About Face Program Turns Lives Around

Article excerpt

The About Face Program, operated by the Orleans Parish Criminal Sheriff's Office in New Orleans, provides an innovative approach toward helping the region's male inmates learn how to redirect their lives. Sheriff Charles C. Foti Jr. developed the program in 1986 as the nation's first regimented life-changing program operated at the parish/county level. "Although initially intrigued by the boot camp concept, we soon realized that to have a permanent impact on an individual, we would have to provide more than just short-term discipline," he explains. "As the name implies, the About Face Program seeks to turn lives around completely." Today, with more than 500 inmates in its various phases, the About Face Program has become one of the largest jail-based therapeutic communities in the country.

During the past 10 years, the program has changed to better meet the needs of its participants. At its inception, the About Face Program was primarily a boot camp designed to last six months. However, with the addition of a drug treatment component in the early 1990s, the term has been extended to nine to 12 months or longer, depending on the length of an inmate's sentence. Between 1996 and 2002, more than 2,500 inmates completed the program.

Currently, the About Face Program consists of three basic segments, each 12 weeks in length. A new class begins every 45 days. The initial phase operates within a strict boot camp environment that places heavy emphasis on self-discipline, responsibility for one's actions, education and some physical activity. All inmates are tested at entry to determine their educational level, the average of which for both reading and mathematics is fifth grade. Classes are divided into three levels: literacy (below the sixth-grade level), adult basic education or intermediate, and the GED preparation class (above the ninth-grade level). The goal for each inmate is that he attain his GED. While this is not realistic for some, in 2000, one out of every four GEDs earned in New Orleans was by a participant in this jail system. The figures for 2001 are consistent with those of 2000.

The second and third phases of the program operate according to a modified therapeutic community modality of substance abuse treatment. During these phases, individuals learn about addictions of all forms and are encouraged to confront the behaviors that led to their criminal activity. They are taught that alternatives exist and are urged to use these when faced with problematic situations that could lead them back into destructive behaviors. Emphasis on education, self-discipline and some physical activity continues, and a work skills component is added when inmates approach the end of their sentence. After completion of the body of the program (the first three segments), inmates may first move to the re-entry phase, in which emphasis is on honing skills necessary for successful re-entry into society while maintaining the basic structure of the program. At the end of their incarceration, inmates may be eligible to move to a work tier in which they are taught a skill they can use to attain gainful employment such as various food service jobs, auto mechanics and body repair, horticulture, and electrical and plumbing repair. Inmates, however, must continue to work in their program and attend GED classes, if applicable.

Some of the men housed on the work tier are eligible for enrollment in a program sponsored by a local industrialist that attempts to train inmates about to be released in construction, home building/repair and related carpentry skills. These men go through an intensive training program, both in the classroom and on the job, and are guaranteed job placement in a related field after their release. The participants, with the direction and aid of professionals, have built new homes for low-income families in the New Orleans area. This program, which is supported by a grant from Louisiana, has been recognized as a model for its use of inmate skills in the redevelopment of housing in blighted areas. …