Elizabeth Peterson unmasks the weaknesses of rehab (12/01)

Who are you here to see?” asked the guard at the desk. “Dale Byam,” we answered. He went through a card file and drew one out.

“Sign your names on this card and also on the Visitor’s Sheet,” he instructed. “Leave your car keys and ID here on my desk. And be sure your pockets are empty.”

After providing the required signatures, my husband David and I lined up with the other visitors for an electronic search. If the bell rang, we had to remove anything that was metal. Since my steel knee always rings, the guard took a hand device to go over my entire body until satisfied it was indeed my knee that set off the detector.

Next, the back of my right hand was stamped. As he stamped the boy who followed me, the guard warned, “You can’t get out again without this stamp. Now line up by the door.”

Holding a radio phone to his mouth, he reported: “Visitors are ready to enter.” A few second later there was a loud click, and then the guard pushed the door open. We filed into a six by ten foot cell; bars and a gate formed the fourth wall. After the first door was firmly shut, the gate clicked and the closest visitor pushed it open. The rest of us followed. We walked across a large hallway, locked offices to our left and a glass-enclosed central control office to our right. Inside, another guard sat behind the large computer panel that unlocks the prison’s many gates and doors.

The visiting room was straight ahead, about 30 feet long with tables and chairs on both sides. A guard sat at the entrance, able to see each visitor and inmate. The door clicked, and the first person in line pushed it open. We found our places on chairs near the walls. The inmates would sit in the center rows, facing us.

The prisoners walked down a long hallway from the opposite direction. They waited at a barred wall until hearing a click, then gathered at the visiting room entrance to wait for another.  By the time they reached their families and friends about 15 to 20 minutes of our one-hour visiting time had been consumed.

Caught in the System

After Dale greeted us with a big hug across the table, we settled down for the visit. We’ve followed this young man since David was his guardian ad litem. Dale was 17 at the time, and had become involved with an older gang that was caught for a series of robberies. Now 25, he was born in Providence, RI, on May 2, 1976 to unstable parents who were unable to hold onto jobs or a home for very long. Moving frequently, they were living in Florida by the time Dale was 2. One day, his father walked out. His mother was unable to handle the children or the household. Eventually, one of her bothers came down from Vermont, where most of her family lived, and brought them back.

By the time Dale was ten he was in foster care. For the next five years he was bounced around between foster homes, sometimes running back to his mother (who he wasn’t allowed to see), and landed in a detention home. Eventually, he was sent to Indiana. Upon his return, he was placed with a very positive foster parent who, among other things, got him involved with Bread and Puppet Theatre. There he had many loving and honest role models. Unfortunately, he ran away again to see his mother, and became lost in drugs, alcohol, and stealing.

“I was finally caught and now had to deal with the court system,” he recalls. “I sat in the North East Correctional Facility in St. Johnsbury for the next six months, and then was transferred to South Burlington for three months where I got my GED and played sports. After nine months in custody, I finally went to court and accepted a one-to five-year plea bargain, with all suspended but a year.

“Given credit for the nine months already served and after another three months in jail, I was released on probation in the summer of 1994. I lived with my sister in Morrisville, worked for almost a year and reported to my probation officer often. Then I moved to Randolph to live with my brother, who found a better paying job for me. I worked at a lumber mill and eventually became a foreman. But I met new people and started partying again. They were a rowdy group who often fought, and I found myself fighting and going through a lot of bad relationships.

“When I got ÔSimple Assault’ charges, that ended my probation and another one to two years was added to my sentence. From the summer of 1994 to 1996, I was doing well, until I started hanging out with negative people. The two years I had worked didn’t count. I was put in Woodstock jail, then transferred to Rutland, and then bailed out. I wandered the streets, not knowing what to do with myself, and got into drugs. Caught again, I spent nine months in Woodstock. The next probation put me under house arrest in Morrisville. After two and a half months I began to drink and hang out with old friends.”

His story continues: more time in jail and new probation attempts, always ending with poor self-understanding and self-destructive behavior. More years were added each time he went back to jail. Very little was done to help rehabilitate him during each prison stay, and nothing helpful was offered while he was on probation.

Facing Life’s Problems

Dale is currently working on his last nine months in prison. He seems to have matured greatly as his next try at probation approaches. His most recent letter to us said, “I think the most beneficial thing I have learned is to take a look at myself and acknowledge my problems so I can change my past behavior. I’ve also learned that life is precious, and to love life and others instead of making victims. I have learned how to communicate with others and help them.

“I have learned, as well, that there is a lot of corruption in the Department of Corrections. People are being fooled about inmates being rehabilitated. From experience I have asked for help. But because everything is classified by points, I could never get help. My points were too low. There are people who have helped me in jail, mostly by listening when I needed an ear. But I feel that the Department of Corrections idea on how to help inmates lead a positive life is wrong. People are being sent to jail because they are dirty, because they use drugs, instead of being able to go through therapy.

“Myself and many others are constantly pushed out to the world with very little help, if any. I feel people should work with each other, and learn to love one another and accept the fact that everyone makes mistakes.”

On our last visit, he proudly announced, “I was offered a joint the other day and I found I had no desire and it was easy to say, ÔNo thanks!'” We were happy to hear this since his last probation ended because he smoked marijuana. He knew his probation officer would put him back in jail so he ran away again.

We have great hopes that Dale will make his next probation a success and finish the sentence that has been hanging over his head for eight years. He’s determined not to run away from life’s problems again, and to deal with each situation, as it comes, in a more positive and constructive way. He has also learned to trust us, and promises to consult with us as the need arises.