Part Two: Staying the Course: Program Participants Making Progress
At High Horses Therapeutic Riding in Hartford, Vt., Katelyn Mitchell. of Lebanon. N.H., returns Mitch after she led him during a session with a client on Oct 15, 2013. Mitchell has continued to volunteer with High Horses after becoming involved with them through her time with the Hartford Reprative Justice Board.
Valley News - Jennifer Hauck
P.J. Howe Jr. watches while employer Fred Davis works with another employee at Davis' shop, Davis Auto Trailer Sales in Hartford, Vt., on May, 22, 2012.
Valley News - Jennifer Hauck
Hal Beebe, of Bethel, Vt., works on a friend's home in Newbury, Vt., on Oct. 26, 2011 while working with the Hartford Reparative Justice Board.
Valley News - Jennifer Hauck
On a snowy afternoon Katelyn and Laura Mitchell get into the car at their home in West Lebanon, N.H., to go to Concord, N.H. to get Katelyn's license reinstated on March, 1, 2012.
Valley News - Jennifer Hauck
The traditional criminal justice system features courtrooms, stern judges and prosecutors who often seek heavy fines, jail time, or both. Once convicted of their crimes, offenders are separated from their communities and left to endure their punishment, for the most part alone. The Hartford Reparative Board charts a different course. Rather than meting out punishment and isolating offenders, board members — volunteers who come from a range of personal and professional backgrounds — work to reconnect offenders with the people they’ve harmed. Every two weeks, the board gathers in a church basement to consider the cases of offenders who have been convicted of largely non-violent crimes such as burglary, shoplifting and driving under the influence. They ask offenders to reflect on how they went astray and then send them back into the community with a plan to make amends. The Valley News followed three offenders through the process beginning in the fall of 2011. Today, in the second installment of a two-part series, we follow Hal Beebe, Katelyn Mitchell and P.J. Howe as they try to set their lives right.
Newbury, Vt. — Hal Beebe holds a red level up against the door frame, a pencil clenched in his teeth, peering through glasses perched on the end of his nose. It is chilly this October morning, snow in the forecast.
His brow furrows as he considers the challenge: How to true this doorway to keep the cold out? And by extension, perhaps, how to true his life to keep the trouble away?
A few weeks after meeting with the Hartford Reparative Board, Beebe has arrived at Tom Morgan’s house to rebuild a doorway to the porch. Morgan can’t do the work himself. A series of mishaps over the years — a car crash when he was driving drunk, another when a coked-up driver plowed into him, an assault in San Diego that left him with a metal plate in his head — have left him unable to do this sort of exacting physical labor.
“He’s done a lot for me,” Morgan says of his longtime neighbor.
Beebe wears a gray hooded sweatshirt, wooden shims tucked into the back pocket of his jeans. He opens and closes the door, setting in shims, drilling screws, hoisting the level to see the results. He and Morgan go back years, and they engage in the banter of men at ease in each other’s company.
He wiggles the door, fretting aloud about a piece of wood falling on his head. “I don’t want to end up with a plate like you,” he says to Morgan. “We’ll start hearing each other’s thoughts.”
Talk turns to the criminal justice system, where Beebe has been convicted of driving under the influence and sentenced to reparative probation rather than jail.
“Our society and our prison system is just screwed up — it’s all just punishment,” Beebe observes, as his neighbor nods agreement. “There are so many people who’ve been punished who didn’t need to be punished. They needed to be helped.”
Beebe recently read a 2011 Newsweek article in which the author wrote that “the U.S. incarcerates nearly 25 percent of the world’s prisoners, even though it’s home to only 5 percent of the world’s inhabitants.” The American incarceration rate — 743 prisoners for every 100,000 people — was five times the median rate worldwide.
Beebe is part of a group that accounts for the majority of inmates, and he’s grateful for the chance to get help and make amends as a productive member of the community.
“Drug addicts thrown in jail, they don’t get help,” he says. “They get thrown in a hole and told to dry up.”
Taking the Reins
Katelyn Mitchell began riding horses at age 9. When she was 15, one of her mother’s co-workers in the Dartmouth-Hitchcock pathology lab gave her an amazing Christmas gift: a brown quarter horse named Smitty. The co-worker’s family had decided it could no longer care for the animal and wanted to find it a good home.
At 1,300 pounds, Smitty was stubborn but loveable, and Mitchell and he bonded from the start. The family boarded him at the Dartmouth College stables, where he developed a reputation for being good with children. Six years after Mitchell got him, however, Smitty developed a muscular disorder that made him unsteady on his hooves. Medication didn’t help, and the family realized Smitty didn’t have much time left.
As the winter of 2011 approached, Mitchell realized she couldn’t wait any longer. Rather than risk Smitty falling on the ice and never being able to get up, she and her parents decided it was time to call in the veterinarian.
At the same time, Mitchell’s mother, Laura, was struggling with a potentially fatal heart condition. It was so serious that she had to be at the hospital at the same hour as Mitchell held her horse one last time. For months, the doctors had told Laura Mitchell that her condition was inoperable. But on that afternoon, a new surgeon gave a different opinion.
“I can extend your life,” he said. “I can fix you.” But there was no time to wait, he told her. She needed to undergo the triple bypass surgery within the week.
With Mitchell still reeling from her horse’s death, Laura gave her the news about the heart operation. Shortly afterwards, Mitchell went to the bar, drank too much, and ended up at the police station. After being charged with driving under the influence, she accepted a plea bargain and was convicted of careless or negligent operation and ended up before the reparative board.
Nearly three months later, she joins a group of other volunteers at the High Horses Therapeutic Riding Center in Wilder, to begin the community service she promised at the Reparative Board meeting. High Horses serves people with many forms of disability — physical, mental, learning — by helping them to reach beyond themselves to connect with a horse.
“It’s pretty amazing, the connection they can make,” instructor and volunteer coordinator Amanda Lamoureux tells Mitchell and other new volunteers. The riders surprise themselves — “I can do this!”
Mitchell doesn’t say anything about what brought her here on this day in February 2012, but she’s clearly in her element. The group is led into a ring and introduced to a quarter horse named Dudley. The animal brings his nose close to the pocket of Mitchell’s Carhartt jacket. Something in there smells good.
“Hey, bud,” she says gently.
Dressed in faded jeans and already muddy boots, Mitchell helps to lead Dudley around the ring. Here, she will help acquaint others with the joy she has found. Here, her own healing will begin.
A Shorter Leash
In the months since P.J. Howe first appeared before the justice board after being convicted of grand larceny and unlawful mischief, he’s had his share of ups and downs.
Howe landed a minimum wage job at the Listen thrift store in White River Junction and earned some additional income working with a chimney repairman. He’s making some progress toward earning his high school equivalency certificate.
But when he walks into the church basement for a check-in visit late in the winter of 2012, he’s sporting an additional wardrobe item — an ankle bracelet, courtesy of the Vermont Department of Corrections. It seems that Howe tested positive for drugs on a random urinalysis required by the terms of his probation.
“I pissed hot for opiates,” he tells the board members.
Board members have taken a close interest in Howe, inviting him to appear before them at regular intervals. Board members want him to succeed. Not all are sure he will.
“I don’t think he’s got the maturity yet to change. … It’s going to take a few times in and out of jail for him to realize, ‘Man, this is not how I want to live,’ ” Greg Moore, a board member who works as an emergency room nurse, had said in an interview after one of Howe’s initial appearances. “I don’t think a lot of us see a lot of hope in him.”
Chris Aquino, another board member and former teacher, had offered a different early view. One day she saw Howe working at the Listen center, cheerfully helping customers and seeming to thrive when given the chance to earn a modest wage.
“He feels better when he’s helping out,” she says. “Doggone it, P.J.’s a long way from getting it, but that doesn’t mean you give up on him.”
The debate over Howe’s prospects reflects a dynamic that makes for a healthy community justice board, say Aquino and other board members. Board members represent a broad range of perspectives, from a former teacher who always focuses on an offender’s best qualities (Aquino) to the emergency room nurse who’s seen patients trying to game the system for drugs (Moore). But all share the same goal: to try to help as many offenders as possible to choose a better path.
After Howe’s drug test setback, corrections officials shortened his leash, requiring a strict schedule, substance abuse counseling and an ankle bracelet to track his every move, Howe tells the group.
Fred Davis, who has logged more years on the board than any other member and regularly hires ex-convicts at his Hartford automotive shop, gestures to the bracelet. He looks squarely at Howe.
“Makes me think that maybe you haven’t learned much,” Davis said.
Howe insists that he has. The test he failed was administered before he started working with the reparative board, he says. He says it’s tough living under the close scrutiny of probation officers, that he wondered at one point if it might be simpler to just return to jail and get his sentence out of the way.
“But then,” he adds, “I thought about my kids.” He wants to be there as they grow up, not just get the occasional jailhouse visit. “I don’t want to be in a cage for half of my life.”
Howe says working has helped his outlook. There’s nothing better than coming home with some money in his pocket and a pleasant exhaustion in his bones. Aquino tells him to pay attention to that, to keep himself busy with constructive activity.
“You are a smart, articulate person, and it would be a big waste if you didn’t do something constructive with that,” she says. “If you’re not thinking about good things and things that will help the community, you’re going to be in trouble.”
“I hear you,” Howe replies.
Beebe, Mitchell and Howe all finished their requirements with the Reparative Board in late 2011 or early 2012. By the time this autumn rolled around — more than a year and half later — all had stayed out of trouble with the law, according to Upper Valley court records.
The path has not been easy for any of them. But, to varying degrees, all have worked to find a measure of success.
Mitchell, who recently turned 23, continues to waitress and has added a job doing chores at a riding academy, says her mother, Laura. The riding academy job is to help pay the expenses of boarding her new thoroughbred quarter horse, Danny Boy, that she adopted from High Horses.
Laura Mitchell said going through the criminal justice process (which included a drunken driving class as well as the reparative board) was a positive for her daughter. “It was a big eye-opener, that ‘Hey, I’m responsible for what I do,’ ” she says. “It got her back on a good road.”
“It is a great program,” Katelyn Mitchell adds. “I learned a lot.”
These days, Mitchell still enjoys going out with friends, her mother reports, but she makes sure they are responsible friends, and she often ends up as the designated driver. And while Mitchell began volunteering at High Horses to meet the requirements of the justice board, she continued long after that requirement was satisfied.
The women who run High Horses say Mitchell is one of their more devoted volunteers, coming for a long shift each Tuesday, ready to do whatever it takes to connect horses and riders.
“She’s got a great heart,” says Liz Claud, director of the therapeutic riding center. “She really connects with a lot of our riders.”
Lamoureux, the volunteer coordinator, says Mitchell shows up for her shift each week with a smile on her face. “She’s really made her life very positive.”
Howe, too, seems to have found a niche. When he applied for a job at the Denny’s restaurant on Route 12A in West Lebanon several months ago, he was truthful with the general manager, Patrick Roland, about his record.
Roland says he appreciated Howe’s honesty and gave him a chance. Now he’s glad he did.
“He’s a good worker,” the manager says. “He usually shows up 10 or 15 or 20 minutes early.”
Howe, now 20 and the father of another child, was hired to help with various tasks around the busy restaurant, washing dishes, cleaning floors and equipment, unloading trucks full of food. He expressed an interest in learning how to cook and his boss has given him that opportunity as well.
“I believe that people deserve a second chance, and they’re not always given one,” Roland says. “Thankfully, somebody like him has been saved, because God knows the jails are full enough.” (Howe declined to comment at length for this article.)
While Beebe hasn’t had any legal struggles, he has had other ones. A little over a year ago, he began to experience pain and swelling in his leg after working his shifts as a cook. The doctor found blood clots, ones that had done irreversible damage to his artery and veins.
The doctor told Beebe to stay off his feet for a year. He also said it could have been worse. “If it had kept going for another couple of months,” he told Beebe, “you would have been dead.”
Unable to keep up with their mortgage payments, Beebe and his wife had to let the bank take back their house in Newbury. They moved into a modest white mobile home outside of Bethel with only a government disability check to support them.
Sitting at a table in his new home, Beebe glances through a window at the hills showing off their brightest fall colors. He smiles at his 6-month-old grandson, Uriah, who is taking a bottle from his mom. Beebe says that painkillers remain a temptation for him, but that he has stayed away.
“An addiction’s an addiction,” he says. “It doesn’t go away, but I’ve been doing pretty good.”
Beebe says he needs a desk job that will allow him to get off his feet when necessary, and so far he hasn’t found one. So he and his family scrimp where they can, and try to focus on their blessings.
“There are worse problems,” he says. “I’m just trying to keep going.”
Jeffrey Good can be reached at email@example.com.