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Picking up the pieces 

A new program is quietly changing the way the state handles parolees

Parolees are used to waiting in lines. That's nearly all they do. Lines for food, lines for the bathroom, lines in court, and today a line outside SLO's Creekside Career Center on Broad Street for this month's Police and Corrections Team (PACT) meeting.

These parolees - car thieves, drug dealers, gang members, and other assorted perps - swagger into the air-conditioned conference room, all emanating machismo. Not one is talking. They're on edge and still carry themselves like they had to in order to survive in prison.

When they sit, most of them appear distant, reluctant, and awkward as they wait for this meeting to get under way. They fill the first row of seats from right to left, then the second row, then the third, until six rows of six wait, surrounded by a perimeter of tables.

There are no smiles, and neck tattoos in cursive script are standard. Of the 36 in the group there are two women.

It is absolutely a cold, scary group, but they've been declawed. For now.

At the tables along the walls are the representatives from 15 independent service providers, sitting and joking, bantering, in complete comfort.

Ronnie DiGirolamo sits at one of these tables. He represents Project Amend, but just 15 months ago he was sitting in the middle of the room a parolee himself. Normally he would speak on behalf of Project Amend, but today he has been asked not to. Seems he's got a propensity for swear words, and with a reporter in the room everyone is a little more nervous than usual.

The PACT meeting is designed to be a kind of one-stop-shopping location for recent parolees, says Ed Freeman, Central Coast District administrator for the Department of Corrections. PACT is part of larger program that is quietly changing the way the California Department of Corrections is handling its parolees.

The idea is to give the parolees face-to-face contact with independent service providers who will provide a spectrum of services, from tattoo removal to child support to drug and alcohol rehab programs. Hopefully this contact will make it easier for parolees to seek out these services.

"We're dealing with individuals who have failed in school systems, in youth systems, and often whose parents failed them," said Freeman. "These individuals have failed basically all social systems and then go out on parole, and we're given the task of fixing it all.

"It's more cost effective to keep parolees on the streets than in the institutions," Freeman continued, but he was quick to add that this has to be weighed carefully with the potential for allowing dangerous individuals on the streets. The Department of Parole wears two hats: it has to keep tabs on and help reform parolees while also keeping the public safe.

The PACT meetings are the result of a Department of Corrections (DOC) overhaul last year. When a nonpartisan watchdog agency, The Little Hoover Commission, called the parole system a "billion-dollar failure" after finding that 67 percent of ex-convicts returned to prison, the DOC was forced to revise the way it deals with parolees.

The result was the new parolee accountability model, which utilizes pre- and post-release services to help parolees recover. The PACT meeting is one of four key parts to the new model, all of which, in theory, improve access for inmates to recovery resources.


'Welcome back to your community ... . You can treat it with respect or you can treat it with disrespect, and you know what happens when you treat it with disrespect.'

Patrick McKnight, program director for Project Amend, speaking at a recent PACT meeting


The SLO PACT program was implemented about a year ago, and it meets once a month. There's no shortage of parolees, who are forced to attend one as a condition of parole. In other parts of the state, like Oakland, there's demand for a PACT meeting every week.

At the meeting, once the parolees sit down, Dave Zaragoza promptly starts the meeting. Zaragoza is PACT meeting supervisor for the Central Coast District, an area that stretches from Ventura to Salinas.

Zaragoza is a straight talker who seems to have no problem gaining parolee respect. He explains the agenda to the parolees, which will include a motivational speaker and then short presentations from each of the 15 independent service providers. The parolees are each given a pen and a manila folder with various papers and contact sheets inside. The parolees are required to meet with at least three providers and obtain their signatures before they can leave.

Zaragoza introduces speaker Patrick McKnight, program director at Project Amend and a former parolee and addict.

"Welcome back to your community," McKnight says to the parolees. "This is your community. You can treat it with respect or you can treat it with disrespect, and you know what happens when you treat it with disrespect."

Most of the parolees seem to listen respectfully to what McKnight says.

"It's over, it's done with. Today you have a fresh start."

He tells the parolees about his own time "behind the walls." He talks about his personal experiences when he was using. How he was a bad father, how he lied to friends and family and himself. He talks about how messed up it is being in prison. He tells the parolees when you're in incarcerated you're like a child that needs to be babysat by the state.

McKnight recalls his son calling him before his last stay behind the walls, and his son asked him when he was going to grow up. That's when he got busy.

"Hey guys," McKnight says sharply. "When are you going to grow up?"

Ronnie DiGirolamo is one of the guys that grew up. While in prison DiGirolamo utilized Substance Abuse Treatment (SAT), the in-house element to the Parole Accountability Model, then he lined up a stay at Project Amend, maintained sobriety, and now he works for the same recovery house. He was recently certified by the California Association of Addiction Recovery Resources to become an addiction counselor. He's done all this in the 15 months since he was released, having served two terms for grand theft auto. He served his second term after the state implemented the new Parolee Accountability Model. He says getting substance abuse treatment in prison was essential.

"The difference between [the first time I was in prison] and the last time was that I had a substance abuse program in prison and was able to get to one afterwards.

"By the time I went to prison I lost everything," he says. When he got to Project Amend he says he remembers thinking, "If I can't do it here, I'm never going to make it."

DiGirolamo now works for Project Amend. He represents the group at the PACT meetings and gives speeches to kids in middle school about the perils of drug use.

At the PACT meetings DiGirolamo says he sees guys he used to run with on the streets. "For them to see the progress I made ... they think, 'If he did it, then I can do it.'"

Although this is exactly what officials hope for, according to Freeman, there's no solid information that shows the success of the new parolee accountability model and PACT meetings. However, he says revocation rates - parolees who return to prison for violating parole - are slightly lower.

"It seems to be working," he said. "There's no magical solution for dealing with parolees and human behavior."

After the presentations the parolees meet with the providers, and some are quick to collect the required three signatures and take off. But others linger awhile. A large line quickly forms at the tattoo-removal service table. Some parolees I talked too were obviously grateful to have so many providers in one place.

After the parolees leave, Zaragoza and DiGirolamo reorganize the chairs and tables in the conference room. Some of the parolees will definitely be back, Zaragoza said, but hopefully there will be less than before. ³

 

Staff Writer John Peabody can be reached at jpeabody@newtimesslo.com.

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