Behind Bars: An hourlong open conversation with a caseworker shows progress

Monday , July 17, 2017 - 12:00 AM

BRIAN WOOD, Behind Bars columnist

I just finished an interview with my caseworker. It was an hour long and consisted of structured questions about my history and time in prison, as well as open dialog about my opinions.

I don’t think I can overemphasize how out of the norm this experience was.

I just told another prisoner about this encounter, and he said he’s sure he hasn’t had an hour’s worth of conversation combined in all his dealings with caseworkers over the past decade of incarceration.

 

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Caseworkers have been known to tell prisoners they won’t lift a finger until the prisoner exhausts all other resources including the formal grievance process. Regarding caseworkers like that, prisoners will say, “At least you know you’ve got nothing coming.”

That’s a positive because other caseworkers have been known to say they’ll do something for a prisoner and not follow through, or worse — lie about doing so. There are definitely caseworkers who want to help and do, but which caseworker you get is just the luck of the draw.

Caseworkers act as a liaison between the inmate and the system. Each one is assigned a number of inmates. They write letters to the Board of Pardons about what a prisoner is doing, make sure prisoners are compliant in their “mapping” — programs the prison requires inmates to take — and help prisoners transition to the outside world. They apply time-cuts and programs and can aid with things like phone calls during family emergencies and that sort.

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It makes complete sense that a caseworker would conduct interviews like one I just had, but until now I had believed their jobs were entirely reactionary.

Although the interview was proactively sought by my caseworker, it was clearly not just him wanting to get to know me. Also, the professionalism displayed and extra time given may have been a result of the video camera being used.

Even with that bit of cynicism stated, it was very refreshing to feel like someone was interested in how I’m doing, what help I might need and that someone was willing to spend the time to humanize the process.

It doesn’t really matter whose idea it was to conduct such an interview. The point is someone wants to know, and the caseworker ended up getting to know me a little.

On my second day in prison, I was “mapped” (for programs and classes) by a guy who looked me over and browsed through my charges. Then with his two minutes of research, he decided what help I would need and what things I could do over the next five years to best help society and myself.

 

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Obviously parts of the “assessment” missed the mark.

The new assessment was called an RNR interview, which stands for risks, needs and responsivity. I was surprised at how thorough it was. It appears the prison is taking their job of correction a little more seriously as of late.

My new mapping will affect my parole requirements, so I’m glad it was based on something concrete rather than just being pulled out of thin air.

My old mapping scored “attitude” the highest — or my biggest problem area. I don’t believe I was scored that way based on anything except perhaps to give variety; however, I wasn’t going to contest the assessment with my parole officer, as any refute would look like evidence supporting the claim of bad attitude.

I imagine this new RNR interview will help make prisoners’ time more productive since the assigned programs won’t be arbitrarily assigned.

There’s a statute saying prisoners will not be forced to program. This law is largely ignored, as prisoners are regularly strongly compelled to program.

I disagree with this practice for a different reasons than most of the prisoners I’ve heard voicing complaints. I believe forcing inmates to program eliminates the genius of the law, which is helping differentiate the prisoners who are attempting to better themselves and others who may not have such goals.

I believe the open nature of the RNR interview might also help clear up some of that masked differentiation. Either way, I see progress just in the fact that it’s being done.

Brian Wood, formerly of Layton, is an inmate at the Utah Correctional Facility in Gunnison. He pleaded guilty to nine felony charges for offenses from 2011 to 2014, including counts of burglary, drug possession and prescription fraud. He could spend up to 35 years in prison, depending on parole hearings.

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