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Correction to This Article
In the March 8 Metro section, the introductory text on a chart about RESTART, a Maryland prison rehabilitation program, did not make it clear that the chart detailed only the funding from the Department of Public Safety. It did not include funding from other Maryland agencies that contribute to correctional-system programs.

A Positive Prison Experience

Allyson Riscart, an inmate at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup, says a prison pilot program saved her life.
Allyson Riscart, an inmate at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup, says a prison pilot program saved her life. (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)

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By Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 8, 2006

In all the times Allyson Riscart had landed in jail -- and she says there were more than she can remember -- the cocaine-addicted prostitute couldn't get into GED classes or a drug treatment program or a job-training initiative. In short, she couldn't get help.

So when she arrived in 2004 at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup, Riscart expected more of the same. With three teeth in her mouth and such self-loathing that she couldn't look in the mirror, she planned to serve out her six-year sentence by watching TV and dreaming of her return to Baltimore.

But in a stroke of fate that she believes transformed her life, Riscart, now 40, enrolled in a pilot program that focused on rehabilitation, not retribution. The ninth-grade dropout earned her general equivalency diploma, kicked her drug habit and got a sewing shop job. She is preparing to leave this month for the outside world, where she hopes to work in real estate. 

"Getting locked up here is the best thing that ever happened to me," said Riscart, who has been incarcerated at least six times.

Riscart is a beneficiary of a shift in priorities. After a quarter-century of dwindling emphasis on rehabilitating inmates, corrections systems across the country are refocusing on drug treatment, education and vocational programs. Virginia, for example, has created a committee focused on programs to prepare inmates for release.

"We're seeing a sea change now away from the lock-'em-up-and-
throw-away-the-key approach," said Debbie A. Mukamal, director of the Prisoner Reentry Institute at John Jay College of criminal Justice.

Contrary to political stereotypes, some of the programs are being pushed by Republicans, such as Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., although the GOP is generally thought of as the law-and-order party. And in Maryland and some other states, Democrats are blocking initiatives because of concerns that they will be ineffective and a waste of money.

The Maryland program, RESTART (for Reentry Enforcement Services Targeting Addiction, Rehabilitation and Treatment), is designed to help inmates before they are released so they don't commit crimes and end up back in the penal system. But because of a standoff between the Ehrlich administration and the Democrat-controlled legislature, the initiative -- with a $5.2 million budget this fiscal year -- has only two pilot sites, and expansion is in doubt.

For Riscart, though, the efficacy of the program is not in doubt. When asked where she would be if not for RESTART, her almost-constant smile quickly disappeared.

"Dead," she said flatly. "If it weren't for this program, I would be six feet under."

Common Misconceptions

Some people assume that prisons are filled with programs that enable inmates to save themselves if only they make the effort. But experts said incarceration hasn't been like that since at least the 1970s, when states began to cut programs that the public viewed as ineffective mollycoddling.

But in recent years, corrections departments nationwide increasingly came to believe that the system wasn't working. Incarceration rates were pinching state budgets, and recidivism was high. In Maryland, about half of all released inmates end up back in prison or with increased parole time within three years.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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