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Jim Kenyon: Vermont Prisons: A Cultural Shift

  • Dave Rice, an inmate at the Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield, Vt., a coach in the Open Ears program, enters the room where he meets with his inmate peers to listen to their concerns and fears in Springfield, Vt., Wednesday, July 18, 2018. Rice earns $7 per day working in the position. Inmates who take advantage of the opportunity to see a peer support coach do so voluntarily. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to James M. Patterson

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    Annie Ramniceanu, mental health systems director of the Vermont Department of Corrections, left, talks with Dave Rice, an inmate at the Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield, Vt., during a monthly meeting for the forensic peer recovery coach program called Open Ears at the Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield, Vt., Wednesday, July 18, 2018. Rice is a coach with the program which began in December, 2017 and provides peer support for inmates in a safe, confidential space. The program has two coaches at SSCF who had to go through a month of training at the Northwest State Correctional Facility in St. Albans. "It was a massive experiment, and these guys didn't know what it was going to be like," said Ramniceanu. SSCF Superintendent Edward Adams is at right. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to James M. Patterson

  • Edward Adams, Southeast State Correctional Facility superintendent, top left, listens during a meeting between, clockwise from mid-left, Open Ears peer coach Dave Rice, Annie Ramniceanu, mental health systems director, Colleen Nilsen, chief of mental health, and Kristen Sulzman, a volunteer coordinator, at SCCF. Ramniceanu said that the Open Ears program is helping promote more wellness and reduce stress in the corrections system. Vermont is the second state, behind Pennsylvania to use a forensic peer support program. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to James M. Patterson

  • Southern State Correctional Facility Superintendent Edward Adams had the final choice of the three inmates who receieved training to become peer support coaches in the Open Ears program. Sixteen inmates were chosen to train for the program statewide. One of the SSCF coaches has since been released from prison. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to James M. Patterson

  • Kristen Sulzman, left, SSCF volunteer coordinator, and Colleen Nilsen, Vermont Department of Corrections chief of mental health services, right, listen to peer support coach Dave Rice during their monthly meeting at SCCF in Springfield, Vt., Wednesday, July 18, 2018. In his position as a peer coach, Rice provides an unbiased person for inmates to talk to about their experiences in prison. In addition to his position as a peer coach, Rice has worked in the prison's infirmary and has volunteered with its hospice program. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to James M. Patterson

Valley News Columnist
Published: 7/21/2018 11:41:50 PM
Modified: 7/23/2018 11:47:09 AM

On a Friday night in March, a 37-year-old inmate at the Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield hanged himself in his cell. Some inmates were having difficulty coping with the sudden loss of a friend. Others were angry the Vermont Department of Corrections hadn’t done more to prevent the tragedy.

To help them sort through the range of emotions, prison officials called on Dave Rice. Over that weekend, Rice met one-on-one with prisoners behind closed doors.

“It’s not about giving a right answer, but just listening,” Rice said. “It’s about letting guys express their feelings.”

Rice, 51, might have seemed an unlikely choice to serve as counselor. He’s an inmate himself.

In January, Vermont became one of the first states to use offenders to provide forensic peer support services. Rice was among 16 inmates from across the state handpicked to undergo training to become “Open Ear” coaches.

So far, Rice has met with about 30 inmates who are looking for someone to talk with about their problems. They might have just received news that their wife has filed for divorce or they’re about to lose their parental rights.

First-time inmates — too scared to approach other inmates or guards — bring their questions about the routines of life behind bars. The food? “Not great,” Rice warns them.

In prison, offenders are told when to eat, where to sleep and when they’re allowed outdoors. “Control of their lives have been taken away from them,” Rice said.

I suspect about now that some people are wondering: Why should the outside world care about the mental well-being of convicted criminals?

Simple: About 90 percent of offenders eventually get out. It’s in society’s best interest that they have tools to better prepare them for life back on the streets.

The way I look at it, any program that might keep people from returning to prison is worth a shot. It costs Vermont taxpayers nearly $60,000 a year to keep an offender locked up. With an annual corrections budget of $150 million or so, the $16,000 it cost to get the “Open Ears” program off the ground is money well spent.

Some background:

About 10 years ago, a private Pennsylvania company called Peerstar began working with the Yale School of Medicine to provide peer support to inmates with mental illness in hopes of reducing recidivism.

“Forensic peer support is a young but growing field,” wrote the nonprofit Center for Public Policy Priorities, of Austin, Texas, in 2014. “Peer support specialists make contributions to recovery above and beyond what is provided by traditional mental health staff. Three of these unique contributions are: role modeling, street smarts, and empathy.

“In sharing their personal stories, peer support specialists become role models for self-care and instill hope.”

Vermont’s prison population has declined in recent years, but the state still has about 1,750 people behind bars, including 207 in Pennsylvania. Roughly 45 percent of the state’s prisoners receive mental health services. But the bottom line: “Mental health workers don’t know what it’s like to be an inmate,” said Ed Adams, superintendent of the Springfield prison, which currently has 360 inmates.

When the decision was made to give peer support a try, the staffs at the state’s six prisons were asked to identify offenders who would make good coaches. It wasn’t just about selecting people who were trustworthy and good listeners. “They needed to be guys who could handle the added stress,” Adams said. “They had to have stability in their own lives.”

Some inmates declined the offer. They weren’t interested in moving for a month to the Northwest State Correctional Facility in St. Albans, where the training was taking place. They also weren’t given much incentive. Since Vermont eliminated so-called good time about 15 years ago, participating in the program wouldn’t earn coaches a reduction in their sentences.

“It was a massive experiment,” said Annie Ramniceanu, the DOC’s addiction and mental health systems director. “We had never as a department, as far as I know, developed an inmate-to-inmate program.”

She briefed lawmakers on the program during this year’s legislative session. She emphasized that it would be open to all inmates — not just those who were struggling with mental illness.

“It makes a lot of sense,” said Rep. Alice Emmons, a Springfield Democrat who chairs the House Committee on Corrections and Institutions. “Offenders are more likely to connect with other offenders than supervised staff who go home at the end of the day.”

Coaches are “experiencing the same things day-to-day” as the inmates they’re working with, Emmons added.

Ramniceanu wasn’t involved in selecting the potential coaches and didn’t ask about their crimes. “As long as someone was willing to do this, I was willing to take a chance,” she said.

Rice and two other Springfield inmates were transported to St. Albans in the middle of the night without being told a lot about what was ahead of them.

Why did Rice sign up? When he was incarcerated in the early 2000s, he told himself that his time in prison “wasn’t going to be all for nothing.” He’d already been volunteering inside the prison to help inmates with chronic illnesses, along with working as a janitor.

In St. Albans, they were enrolled in Peerstar’s training program, which was led by a former Pennsylvania inmate. After graduating from the month-long program, the 16 men learned they’d earn $7 a day — the most that inmates can earn in Vermont — for coaching.

Providing the program took root.

Prison staffs — from superintendents to correctional officers — had to be convinced that Open Ears would be effective in reducing inmates’ stress levels, which could make their lives easier and safer. At the same time, inmates had to be assured that it wasn’t a DOC trick to get them to open up, only to have what they said used against them.

“This is a cultural shift,” said Colleen Nilsen, the DOC’s chief of mental health services. “It’s been a leap of faith on both sides.”

The one-on-one sessions were scheduled in rooms reserved for confidential meetings between attorneys and their incarcerated clients. There’d be no guards or audio recorders in the room. (In Springfield, a glass partition separates the room from a guard station.)

Rice starts off by telling offenders that this is a “safe environment where you can talk about whatever you need to get off your chest, and it doesn’t go beyond this room.”

It was made clear to prison staffs that “coaches weren’t rats,” Ramniceanu said. “They couldn’t be used as informants and the staff couldn’t strong-arm them into providing information.

“The amount of freedom we were giving inmates was new to everyone.”

DOC officials drew up confidentiality guidelines to protect coaches and their clients. Secrecy was to be maintained “except when someone reports they have a plan to kill themselves or someone else, escape from custody, kill a victim upon release or plan to introduce a weapon.”

For the coaches to have credibility, they couldn’t be doing the DOC’s dirty work or blabbing to other inmates. If either happened, the “program would be over,” Ramniceanu said. “Offenders wouldn’t come back.”

But even with the promise of confidentiality, it was a hard sell. Many inmates think, “I’m tough. I don’t need this,” said superintendent Adams.

In addition, “no inmate wants to be the first or second to sign up,” he said. “But inmates are seeing that it’s not a big deal. It’s starting to take off.”

Inmates can request to see a coach or be referred by the staff. “The buy-in by staff is slowly happening,” said Kristen Sulzman, the volunteer coordinator at the Springfield prison.

In June, Springfield’s coaches had 65 requests for their services. In just the first two weeks of July, there were 38 requests, Sulzman said. One coach recently left prison after completing his sentence, leaving Rice and another inmate to carry the load.

Rice agreed to be interviewed and photographed last week. Under DOC rules, the state contacts victims in advance to get their consent. In Rice’s case, the victims were OK with him appearing in this column.

Rice, who is from Springfield, is serving a minimum sentence of 20 years for sex offenses. He’s been incarcerated for 16 years. “I know the damage that I’ve done, but it doesn’t excuse my previous behavior,” he told me.

As a coach, Rice said he encourages inmates to focus on what they can control, which in prison isn’t much. He often pitches the benefits of Community High School of Vermont, the DOCs educational program where he earned his degree in 2014.

When the time is right, Rice is frank with the men who come to see him. “Your past doesn’t have to define you, but what are you are going to do about it?” he asks. “You have to get right. You have to change the behavior that got you in here.”

Often that behavior includes abusing drugs and alcohol. Rice can relate. “I’m a former heroin addict,” he said.

Participation in Open Ears is strictly voluntary. Rice has had inmates who were referred by staff walk out after five minutes. It wasn’t for them.

“The power is in their hands,” he said. “I’ve done a lot of time. I let them know there’s always hope.”

Jim Kenyon can be reached at

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