Occupational therapy students help longtime prisoners transition to community

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Occupational therapy associate professor Jeffrey Crabtree, left, sits with former prisoners from the Indianapolis Re-entry Education Facility program.

Occupational therapy practitioners help individuals who have developmental, environmental, physical or mental health challenges participate in everyday activities. But for some occupational therapy students in the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences at IUPUI, that also means assisting individuals who live surrounded by 15-foot-high double chain-link fencing with razor wire on top.

These clients are inmates in the Indiana Department of Correction's minimum-security Indianapolis Re-entry Education Facility. After spending a decade or more behind bars, they haven't had the chance to engage in many daily living activities that most people take for granted.

The closest some have come to using a computer or a smartphone is seeing photos of them in ads. One inmate said, "My financial knowledge is so weak. I mean, I've never even had a checkbook."

The Indianapolis Re-entry Education Facility houses a maximum of 400 men who have been convicted of felonies ranging from murder to drug-dealing and who have no more than four years remaining of their sentence.

In 2013, Jeffrey Crabtree, an associate professor in the school's Department of Occupational Therapy, started the Occupational Therapy Community Living Skills Program to help inmates at the facility who have been in prison for at least 10 years make a successful transition to living in the community. The program also provides the school's students with required fieldwork experience.

Under the program, four groups of occupational therapy students spend five consecutive Fridays at the Indianapolis Re-entry Education Facility during the course of an academic year. Each group works with about a dozen inmates, focusing on technology, socialization, finances, employment, health and education.

Morning sessions feature small group meetings. In the afternoon, students meet individually with participants to answer questions about that day's topic.

"We decided to create a program that would help -- and give preference to -- guys in prison for 10 or more years, because these are fellows who have been away from society for a long time," Crabtree said. "Many were incarcerated before the web was created. They don't have a clue about the internet, and some have never touched a smartphone."

The program is designed to help the inmates plan for what they need to do -- and want to do -- when they get out of prison, Crabtree said. "Sometimes that is as simple as reconnecting with family members," he said. "We've worked with guys who have had no visitors for 16 years."

Those inmates have only associated with other prisoners and prison guards, Crabtree said: "They've had little or no opportunity to explore their own skills and interests and abilities."

Fear of re-entry into society looms large among the inmates.

As one inmate put it:  "Oh, hell yeah. You'd have to be crazy not to have any fears about going out after this long."

Finding meaningful work and housing after they are released worries the inmates. When asked about his employment prospects, one inmate said, "I'm 62 now, and I'll be 64 when I get out. Who is going to hire me? I have nothing paid into Social Security all these years. I've got no savings account, none of that stuff. I own absolutely nothing anymore. It's all brand-new -- and yeah, it's going to be difficult."

And then there is the technology that now pervades just about every aspect of society. An inmate said that when he went behind bars, mobile phones were the "size of bricks."

A fellow inmate told him: "Well, I looked in the advertisements this week. I saw something, and I don't know if it was a laptop, a notebook or a box of crackers. But it cost $785."

Crabtree says the program is an eye-opening experience for students, most of whom know little about life in prison except what they've seen on television or in the movies.

The Occupational Therapy Community Living Skills Program has proven to be a popular program among the inmates. Even though it doesn't offer "time cuts," which potentially reduce a prisoner's sentence, the program has developed a positive reputation at the facility.

As one inmate put it, "One of the first things that stood out to me about the class is that it's an awesome feeling to have somebody come in from the outside who's presenting a class or presenting a speech for whatever reason, and they're doing it for us. It's powerful. It's validating."