering reduced levels of crime. The service providers from the private, public and non-profit sectors will be required to work in partnership and be compensated based on the results they deliver.

According to the initiative’s website: “Providers will be given the freedom to innovate and invest money in activities that work to rehabilitate offenders. They will deliver programs which address the roots of criminality, in areas such as drug and alcohol addiction. They will also work to address skills shortages through increasing the work and training offenders do in prison, and encouraging organizations to employ offenders on release.”

This is truly a bold stroke. Can you imagine a day in the U.S. when state, county and private providers were told their budgets were based on how successful their programs were in reducing reoffending? I will have more on the progress of this program after a visit to the U.K. in March.

5. California Realigns. The process of realigning has begun. California always produces a buzz, one way or another, and there was plenty of chatter about the early impact AB 109 is having on population distribution. A quick discussion with Secretary Cate from CDCR indicated the impact on the state system was very significant — but the real test will be whether the counties can be motivated (spelled m-o-n-e-y) to develop innovative approaches to managing their new clients. Perhaps a trip to England is in order.

There is little doubt many states are closely watching California’s realignment. While there are genuine concerns that the counties may be stuck carrying the state’s water, the act does require a local partnership be created to find the most appropriate plan that gets at the recidivism problem.

Lots more secrets were shared on the “street” this January and I’m sorry you missed out.

The correctional industry, especially the building sector, has gone through a change without precedent in the last three decades. Recognition that new construction opportunities will be far scarcer has finally settled in for many. But like the phoenix, a system has to periodically flame out so new birth can occur.

Maybe it was the Kool-Aid, but I sensed more willingness to seriously examine other methods of service delivery than has been the case in the past several conferences. I would not suggest that we have turned the corner, but there was more discussion that a new future is waiting to be defined.