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Horizon Program Reduces Recidivism, Proponents Say

The national recidivism rate – the number of ex-convicts who return to prison – is about 40 percent. Ohio’s rate is 27 percent. State officials credit Ohio’s relatively low recidivism on community programs that mentor inmates. On a Tuesday evening at the prison in Marion inmates sit and talk with volunteers. Dozens of conversations are like this one where a man asks an inmate about his wife and family at home. The meetings are part of the Horizon Prison Initiative. The inmate is known as the ‘inside brother;’ the volunteer, the ‘outside brother’. Horizon director Jeff Hunsaker says outside brothers serve as mentors. “They come as a visitor once every week for about two hours and just become a friend. That simple thing of just coming unconditionally says that you’re not a piece of junk, that you do have worth and it’s vitally important that you change and come back to our community,” Hunsaker says. A goal of reform Change is the goal. Horizon’s intent is to transform the lives of inmates so they don’t go back behind bars. Joseph Sprague is president of the group’s board of directors. “For approximately 11 months those men on the inside, most of whom who have never had a non-manipulative, non-abusive relationship with another man, learn that there are those who do care about them and even come to love them,” Sprague says. Sprague is a retired Methodist bishop who pastored a Marion church in the 1980s at a time when the prison had a notorious reputation. “It was gloom and doom, period. The indices of violence were off the chart; what men were doing with and to each other was inhuman,” Sprague says. But Sprague says he’s seen the prison transformed. He believes that Horizon played a key role. A key program  The men who enroll in Horizon live in a special dormitory set aside by the prison. Where, says director Hunsaker: “They must learn to interact and connect with each other, talk through issues, work out conflict and it’s all done in that family,” Hunsaker says. Jimmy Cheadle is a former inmate who graduated from a Horizon program at the state prison in Chillicothe. “Seeing that guy coming down and saying, ‘You know what? I don’t care what you’ve done, or where you’re at, you’re still important enough for me to take a couple of hours every Tuesday night for me to come down here and see you.’ So probably just seeing him care about us and believe in us was probably the most important thing that the outside brothers did for me,” Cheadle says. State prison officials say they don’t keep stats on how effective Horizon has been at reducing the prison ‘revolving door.’ But Joseph Sprague does have recidivism figures. “We track our graduates who are released. Over 15 years we’re at nine percent; last five years, under four percent,” Sprague says. If that’s the case, Horizon is saving taxpayer dollars because it costs about $26,000 a year to keep an inmate in prison. Funding cut Even so, Horizon was dealt a serious blow when the state in 2013 completely eliminated funding for the program. Sprague remembers meeting with the ODRC’s director Gary Mohr. “We were praised up one side and down the other; ‘most effective program.’ Ten days later we were called back to the office and told that our funding for the next fiscal year was absolutely canceled. We lost $170,000 of $290,000 in a whipstitch,” Sprague says. Sprague says Horizon has been limping along with private donations ever since. Enrollment and graduation rates are small. Since Horizon began in 2000, 700 men have graduated from the program. Prison officials declined an interview. They said in a written statement that the program expanded rapidly and costs increased beyond their commitment. But Horizon’s leadership is undeterred. They’ve been able to keep the program going at the state prisons in Marion, London and Chillicothe. They hope to start a program at the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville if they can find the money.