To leave jail is to enter a world of jobs, responsibility and self-discipline – for some, virtually a foreign land.

But for a decade, a training center mere steps from the Napa County courthouse has worked to guide people on probation off the vicious circle of behavior that leads many back behind bars. Its clients, including more than 200 men and women last year, spend a year or more absorbing the lessons – how to manage their anger, resolve conflicts, become a better parent or seek employment – that may help them re-enter society and become productive members of it.

The recidivism rate among graduates is 24 percent, much lower than traditional recidivism rates, the program reports.

On Thursday, the county’s Community Corrections Service Center hosted an open house at its Third Street facility downtown to celebrate its first decade counseling local probationers. Napa’s chief probation officer recalled the unease the program stirred among some in its earliest days.

“There was a lot of concern about bringing a program into downtown where we would bring in offenders all day long,” said Mary Butler about the service center’s opening in March 2009.

Despite such misgivings, a committee of leaders from Napa County’s probation department, superior court, and the district attorney’s and public defender’s offices pushed for such a program in hopes of curbing criminal behavior at its base rather than its symptoms.

Entering a partnership with GEO, the county developed a one-stop program providing one-on-one therapy and group discussions combined with job and educational training. All clients are ordered by the Napa court to attend and most are probationers, although some are jail inmates who enter the program before their release.

Treatment usually lasts from 12 to 18 months and passes through four phases, during which clients gradually transition from daily visits at the center to once-weekly “aftercare.” After assessing each client, the Reentry Center’s 11-person staff identifies the most troublesome parts of a person’s behavior – which may include antisocial behavior, substance abuse and other traits – and crafts its therapy toward addressing those traits, according to Amanda Owens, GEO’s Northern California area manager.

In addition to regular counseling, the center familiarizes entrants with the skills of everyday life – from how to write a resume and present oneself in a job interview, to better parenting, to defusing workplace conflicts rather than inflaming them. Staff members also offer education tracks with classes for women and Spanish speakers.

“Seventy percent of them don’t have the necessary skills to get a job: how to dress, how to present themselves and so on,” said Cesar Estrada, the program’s education and employment coordinator since 2015. “Seeing an individual gain skills and use them, that’s very rewarding – to see someone come in here with none of those skills and then build that confidence to say, ‘I’m gonna get that job; I’m gonna do my best.’”

Inside the re-entry center, the quiet and carpeted rooms appear much like the office space in surrounding downtown buildings. But this space’s special purpose is apparent with a glance at the walls, which bear messages such as a poster on proper office comportment (dressing neatly, sitting upright without slouching) as exhortations to DILIGENCE, PERSEVERANCE and MOTIVATION in bold black letters.

Each life skill acquired, each small step toward more productive behavior is marked by certificates and small rewards. On Thursday, a display board inside the Reentry Center carried the picture of a stocky man with a goatee and a gray “Hollywood” ballcap, who was the program’s monthly “superstar” – and honored with a gift card, a commendation letter to his probation officer, even the rare privileges of bringing his hat or a snack into the building.

About 70 people receive counseling each day, and the program graduated 209 probationers in 2018, according to staff. Clients who complete their training and therapy are honored in graduation ceremonies the center holds twice a year.

“One of our principles is recognizing and rewarding the behavior we’re looking for,” said John Thurston, a vice president of the GEO Group, which operates the center under county contract. “This program is not about catching you doing something wrong; it’s about recognizing something you did right.”

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City of Napa/Town of Yountville Reporter

Howard Yune covers the city of Napa and the town of Yountville. He has been a reporter and photographer for the Register since 2011, and previously wrote for the Marysville Appeal-Democrat, Anaheim Bulletin and Coos Bay (Oregon) World.