- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 10, 2009

HAGERSTOWN, Md. | A unique program geared to preparing prison inmates to reunite with their families and loved ones upon release has spread to Washington County.

Following models already in place at prisons in Baltimore and Jessup, Md., the Washington County Community Mediation Center started arranging “re-entry mediation” sessions for inmates at Maryland Correctional Training Center, a medium-security men’s prison south of Hagerstown, said Valerie Main, executive director of the Washington County center.

Through the voluntary program, trained mediators facilitate up to three meetings between an inmate and the person who will serve as his “support system” after his release, Miss Main said. The sessions allow both people to work through their feelings and make plans for issues such as child rearing, employment and avoiding substance abuse, she said.

“We believe that if an inmate’s going to be released, it’s better for the community if they’re released with a plan,” she said.

The statewide program was created in response to a study that showed strong family involvement is key to inmates’ success in staying on the right side of the law after their release, said Lorig Charkoudian, executive director of Community Mediation Maryland, who started the re-entry mediation program two years ago at a correctional boot camp in Jessup.

The program is the only one of its kind in the country, but organizers hope it will become a model for others, she said.

Miss Charkoudian said that when she was director of Baltimore’s community mediation center, the Maryland Division of Parole and Probation sometimes called the center’s mediators for help when a recently released inmate was having a conflict with the family member with whom he or she was living.

In those situations, the pressures of moving back in with family often combined with pent-up tensions about the crime or the time spent in prison to create “something of a pressure cooker,” she said. Often, the situation exploded and the parolee left the family member’s home before mediators heard about it.

That’s why it can be valuable for an inmate to sit down with the people he or she will be living with to work through some of those issues before the inmate is released, Miss Charkoudian said.

“We’re offering this conversation to have the ‘I’m sorry’s, to talk about how it affected everybody in the family,” Miss Main said. “As mediators, we’re going to help them have that conversation in a neutral fashion.”

If these family issues are resolved ahead of time, the inmate has a better chance of reintegrating into society, said Mark A. Vernarelli, spokesman for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

“Family issues rank right up there with addiction relapse and failure to get a job as top reasons why inmates return to prison,” Mr. Vernarelli said.

As with the center’s free conflict mediation service, the re-entry mediation sessions are confidential. The mediator does not take sides or offer advice, but encourages the participants to discuss issues constructively and work out their own solutions.

Inmates scheduled for release within six months to a year are eligible to sign up for the program, Miss Main said. They can request mediation sessions with a person they will be living with after release, such as a parent, child, spouse or significant other, or with the other parent of their child, she said.

However, the program does not conduct mediation with the victim or with anyone who has a protective order against the inmate, she said.

After the inmate is released, the parties can opt to attend follow-up sessions with the Community Mediation Maryland center in the area where they are living, Miss Main said.

The center conducted its first information and sign-up session for the program at MCTC in March, Miss Main said. Seven inmates signed up for re-entry mediation at that time, she said.

Those inmates talked earnestly about not wanting to end up back where they were, needing their family’s help and wanting to get involved in their children’s lives, Miss Main said.

“They were very receptive and grateful that anything like this exists,” she said. “I think for the most part, most of them want to be successful in society, but don’t often have the tools.”

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