Starting Rehabilitation Early, at Arizona's Coconino County Jail

By Christopher Zoukis  Image courtesy washingtonpost.com

America's county jails can be a challenging environment, both for their inmates, and for those seeking to provide educational and rehabilitative programs.  There is a high turnover of inmates, who typically stay only a short time, and who tend to be anxious and preoccupied with their pending court cases.

At Coconino County Jail in central Arizona, the average stay is just one week, though in part that reflects many who only stay overnight; other inmates remain at the jail for many months.  Because of these challenges county jails are usually seen simply as staging posts.  Rehabilitative programs are given a low priority and inmates spend most of their time watching television, reading, or playing cards.  In Coconino County, however, Sheriff Pribil sees this as a wasted opportunity, and he has shown that he's prepared to do something about it.

Coconino County Jail's drug treatment program has cast the jail's general education programs in a less favorable light, and shown them to be in need of improvement.  To begin this process, Sheriff Pribil appeared before the Coconino County Supervisors on March 12, 2014 to request approximately $70,000 of additional funds in order to hire an educational coordinator for the jail.  Impressed by the success of the Exodus program, the Supervisors unanimously approved.

Many inmates at Coconino County Jail cannot read, and few have skills that can be translated into honest employment. 

According to http://www.prisonlawblog.com/, this is the case in jails and prisons across the United States.  But unlike other jails and prisons, Pribil wants his jail's educational programs to be focused not only on GED teaching, but also on vocational skills.  Because of the short time most inmates spend at the facility, he is looking to focus on skills that can be taught relatively quickly, such as bicycle repairs or food handling.  Thinking outside the box, and pointing out that almost every town has a pizza restaurant, Pribil suggested that learning how to purchase and operate a pizza oven could be a very worthwhile skill.

Pribil has also been in discussions with Coconino Community College, though the short time inmates spend at the jail, and the typical level of educational attainment, means that college programs will be unsuitable for most.

Sheriff Pribil's professional and foresighted approach stands in stark contrast with the publicity-seeking stunts of his counterpart in nearby Maricopa County, Joe Arpaio, whose brutish tactics -- forcing inmates to wear pink underwear, and restricting them to a diet of nothing but bread and water for infractions of prison rules -- serves only to expose Arpaio as nothing more than a schoolyard bully, as liberally reported at http://www.prisonlawblog.com/.

Arizona has 5% more nonviolent crime, 22% more property crime, and jails 39% more of its citizens than the national average.  Between 2000 and 2010, Arizona's prison population increased by 52%.  If the state is to reverse these trends, it will need more thoughtful, practical initiatives like those being implemented in Coconino County.