Maximizing Education Reaching Individual Transformation – MERIT
with Anthony Normore and David Bates
According to Sheriff Lee Baca, the Los Angeles County Sherriff’s Department (LASD) is the nation’s “largest sheriff’s department, second largest policing agency, and in addition to dozens of patrol stations and the country’s largest court security responsibilities, operates the nation’s largest jail system.” In the wake of a state budget crisis, LASD isn’t giving up, especially when it comes to the housing of the new “state” inmates commonly referred to as AB109ers.
With close to 20,000 incarcerated men and women, LA County Sheriff Leroy D. Baca wants to educate all of them. According to Sheriff Baca, “The uneducated mind will predictably live in a threatened and limited way.” Towards this end, Sheriff Baca created a set of guiding principles intended to provide a framework upon which LASD’s education programs are based
Assess and evaluate both the educational and trade skills of all offenders.
Develop a system of educating Los Angeles County prisoners who inevitably will serve time in the state prison system that begins and ends in the Los Angeles County Jail.
The development and implementation of an automated case management information system.
Strengthen and systemize the partnership with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR)
Develop curriculum that puts into action learning programs that are both structured and unstructured.
Transform the LASD Custody Operations Division and State Correction cultural thinking to support and embrace the principles of education-based incarceration
One of the premier education programs found within the 7 LASD’s jail facilities is M.E.R.I.T. (Maximizing Education Reaching Individual Transformation). The program is an integral part of LASD’s Education-Based Incarceration Bureau – a new bureau in the Sheriff’s Department under the command of Captain Mike Bornman. To date, over 8,000 men and women have graduated from this 12-week extensive life skills training program that teaches students to make good decisions while obtaining life and work skills. Students attend classes for 30 hours per week until they are released or they graduate with their 12-week certificate.
MERIT is an incentive-based program where students begin as “general population” and move toward the more elite Merit Masters. As a student moves through the progression, they are awarded more privileges such as more access to the telephones and longer yard time. An unusual component of the MERIT program is the teachers. Qualified inmates, deputies, as well as professional facilitators teach MERIT life skills classes. Yes, inmates are teaching inmates! According to EBI, the strength of the MERIT program lies in “its ability to bring all participants to the point where they recognize the importance of a personal commitment to reaching their goals, accepting responsibility for their actions, and being accountable for their life choices”
MERIT Beginnings is a program facilitated by MERIT graduates (inmates who are still incarcerated), as well as interested deputies. These facilitators are given a series of 45 different lessons to use for facilitation.
Unless court ordered, students who graduate from the MERIT Beginnings course are given the opportunity go participate in this 12-week program. Parenting, Anger Management, Drug Education, Relationships, and Spiritual Growth are the major components of the program. While spiritual growth is a component, only students who volunteer for this portion attend the classes. The MERIT program has a unique partnership with the department’s Religious and Volunteer Services division. Any quailed religious group can participate with MERIT.
After 12 weeks or approximately 360 hours of instruction, students are transitioned to a new class and in some case a new dormitory. This program is designed to cover the primary areas of one’s life such as recovery, employment, financial, legal, medical, family, and recreation. This program helps students create and organize goals and objectives they will need to address in the first few months following their release from custody. To qualify for this program, students must be graduates of a 12-week MERIT program.
Students who complete the 12-week MERIT course may qualify to become a MERIT Master. Students are chosen for this program based on the following: desire to teach, enforcement of rules, and leadership capabilities or potential. MERIST Masters are divided into teams of two, one senior and one junior. Each group of two teaches approximately 30 general population inmates. Prior to teaching and throughout the process, the inmate teachers are trained in adult learning theory, facilitation, basic lesson planning, basic curriculum design, and leadership principles. MERIT Masters also provide case management services throughout the jail. Each Master works with 4 other inmates to determine community transition needs.
The MERIT Continuum is a support group that provides an opportunity for all MERIT students who have been released from custody to return to a designated meeting place for continued support. Family members are also encouraged to attend. These support groups meet on weekday evenings and are strategically placed throughout Los Angeles County for travel convenience.
In our efforts to document personal testimonials about the impact of the MERIT program, the following section denotes voices from a variety of participants including MERIT students (inmates), instructors, and LASD Personnel. These participants share the successes of the program and how thinking processes and behavior of inmates have transformed throughout the program. While some of the testimonies are taken from personal discussions, others are retrieved from recently televised MERIT graduation exercises.
“Now I think before I act, and act on what I think about. By being mindful of my thoughts, I can control my actions. Now I can evaluate a problem by looking at all aspects.”
“I spent two years in a state program and only stayed out 49 days. I hit rock bottom and wanted to get help. Until you hit rock bottom, you’re going to keep looking for shortcuts. This program has transformed me”.
“I blamed the Army, people around me and society for my problems. A mix of drinking and unemployment led to a brush with the law that sent me to jail. The MERIT program may be the thing that keeps me from coming back. The teachers are the role models that I didn’t have as a kid. This is my first trip to jail and because of them, it’s my last”.
“In the 7 months of MERIT I’ve learned more about myself and about life than in the past seven years upstate (prison). You see, in prison, all I got was a drug habit. But through the MERIT program, I’ve gotten hope that I’ll never have to come back to jail again, that I’ll see my family again, and the hope that comes from knowing that I have a future and I have a choice. You see I heard something I haven’t heard in a long time – my father told me how proud he is of me, and the man I’ve become”.
“I no longer doubt or contradict myself. I’m still proceeding in my broken development. MERIT taught me to see who I really am. It allowed me to see what integrity means and does – such as doing the right thing when no one is looking”.
“Students show their transformation by becoming intentional learners. They come prepared for class; follow the course objectives as well as the process. They don’t just speak their intentions, they demonstrate them.”
“MERIT transforms boys with drug and abuse problems into men who take full responsibility for their lives”.
“MERIT changed their perspective. Before they thought about how they could help themselves, now they think about helping others. They used to sit and plan for their next crime. Now they plan on helping their community.” (Deputy)
“When you change a person’s heart, you change their mind. And that’s true rehabilitation.” (Senior Deputy)
“The whole idea is to help them deal with (problems in) their life so that they never go back to custody. If we don’t get forgiven and we don’t forgive ourselves, it really is a block to moving forward because you sort of spiral downward. They can ask their kids’ forgiveness, they can reconnect with them, and obviously that makes their transition even better going into their regular lives when they’re released from here.” (Command Personnel).
“This is true education-based incarceration. It is not just a concept, not something that is still on the drawing board. This is something that is happening, is affecting change, and individual lives”. (Command Personnel).
According to Sheriff Lee Baca, education-Based Incarceration is a component of the criminal justice system that “is focused on deterring and mitigating crime by investing in its offenders through education and rehabilitation. By providing substantive and intellectual education in jails, and being supportive rather than punitive in efforts to reduce crime related behavior, the likelihood to recidivate will be lowered while success and stability in the community occurs”
Baca further indicates: “We know from the documented high rates of recidivism across the nation that traditional incarceration with punishment at the core, does not work” and that “In Los Angeles County we have adopted a philosophy within the jails… that works well within the boundaries of our departmental mission statement and core values, by providing dignity in the jails”. The investment made through Education-Based Incarceration “is an endeavor for safer and more stable communities” and “The outcome of this system, when fully implemented within the jails, is the unlimited capability and appreciation for a productive life for those who are incarcerated.”
In sum, there is universal agreement that education is a better option than incarceration. Unfortunately however, some people make wrong choices in their lives that land them in jail. The MERIT program is a response to the values needed to succeed in jail which are often in direct conflict with societal norms. As Sheriff Baca states, the program creates a “safe and empowering environment, conducive to learning and self-retrospection” while allowing the offenders to reprioritize their lives and opt for success”
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Brant Choate is Director of Jail Programs at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. Anthony H. Normore, is a Professor of Educational Leadership, California Lutheran University, and Lead Facilitator/Instructor of Inmate Values-Based Leadership Development Continuum for MERIT Masters (Post Graduation), Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. David Bates is a Senior Deputy and MERIT Program Coordinator, Pitchess Detention Center/South Facility, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department