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Firm taking over troubled MinSec says itâ??s about fresh starts

March 17. 2013 2:53AM

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PHILADELPHIA – In one room they played things you find in … , two men took turns trying to come up with items in a car glove compartment – map … insurance card … cellphone charger … socks …


The game moderator allowed it.

In another room, about 80 men were taking lessons on what they need to do to survive once they leave the place: Deal with the legal issues ... further education … get a job. And throughout the building, in smaller rooms, groups grappled with everything from addiction counseling to algebra.

They were all residents of Hoffman Hall, a 400-bed facility in Philadelphia designed to help prisoners make the transition from cell block to civilian life. Built in a former factory, Hoffman Hall is owned by Community Education Center, the firm that recently bought the controversial MinSec correctional facility in Hazleton.

Determined to show they are good neighbors and to counter negative articles run in The New York Times about the company, CEC invited The Times Leader for a tour of the hall, which company spokesman Christopher Greeder said offers services similar to those at MinSec.

We are a residential center, but we are also a treatment facility, Center Director Bertee Thomas said after buzzing through two locked doors to enter the residential section. When a button is hit, one of eight video screens monitored in the security center shows an image of the person pushing the button, allowing the guard eyeing the screens to determine whether to let the person pass.

The locks mean no one can just walk out, and Thomas and Greeder conceded Hoffman Hall differs from MinSec in one big way: It's not a work-release facility. MinSec opened in 2007 in the former Altamont Hotel on Broad Street under contract with the state Department of Corrections. The facility quickly garnered notoriety. By 2011, more than 30 crimes were allegedly committed by current or former inmates.

Will there be people who leave and don't return? CEC Eastern Region Vice President Steve Tomlin said. Maybe. But we try to establish a culture that makes them want to stay. They realize completing the program is helping them. They are coming back because there are resources to help them here.

We have some come in and say they want to go back to prison, Thomas said. I tell them ‘Just give it two weeks.' In those two weeks, you can see the transition in their thinking.

Security is top priority

The entry point for prisoners is a barren processing room with one table and several smaller rooms – not much more than walk-in closets – on each side. Two of those rooms are set up with heavy doors and external locks. If the prisoner starts acting up, he goes in one until Philadelphia police arrive, and it's usually a short wait; there's a station about a block away.

Public safety is always first, Thomas said.

Newcomers wear orange jumpsuits, traditional prison garb. Wearing street clothes is a privilege they have to earn, Thomas said.

Residents are assigned tasks they must complete, tasks they will need to do once they're out on their own, including helping in the kitchen and laundry room, and cleaning. Hoffman Hall is almost pristine, the floors glittering, the walls spotless. We try to make this a microcosm of the real world, Thomas said.

The place is also placarded with inspirational quotes. Finding a wall without large signs encouraging self-improvement seems impossible. Allow God in your life … Focus on You … When the student is ready, the teacher will appear … If your way has not worked, try God's way.

‘We have 135 of them, Tomlin said – that's about 50 more slogans than there are security cameras.

The inspirational theme continues with the names of the three dorm units: Integrity, Unity and Honesty. A typical room has three bunk beds, each with the mattress resting atop a locker for personal items. Natural lighting is provided by ceiling windows, and each room has a minimum square footage of unencumbered space, Brockenbrough said.

Residents in each of the three dorm sections start their day with a group meeting that can involve things like the things in a glove compartment game to get them started. They are periodically required to attend the large-group instruction classes as well. But the heart of the Hoffman Hall is the small-group and individual programs tailored for each person's problems. Walking around the facility, Thomas repeatedly pointed to rooms with a handful of men being taught or mentored.

We base it all on what's called the three Ps, Tomlin said. Physical plant, personnel and program. We want the place to be clean and quiet.

And the program isn't Jerry Springer, Brockenbrough added.

A healthy community

Winning the contract from the Philadelphia Prison System to set up Hoffman Hall wasn't easy, Tomlin said. Police and administrators were skeptical they could handle the tough, urban prisoners that would come their way. Brockenbrough conceded he was one of the skeptics as a long-time prison worker. We were very insistent on the number of security features for this building to be put in.

Once he saw how those features were added while not disrupting the treatment, Brockenbrough was won over. He left the prison system to work for CEC.

There are no manacles, no Tasers or other forceful means of constraint.

We want to establish a healthy community in here that mirrors society, Tomlin said. There are rules and regulations; there are norms they are expected to adhere to. We want respect in every department.

If a resident becomes too disruptive or breaks the rules, he faces a trip back to prison to complete his sentence. Otherwise, the hall is all he likely sees until his release. There is a complete medical suite, including a dentist contracted by the prison system who visits regularly.

Residents may not be able to leave, but they do reconnect with family, as much as possible. In a small office with one wall lined with children's books, Valarie Mond explained the program.

Family members and residents each attend classes that cover the same material on things such as communication, trust, personal boundaries, co-dependency and relationships, Mond said.

The focus is to bring the family in and build bridges they may have burned. They learn that, as a family, if one is cut, everyone bleeds.

Research shows that prisoners reentering society with strong family support are far less likely to become repeat offenders, Thomas added.

The overarching approach, Tomlin said, is to create a therapeutic community, a place where the residents get the help they need and appreciate it, learning in turn to help others.

The people who are here, Thomas said, want to be here.

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