A self-sufficient prison dormitory paves the way for prison reform

In Miami and beyond, rehabilitation programs are now offered at many state facilities as a response to punitive mass incarceration.

What is most striking when walking inside Bravo Dorm is the tranquility. Jailed residents sit on blue plastic chairs and read books quietly, students train on Microsoft Office in the computer lab, and a man kneels on a prayer rug in a designated mediation corner.

The dormitory is at Everglades Correctional Institution (ECI) and is operated by Horizon Communitiesa leading developer of faith- and character-based residential communities in multiple states and abroad.

After years of resistance from corrections officials, rehabilitation programs are now offered in many state facilities as a response to punitive mass incarceration. Horizon, whose goal is to prepare inmates to live responsibly with others, currently operates out of five Florida Department of Corrections institutions with about 150 men in each dormitory.

The operating cost of an entire residential community is about $55,000 a year, about twice what it costs the department to incarcerate one inmate for a year. But the profitability of the program is only part of the story.

Executive director Nathan Shaidt says the ultimate goal of the program is prison reform.

“The idea is to teach incarcerated people to use socially acceptable behavior in a community they don’t want to live in, so that when they get out, they find success in the community of their choice,” Shaidt says.

Horizon’s dormitory at ECI is situated within the large prison complex, but to the casual observer it could be mistaken for a building on a college campus. A colorful mural adorns the main entrance over a flowery landscape. Inside, a community bulletin board informs participants of upcoming events, and inspirational quotes line the walls. “Planet Earth” flashes on one of two large-screen TVs that hang in the open plan living room.

Horizon employs a civilian coordinator at each facility who comes to the prison each day to bring in supplies, council participants, and coordinate the volunteers who come to fraternize with the men on weekdays.

“This is a learning environment first and foremost,” says ECI Horizon coordinator Alan Cohen of the programme. Cohen, a businessman turned humanitarian, has spent the last five years working daily with hundreds of incarcerated residents.

“If you have guys who want to improve and you give them the tools and the opportunity, they will change,” he says. “We have a computer lab, business classes, life skills, and vocational training. There is a waiting list to enter the dormitory.

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Cohen steps in when necessary, but the show is largely facilitated by a diverse group of incarcerated men.

“This is a one-year program and our leadership is selected from among the graduates,” he says. “I’ve been in business my whole life, and some of the smartest teachers and best leaders I’ve ever known have been right here in prison.”

Daily classes are mandatory, including weekly community meetings that allow the men to talk about how things are going in the bedroom, good or bad. Participants are also required to complete six hours per month in computer training, attend workshops on topics such as resume building and anger management, and perform housekeeping duties.

Peer-facilitated classes taught at Horizon range from personalized faith-based courses to character-based lessons, giving participants a wide range of options. Self-help books like “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”, “The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership” and “The Purpose Driven Life” are widely used.

In addition to basic computer training, Horizon purchased Remote Area Community Hotspot for Education and Learning (RACHEL) software for the lab, with freely available content modules that bring online educational materials to places without Internet access.

Edward Demoreta, a Horizon IT administrator, has been incarcerated for eight years and has been in leadership since 2019. “Some guys are so far behind when it comes to technology that instead of following the instruction, they develop an aversion to it. she says.

“The modern world is driven by technology, and by providing Horizon training, you give people the skills to interact with that technology.”

A new way of thinking

In 1996, after successfully integrating his Kairos Prison Ministry across 36 states and four continents, Ike Griffin was asked by Her Majesty’s Prison Service to develop a faith and character-based residential community in England.

The resulting program, Horizon Communities Corp., grew rapidly.

“The first bedroom in the states was in Florida,” the Horizon founder tells Next City. “I was visiting prisons and hearing stories about how difficult it is to find a way out. Our job became delivering the tools needed for proven change.”

The success of a Horizon graduate, Griffin says, is marked by “the ability to demonstrate a positive and cooperative attitude, and to get out of prison and stay out.”

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With a recidivism rate of about 35% within three years of prison release, the Florida Department of Corrections’ focus on punishment versus rehabilitation isn’t working to stop repeat offenders. Residential communities, advocates say, have the capacity to provide men and women with skills that help them overcome some of the initial obstacles after leaving: employability, social reintegration and lack of education.

Traditional prison systems are geared toward revenge and degradation, leaving incarcerated people worse off when they leave than when they come in. But by emphasizing growth through transition and education in the rehabilitation process, Horizon is a progressive response to a common problem in America: prisoner storage. .

“The classes that helped me the most were the ones that gave my life purpose,” says William Crouch, a 46-year-old first time offender. “By tapping into that purpose, it translated into self-improvement while in prison and future job opportunities outside.”

Crouch is one of the last graduates to become a peer facilitator after completing the program and he gives back to the men who come after him.

Classes like Victim Impact from the US Department of Justice help participants understand how their crime affected other people, allowing them to use critical thinking before hurting someone again.

Christopher Clark, 58, who is serving life on parole for murder, says this class helped him hold more accountable for his crime.

“Now I teach the class so that other men can do the same.”

Solutions that work

The Horizon Dormitory at ECI was established in July 2017. Since its inception, the program has successfully graduated 405 participants. Those involved say Horizon has problems with assault, drug use, robbery and extortion, as are common in a typical state prison cell block.

Sgt. A. Hartfield has worked as a Horizon Dorm Correctional Officer at ECI for more than three years and describes the participants as polite.

“These guys look out for each other like family and are community-minded,” she says. “They also have some great leaders.”

Living in a Horizon dormitory is the exception to prison life, not the rule. Prisons are violent, noisy and unproductive places, dangerous places, full of fear and confusion. The criminal justice system provides virtually no security for incarcerated people, and everyone is treated the same regardless of the seriousness of their crime or the length of their sentence.

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Robert Rucker, 69, is a new addition to the show. He says that he couldn’t believe how quiet the bedroom was when he moved in.

“I have been in prison for 33 years and I have never seen anything like this. We have birthday parties and everyone respects each other,” she says. “I haven’t even locked my trunk, and that’s unheard of.”

Voluntary class participation and Horizon’s record of stellar behavior show that many men and women want to make amends and move in a positive direction.

“Working in a prison completely changed my perception of what people are like behind bars.” Cohen says. “I see good men who have really changed their lives through the program, rehabilitation and religious conviction.”

Why aren’t there more programs like Horizon at the other remaining Florida facilities or in other states? Cohen explains that it all comes down to money.

“Programs are underfunded and it is cheaper to store inmates than to rehabilitate citizens, but not if that prison is a revolving door,” he says. “For people trying to get better, the programs are extremely important.”

Twenty-five years after its inception, Horizon continues to provide a learning environment conducive to change, with the goal of keeping men and women out of the criminal justice system forever.

Griffin has founded Horizon dormitories in Ohio, Texas, Oklahoma, Alaska, Great Britain, Australia, Canada, and South Africa. But Chief Executive Shaidt has a more radical vision: By operating an entire prison instead of a dormitory, thousands of incarcerated residents would have access to education and life skills, further rehabilitation and a safe environment, he says.

“I’d like to see us build the first non-profit private prison in the country,” says Shaidt. “It would save taxpayers money and promote public safety. All we need is for someone to be the first to say yes.”

Ryan M. Moser is a formerly jailed journalist from Philadelphia. Nominated for a 2020 Pushcart Award and Best of the Net 2021, he has works published by Mississippi Quarterly, Upstreet Literary Magazine, Muse Literary Journal, Evening Street Press, Storyteller, Santa Fe Literary Review, Miami Herald, The Covid Collection, University of Iowa Prison Project, Progressive and other publications. Ryan enjoys yoga, martial arts, and chess, and has two beautiful children.

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