CHARLESTON -- Sometimes, offenders at correctional centers are looking for ways to better themselves, boost morale and integrate back into society.
Correctional Centers across the state offer a multitude of programs to give offenders just what they are looking for. And the Southeast Correctional Center in Charleston is no different.
Alcoholics Anonymous, a Book Club and programs are offered. But there is one showcase -- the Restorative Justice Program.
"That's one of our highlights," said Omer Clark, associate superintendent at the SECC. A 50-hour program, offenders in it make items such as coloring books, calendars, bingo cards and more for nursing homes, schools and hospitals.
The program is overseen by SECC administration, in addition to a group of minimal security offenders.
"It's basically them giving back to their own community and the community they will go back into," said John Hilpert, institutional activities coordinator. Most of the offenders at the SECC are from the surrounding area, he explained.
Two of the most popular programs through Restorative Justice are the Christmas program in which offenders buy toys for needy children and a garden from which all produce is donated to area food banks and churches. "They plan their whole year around that," Clark said. "And the children's projects always draw a lot of attention."
Minimal security offenders in the Restorative Justice Organization maintain the garden, which is just under two acres. In 2006, the garden produced 37,224 pounds, down from over 46,000 in 2005, due to weather conditions.
The RJ program has grown in numbers and diversity since it began at the SECC in late 2002, Hilpert said. The program began at the request of offenders.
"Most of them had been involved in RJ in another facility," explained Bill Harris, assistant superintendent. "When they came here, they asked to start it."
Inmate request is key for all programs offered at the center, he pointed out. A group of offenders usually approaches administration with new ideas, then officials look at the feasibility and interest in the idea, Hilpert explained.
Of the approximately 1,500 offenders at the SECC, about 1,150 are eligible to participate in the programs, due to screening requirements. However, not all participate in the voluntary programs.
"They're not interested, or it's not a thing they feel meets their needs," Harris said. However, he said the results are all positive. "It gives them involvement, a feeling of being accepted and part of an organization. They get a lot of self-
gratitude out of it.
Before an offender can get involved in a program, he completes a three-part screening process with Hilpert. A background check is run, followed by a face-to-face interview, and finally the offenders are placed accordingly in the programs, Hilpert explained.
Minimum security offenders help in the garden and do most of the work on projects, such as making birdhouses. However, maximum security offenders help with small touches, like painting. The higher level offenders also play a large role in fund raising efforts to support the projects and donate to the community.
If there is one drawback to the programs, it's a shortage of offerings. "There's a lot of diversity in our population, but not as much in the programs," Harris said. "We're always looking for new ideas and new concepts."
Officials urged anyone with ideas for a new program at the SECC or who simply wants to volunteer to call Hilpert at (573) 683-4409 ext. 217.