University of Pittsburgh

extra credit

Staying Out

Can inmates avoid a relapse into crime?

Written by Frank Reeves

Forty years ago, a young student found his calling in the “acid pit” of a Pittsburgh steel mill. It was dirty, dangerous, and noisy, where the steel plates were cleaned with acid. Workers were exposed to high-voltage electric lines, and temperatures often rose to 120 degrees. Salt pills and a gallon of water were daily necessities. The acid fumes were so toxic they burned holes in the student’s work clothes.

The mill is gone, but the student, Hide Yamatani, now remembers it wasn’t only the mill’s physical conditions that were troubling. He also was bothered “by a work culture that reflected inflexibility, racism, and gender bias.” Black and female workers, he says, were frequently denied access to the higher-paying, career-building skilled trades in the mill.

These experiences forged Yamatani’s commitment to social justice, influenced his decision to enroll in Pitt’s School of Social Work, and still inform his approach to research.

Today, Yamatani (SOC WK ’71G, ’76G, KGSB ’91) is a Pitt professor of social work and the associate dean for research at the school. Last year, he and several Pitt colleagues released surprising research results based on an evaluation of prisoner rehabilitation at the Allegheny County Jail.

Each day, 40 inmates on average are released from the jail. Within a year, many are back, locked up again in the high-rise facility along the Monongahela River near downtown Pittsburgh. The high expectations inmates often have upon their release can be quickly dashed by the realities of outside life. Once they’ve lost a job or past relationships sour, many inmates spiral downward.

“They’re back in the game, dealing drugs, scrapping for money, hustling and stealing,” says Ramon Rustin, the jail’s warden and a corrections officer for nearly 30 years. “Soon they’ll do something to get caught.”

The pattern isn’t new, according to officials like Rustin, whose observations are borne out in U.S. arrest and conviction figures. In recent years, 44 percent of inmates have been rearrested within the first 12 months following release; nearly 60 percent have been reconvicted within three years, says Yamatani.

A decade ago, county jail officials began tackling in earnest the problem of this relapse into crime. Working with corrections officials and others in human services, the health department, and community groups, they established the Allegheny County Jail Collaborative to help inmates successfully transition to outside life.

In 2004, Yamatani and fellow researchers from the Center on Race and Social Problems, which is housed in Pitt’s School of Social Work, were selected by the collaborative to evaluate the programs that had been designed to reduce a relapse into crime, or recidivism, for inmates at the county jail. The programs centered on drug and alcohol rehabilitation, computer courses, parenting skills, anger management, spirituality, and preparation for passing high school equivalency exams for inmates. Then, upon release from jail, the inmates were referred to some 60 community groups to find housing, jobs, and schooling. But, over the years, no one knew whether the approach was successful.

“All of my information came from inmates who were released and then came back,” Rustin said. “I never heard about the success stories.” There wasn’t evidence that could be used to persuade private foundations or policymakers to back the programs.

When Yamatani and his Pitt colleagues entered the picture, their research produced some surprises. One finding, in particular, grabbed headlines: Male inmates who received collaborative services ranging from job training to drug counseling were less likely to be back in jail within a year. The Pitt researchers found that the recidivism rate—or rate of relapse into crime—was about 50 percent lower for these inmates compared with another group of inmates who hadn’t been exposed to such programs.

By examining past studies and conducting in-depth interviews with

300 former inmates, Yamatani and his team showed that inmates who had come through the system since the start of the Allegheny County Jail Collaborative had a recidivism rate of 16.5 percent—compared to 33.1 percent for those who served time and were released before the jail collaborative existed.

Another surprise: Researchers discovered there was no “statistically significant difference” in recidivism rates between Blacks and Whites among ex-offenders who were released from the jail since the rehabilitation programs were implemented. This contrasted with earlier studies from around the country that found racial disparities in recidivism rates.

Other highlights of the research showed that the collaborative’s efforts saved the county more than $5 million and led to a better housing situation for former inmates. The research findings demonstrate that efforts to help the incarcerated can result in significant positive returns for the larger society, says Larry Davis, the School of Social Work’s dean and Donald M. Henderson Professor. He also directs the school’s Center on Race and Social Problems.

As part of their effort, Yamatani and colleagues also implemented an innovative research approach, using applied collaborative research during their three-year evaluation study. Instead of relying solely on ideas selected by traditional academic researchers, Yamatani and the Pitt group sought input from the community. Last year, Yamatani was honored by the grassroots nonprofit Community Empowerment Association for his commitment to racial justice. It’s important, he says, to understand the role community leaders have in creating positive outcomes. “Community input at the start can help to ensure the ‘right’ questions are asked, leading to meaningful, applicable solutions.”

The final report continues to guide the Allegheny County Jail Collaborative, and the study was selected by the National Institute of Corrections, U.S. Department of Justice, for national access at www.nicic.org/Library/022993.

There have been intangible benefits, too. “It was my first experience with a big school,” Rustin says about working with Yamatani and others at Pitt. “When you are in the [jail], you feel cut off, but when you meet people from an academic setting, it motivates you to look at your own field. It motivates you to do more.”

It’s a characteristic that Rustin shares with Yamatani, who looked around the steel mill where he worked long ago and decided he’d find a way to be an agent for change.

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