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State Representative Jill Schupp (D-Creve Coeur) arranged for the Department of Corrections Director  George Lombardi to speak to a group of about 100 people last week at the Creve Coeur Community Center about what the department is doing by way of restorative justice programs.

I went with a question about the influence of private prison contracts, but I was fascinated with what Mr. Lombardi had to say on many other topics.

The whole idea behind the growing interest in restorative justice projects is to give offenders an opportunity to understand how their actions affect the whole community and to offer them a chance to give something back.  “The giving is in the getting,” as Mr. Lombardi says.  Not all offenders are reachable in terms of learning to feel compassion for others, but those who do go through the curriculum designed for this purpose say it is very powerful.

One of the most emotional classes during the program is a visit from parents of murdered children.  They share what their loss has meant to them and how they have to deal with that loss every day.  Mr. Lombardi said it is not uncommon to see the toughest of tough guys cry during one of these sessions.

Those who are able to complete the curriculum have several choices for giving back to the community.  Some inmates make the materials that are given to public school teachers through the Kids Smart program.  Several prisons have gardens and give huge quantities of produce to local food pantries.

At the Vandalia  prison for women, inmates train dogs to help disabled people as part of the CHANCE program.  The women have trained 50 dogs, mostly golden and Labrador retrievers, that are now out there living with people with disabilities.

A new program is one where dogs who are homeless but adoptable with some training are given basic socializing and time to adjust to people before being put up for adoption by local shelters.  Mr. Lombardi told the story of Sparky, a deaf dachshund at  the maximum security prison near Licking, Mo.  A deaf inmate suggested the dog be trained by stomping on the floor to get his attention, and it worked.  The dog was able to learn to respond to five different hand signals and was eventually given to the Fulton School for the Deaf as a gift.  Lombardi said that story made People Magazine and newspapers as far away as London.

A blind and deaf Australian shepherd was brought to the Southeast Correctional Center at age six and has 17 transition after their release.   This is not something we hear about on TV or read about in the newspapers.  And that’s too bad.  

Lombardi said that the DOC graduates the largest number of GED students in the state and has 17 different vocational certificates that offenders can earn so they are employable when they are released.    

When asked about the best way to keep young people from getting into the criminal culture, Lombardi was emphatic the quality early childhood education is the key.  The state could save a ton of money by providing the education small children need rather than waiting until young people end up in the prison system to start educating them.  This confirms what many social justice advocates have been saying for decades, but the message falls on deaf ears.  I wonder why we are able to train  deaf and blind dogs but not deaf and blind people !!

I knew Mr. Lombardi was the real deal when he said he sets aside time to go to a daycare center for low income families in Jefferson City to read to the 3-4 year olds.  We could all benefit from his example.

I did get to ask my question about the use of inmates for slave labor by private corporations. The federal prison system is notorious for doing that.  Lombardi said he is totally opposed to private prisons and a Missouri law was passed back in the 1970’s that prohibits using prisoners for private company profit.  (I’m surprised the Repugs currently in charge of the legislature haven’t repealed that law so their corporate sponsors can rake in even more profit.)

As much as I was impressed with Mr. Lombardi,  it was also encouraging to hear from the folks in the audience that day.  There are many, many wonderful groups working to help keep people out of the prison system, advocating for inmates with special needs and helping during the transition after their release.   This is not something we hear about on TV or read about in the newspapers.  And that’s too bad.  

Check out the Department of Corrections website for photos of the dogs and other interesting information.  www.doc.mo.gov