Prison diversion program fights for futures, funding

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Detroit — This is the second day of the rest of their lives.

It’s a Tuesday, and time for new classes at Flip the Script, a Detroit-based prison diversionary program that teaches life skills. The two-dozen or so men in the room, most ordered by a court to be there, are paying spotty attention to Keith Bennett, who created the program in 2003 and is its executive director.

Bennett, 60, soon would wake them up.

“For some of you, this is going to be your first intimate experience with another man,” he said, to groans from the young men.

Many in the group still wear sagging pants, still wearing hats indoors, still fighting between napping and playing with their smart phones.

Attention is hard to come by with this group, but on this day the attention-getters come rapidly. The words “DEAD MAN WALKING” appear in red on a screen at the front of the room in the Goodwill Industries of Greater Detroit’s North End Career Center just off Woodward on East Grand Boulevard.

“This is what you guys are,” Bennett said. “Dead spiritually. Dead emotionally. Dead mentally. You don’t have hope anymore.”

Hope or not, the men referred to the program rather than being sent to prison have a second chance to remain free, get their high school diplomas and transform into the kind of young men — men and women are separated, but the program serves both — who can get, and keep, a lawful, family-supporting job.

Whether Flip the Script’s efforts will continue at current levels will be determined in Lansing in the months to come, as the state budget is set.

Some $1.5 million of Flip the Script’s $2.5 million annual budget is in a tug-of-war between the program and the Michigan Department of Corrections. The money comes out of the department’s $2 billion budget. Gov. Rick Snyder has recommended, and the Corrections Department has agreed, that those funds be kept in-house.

Corrections spokesman Chris Gautz describes the $1.5 million as “something the Legislature inserted in our budget, not something we were pushing for. Ever since its inclusion in budget, the recommendation from Gov. Snyder has been for its removal and we support that recommendation.”

Instead, the department would like to expand its pilot program, the Wayne County Residential Alternative to Prison (WRAP), to the west side of the state. The cost: $1.5 million.

At issue are Flip the Script’s job placement numbers that the department says are not satisfactory. In its first mid-year report, measuring Oct. 1, 2014, to March 30, 2015, Flip the Script planned to have 103 successful job placements, but only had two. Out of 148 projected graduates, 14 had graduated.

From Oct. 1, 2014, to Dec. 2015, the program placed 75 people in jobs out of 103 projected. It served 198 diversions from Third Circuit Court compared to a projected 185, and 137 of them graduated.

At WRAP, Gautz said, participants are not only exposed to, and hopefully, scared away from, the prison environment, they’re also exposed to job skills, such as Hi-Lo driving and hospitality training, in the hope of connecting them to jobs that pay $15, 20, even $30 an hour.”

Bennett believes WRAP “operates just like ours,” with two important differences: First, he asked, “how can it be a diversionary program if you have to go to (a prison facility) to use the service?” Also: Flip the Script also accepts those who aren’t in legal trouble, they just need life skills.

“They’re trying to duplicate a community-based setting in a Department of Corrections facility,” Bennett said. “And they’re not the same.”

The 75 job placements, the second report explained, were obtained by 60 individuals, of them 15 were on their second job. The average hourly wage: $9.70.

“Some of these are jobs someone might’ve been able to get on their own,” Gautz said.

Bennett argues it’s not always the first job that turns things around. Most participants can’t fill out an application and aren’t ready for a job interview upon arrival, he said.

“Our guys, who never have worked before in their lives, (MDOC) wants them to be star employees in 16 weeks,” Bennett said. “Someone who’s never worked for any length of time, where is he going to get this incredible work ethic in 16 weeks? It’s the second or third job we find for them that does the job.”

“They go in with their pants sagging, they don’t know how to tie a tie; who’s going to teach them that?” Bennett said. “They’re not getting it at home, and they’re not going to listen to parole and probation officers. They see them as the enemy.”

Judge Deborah Thomas of the Third Circuit Court might expect to be treated as the enemy, and can feel that way when she first orders a defendant in her court to complete their GED.

In the end, though, “they thank me” for demanding they do it, Thomas said.

“A lot of the people who come here, no one ever encouraged them. No one ever applauded their achievements,” Thomas said. “When they finally get the GED, and we make a copy of it, and we put it up on the wall, that’s like putting it on the refrigerator at home, which nobody ever did.”

The judge said 90 percent of the defendants she sees don't have a high school education. Bennett said it’s 80 percent at Flip the Script.

If patterns hold, Bennett says, by the time the current Flip the Script class graduates weeks from now, their pants no longer will sag, they won’t wear hats indoors, and instructors won’t have to fight for their focus or their attendance.

All will have been exposed to training in financial education and job skills.

Flip the Script owes another report, with the latest numbers, to the Legislature by Thursday. But the Corrections Department is not budging in its belief it has a better use for the money.

If the money is removed from the budget and not replaced, Flip the Script would probably serve closer to 100 participants a year rather than roughly 400, Bennett said. It would hurt, he said, but the program would continue.

“We think (WRAP) is a program we see a lot of benefit in,” Gautz said. “I’m not saying it’s one or the other. They absolutely could” both get funded.

“The governor has recommended the inclusion of the WRAP program and the exclusion of the Goodwill program, and we support that. But, we also supported that last year and it stayed in.”