RI DWI Program Matches Offenders and Victims With Students

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This Radio Program is available at http://media.csosa.gov/podcast/audio/?p=88

[Audio Begins]

Len Sipes: Hi and welcome to DC Public Safety. I’m your host Len Sipes. At our microphone today is Tracey Poole, Chief of Information and Public Relations for the Rhode Island Department of Corrections. One of the things that Tracy did, she brought a program to our attention called “Zero Fatalities Project,” a very successful program there in Rhode Island. This is the first time we are doing a Skype-related interview. For those of you who are not familiar with Skype, it is a digital interview between myself and Tracey, and this is the first time we are trying it, and I just want to tell everybody that DC Public Safety is way over a million requests now for the program, since its inception in January of 2007. Government Computer News just gave us the ranking as one of the ten best websites in state and local government. So please get in touch with us. We respond to all of your comments. We respond to all of your suggestions at www.media.csosa.gov or simply search for DC Public Safety.

Tracey, now you and I have a lot in common. I was a Director of Public Information for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, which was with Corrections and Police. How long have you been Chief of Information and Public Relations for the Rhode Island Department of Corrections?

Tracey Poole: I’ve been in this position for two years and in public relations for over 20.

Len Sipes: Okay, did you do public relations for Criminal Justice or emergency agencies before you came to Rhode Island, or before you came to the Department of Corrections?

Tracey Poole: No, actually, I didn’t. Most of my career was spent in higher education.

Len Sipes: Okay, now is it crazy. The 14 years I spent in Maryland I found to be extraordinarily taxing and extraordinarily exciting, being on-call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and wow that’s an eye opener.

Tracey Poole: Yes, it is. It’s absolutely never boring, I always tell people, and I never know what the day will bring, and I love it. It’s fascinating work.

Len Sipes: It is fascinating work, but it does get a bit tiring. I can remember sitting and having dinner about 300 miles away, in a lakeside restaurant with my wife, and we are sitting there having this lovely candlelit dinner, and the phone goes off, and even though I’m on vacation, they are demanding that I take this particular media call, and my wife wanted to tell the Secretary of Public Safety to, oh, I don’t know. I can’t say in public what she said me to do, but I said, “Dear, I’m stuck with this. I’m just the one who has to respond to this question,” so I would imagine you are basically in the same boat.

Tracey Poole: Yes. Yes, that was made clear to me during the interview process that it is that you are on-call 24/7 and you know I do get calls in the evening sometimes, or on the weekends, but I have a great boss and I work with a lot of wonderful people, and I think it’s worth the trade-off.

Len Sipes: I don’t know about you, but I’ve been in the Criminal Justice System for an awfully long time, close to 40 years, and you’ve been in the Criminal Justice System for two. I’m very impressed with the caliber of people in the Criminal Justice System and I would imagine you are too. Most people are surprised as to how good and how dedicated and how smart and how educated the people in Corrections really are.

Tracey Poole: I definitely agree with that. We’ve had a lot of people retiring over the last couple of weeks. We have some changes going on in state government here in Rhode Island, so I’ve been attending a lot of farewell parties and listening to tributes to people and it really brings it home how dedicated and fantastic so many of the staff are who have been here and have seen changes over the years, and really been through a lot.

Len Sipes: Okay, Tracey one of the things that we are here for today is to talk about the “Zero Fatalities Project.” Now, from what I understand, you are presenting this to students and various groups and they go inside of a prison. They go before inmates, and these are people who have been convicted of driving while intoxicated on charges, and sometimes the individuals who go inside of the prisons get to hear from parents of victims. So, one of the things that I remember, because I started off my time in the Maryland State Police, and my career in the Criminal Justice System, was the outrageousness of the drinking while intoxicated accidents. People without arms, people without legs, and I’ve seen an entire family virtually wiped out by a drunk driver, so this is something that is of immense importance to every person in the country, and probably every person in the world, where there are cars. And so you think you have a program that has an impact.

Tracey Poole: Yes, we hope so. We launched it last spring during prom and graduation season, and I just wanted to let you know that while it is a project of the Department of Corrections, we do have quite a few partners who are helping and supporting us in this effort, and those include the Rhode Island Attorney General Office, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) of Rhode Island, the Rhode Island Family Court, the Police Chief Association, the Rhode Island State Police and the Rhode Island Department of Transportation. So, it is a joint initiative.

Len Sipes: One of the things that really amazed me is that you did a survey, and 49% of the people who you surveyed, who participated in this, said that they were a passenger in a vehicle driven by a drunk driver. Now, I find that to be astounding.

Tracey Poole: Yeah, by someone who had been drinking. Yeah, we didn’t get specific about how much, but any amount is probably too much, and we had 1600 people come through the program just through the month of May, basically last year, which was when we launched.

Len Sipes: Wow, that’s a lot of people.

Tracey Poole: Yeah, quite a few. I think 26 different groups.

Len Sipes: Now was that involved with prom season?

Tracey Poole: Yes, right. We targeted prom and graduation seasons because we know that’s a time when there’s a lot of vulnerability for this. You know, a lot of kids are going out, unfortunately, partying and there tend to be more accidents at that time.

Len Sipes: Yeah, I told both of my daughters I was putting GPS devices on the cars, and I was not joking, although I really was, but they didn’t know that. Let’s see, now the inmates who get involved in this, now they are serving time in a Rhode Island Correctional Facility for Driving While Intoxicated (DWI)?

Tracey Poole: Yes, and it just so happens that all of the panelists that we currently have are doing DUI, death-resulting sentences, the majority of about ten years.

Len Sipes: Wow, now are these chronic DWI drivers, are these first-timers, or is the primary variable here the fact that they were involved in an automobile accident where somebody died?

Tracey Poole: Yeah, that’s the primary variable. They get up and they speak about their experience, what led up to the crash, what type of behaviors they were engaged in, and there is quite a range. We have male and female panelists, which is kind of a first in our system. We don’t normally bring together male and female offenders for programs, so that was kind of a hard sell in the beginning with the staff here, but I think everybody realizes that this helps make it a panel that everyone in the audience can relate to. There is somebody on that panel that everybody in the audience can connect with. We have a woman who was a young mother at the time of her crash. We have a woman who was a senior in high school at the time of her crash. We have a male offender who was climbing the corporate ladder and had a successful career and was engaged to be married, and he was a college graduate. And then there are a couple of male offenders who were younger, high school age, and one just out of high school at the time of their crashes. So, it’s quite a diverse panel.

Len Sipes: Bringing the victims in, or the parents of the victims, I would imagine, and so what we are implying here is, in terms of parents of the victims, that they were younger people when they died?

Tracey Poole: Yes, we have the father of a young man that was killed November of ’07 by a drunk driver, and he speaks very movingly and eloquently about the experience. I mean, we were all kind of blown away by his willingness to get up and talk so soon after his son’s death, but he finds it therapeutic, I think, and also has a very strong passion about wanting to spread the message wherever he can to try to prevent this from happening to other families. And the other parents who have participated have a daughter who is still alive, but basically completely disabled, as the result of a DUI crash, and she was 13, I believe, at the time of the crash, and she’s about 18 now.

Len Sipes: I have done death notifications, knocking on the door and grabbing a priest or a minister and generally speaking, and this is quite some time ago, I think they were all driving while intoxicated-related offenses, where you go from the scene and the medical office comes along and picks up the body, and then your next step is to knock on the door and tell a wife her husband is now dead, or tell parents that the child is now dead, and you don’t forget that.

In all of this, Tracey, do you get a sense that it makes an impact because we have this society that almost celebrates the concept of alcohol, regarding major life events, and I don’t want to sound like a hypocrite. I’ve had more than a couple of drinks myself throughout my years, but the concept of drinking and then getting behind a steering wheel is something that leads oftentimes to horrific results, and I’m not quite sure the students, before they come to your program, fully understand the unbelievable tragedy that this inflicts upon, not just families, but entire communities. Before they get there, is there an impact? Does the program have an impact on them?

Tracey Poole: Well, there isn’t a whole lot of scientific evidence to it, although we did survey everyone who came through, and we had a pretty good response rate, about 34%, so our planning and research unit analyzed those surveys, and according to the surveys, about 46% said that they would change their behaviors as a result of attending, and I think 669% said that they would share what they learned with friends and family. I think just from having sat in the room for every one of the presentations, that impact is something that you cannot necessarily capture in the survey, and I’ve had parents call me and teachers speak to me and say how powerful it was, and how much the kids were impacted, and I’m not sure that it’s necessary reflected in a survey, but I mean we are not naive enough to think that we are going to stop teens from drinking, although that would be great, but what we are trying to do is get them to at least make better choices, and to take this seriously and realize they are not in control.

Len Sipes: Well, Tracey, I’m asking the question because there is a variety of research that in terms of a “Scared Straight” type of programs for criminal populations, where individuals who are in trouble with the law, do not seem to have that much of an impact on them. This, however, I would imagine would have an impact. It’s just that, and I guess I’m editorializing just a tad, and that is to say that so many people seem to take this concept of drinking and driving in a fairly cavalier way. The younger individuals seem to be more prone to it, than the older individuals, and I have no idea if that’s true or not. That’s just my inference, but sometimes you get frustrated with larger society and the mixed messages we give about the consumption of alcohol, and what it does to your ability to make good decisions. Now, that transcends drinking and driving. That could be young girls who are the victims of sexual assault, because , well, not because, but drinking is part of that, and to me that is a tremendous tragedy of individuals getting in fights or engaging in other criminal behavior while under the influence of alcohol. In fact, alcohol is one of the biggest correlates that you will find in terms of violent crime, especially interpersonal violent crime. So I sometimes wonder what the mixed message is that we give in society that this sort of a program can really cut through the clutter and remind people that alcohol has some real consequences regardless of whether you are 16 or 56.

Tracey Poole: Yes, that’s right. I mean, we certainly help that this is going to make a difference and that it has only been that one targeted month of May that we really did it intensely, and now we are gearing up for another school year, so the reservations are starting to come in by word of mouth, and we did a brochure and a mailing, and I’m starting to get bookings now for this year, and hopefully we will reach a lot more school across the state, and we would like to get parent groups involved, because I think one of the keys is not just having the kids come and hear the message, but having their parents here and then having dialogue between the parents and the kids.

Len Sipes: They say that dialogue is the biggest factor in terms of all of the research that I’ve looked at, it’s the biggest factor in terms of keeping kids off of drugs and kids away from alcohol, it’s that conversation that parents have with their kids and setting “no nonsense” goals with their kids and expectations for their kids. Do you think that’s correct?

Tracey Poole: Yes, I do, definitely. I have, if you want to bear with me for a minute, while I look at the brochure, I have a couple of quotes here from some of the panelists that kind of convey how powerful this is.

Len Sipes: While you are looking I am going to reintroduce you. Ladies and Gentleman, you are listening to DC Public Safety, our first Skype and/or digital interview with somebody beyond the studio that we have here in Washington DC. We are talking to Tracey Poole, and Tracy is Chief Information Officer in Public Relations for the Rhode Island Department of Corrections, and she’s talking about the “Zero Fatalities Project.” Tracey, do you have your quotes?

Tracey Poole: Yes, I do. One of our offenders, I mentioned earlier, who was older at the time of his crash, in his 30s, actually, and climbing the corporate ladder says, “No words can capture the pain that was in that courtroom, but you could feel it. This is a burden none of you ever wants to carry around for the rest of your life.”

Then, we have a woman who had two young children at the time of her crash, and she is here for ten years, and said, “A ten-year sentence is nothing compared with the pain of knowing I took a mother’s only child.” Her crash resulted in the death of a 17-year-old.

Then, we have a father of a young man who was killed by a drunk driver, who speaks and says, “Close your eyes. Envision the person you love more than anyone else in the world standing up here in my shoes talking about your death. This is as real as it gets.”

Then, we have another young woman who was a senior. I think she was going to the beach with friends, you know, around the time of graduation, and had way too much to drink and was in a crash that resulted in the death of two elderly woman. She says, “Prison is like another world, especially for someone young who has never been in trouble before. All it takes is one bad choice.”

Len Sipes: You know, I had friends, and I have to put this gently, friends of mine who, these individuals were truly, truly community-oriented individuals, and they gave an awful lot of active time to sports teams in the area, and they were just fun to be with and friendly and known to be staunch supporters of community-related activities, yet they allowed their under-aged son, when he went to a resort, to have alcohol in the car, and I always said, I said to my wife, I said, “As nice and as community-oriented as these individuals are, they are just wonderful people, I think what they’ve done/what they did was just making a huge mistake, and they are never going to live it down if he gets involved in an alcohol-related crash where he kills somebody else or kills himself,” but I guess I’m going back to that sense of people being cavalier. You’ve read three quotes. Those three quotes were profound. They were very moving to me, but yet I go back to that sense that society is somewhat cavalier about drinking and driving.

Tracey Poole: Right, I mean there are messages everywhere that are hitting our kids, in the media and all over the place, and it’s definitely going to be a difficult thing to combat, and I think that there are all kinds of efforts out there, and this is just one of them. What we hope is that the actual experience of coming in to the prison is something that is going to stay with the kids. You know, they are not necessarily used to thinking of it from the perspective of the offender. I think that a lot of the messages they are getting are more from the victim’s perspective and that’s equally important, but you know a lot of times I think kids don’t realize, “If I get behind the wheel after a couple of drinks, I might end up, not only killing somebody, but ruining my own life, ruining my family’s lives,” and the results are just devastating, so when they see somebody up there and they are in inmates clothing, who kind of looks like them, and talks about having been very much like them when they were in high school, it does hit home.

Len Sipes: Well, it to me, there are profound decisions that individuals make and they don’t realize they are profound decisions, and one of the most profound is having, as far as I’m concerned, one drink and driving a vehicle. I’ve seen people who are not even close to the legal limit affected by one beer, one glass of wine, and they are now dangerous to themselves and dangerous to others. So, other people would say, “Leonard, you are going way overboard. You are being way too strict,” and I’ve seen it firsthand how people with one glass of wine or one beer go out and get involved in terrible accidents, so in any event, Tracey, what did I miss about your program? It’s fascinating, the “Zero Fatalities Project.” You are getting a lot of publicity there in Rhode Island, and more and more people are coming to the program, I understand?

Tracey Poole: Well, one of the reasons that we decided to do this in the first place, is that there is a community in Rhode Island called Barrington, and in Rhode Island, this is a fairly affluent community that has been getting a lot of attention on the press because there were a series of DUI-related crashes there and it seemed that all of a sudden the media kind of glommed on to Barrington, and then it became this Barrington’ issue.

Len Sipes: I remember that.

Tracey Poole: When, in fact, it’s really not just Barrington, and if you look at those statistics, and the Attorney General Office is a little bit more up on those than I am, but there have been crashes in every community, pretty much, in the state, so it’s not just Barrington, but I think the fact that there were quite a few in close proximity, and just the idea that it’s this affluent community just brought the focus onto Barrington, and we had a request for one of our offenders who is now on the “Zero Fatalities Project” panel to go and speak at Barrington High School. The director actually granted him a furlough and he did. He’s a minimum security inmate, so he was allowed to go and speak, and that had a tremendous impact, I guess, on the students in Barrington, but the director did not want to focus on one particular offender, and make a celebrity out of anyone, and so that’s when I started thinking, “You know, let’s do something where instead of taking offenders out, which is difficult on many levels, and we’ll actually invite students here.” We have a program here that’s been in place for many years called the “Score Program,” that is sort of similar to that “Scared Straight” idea but not quite along those lines, but it’s a similar format to this where we have a panel of inmates and students come in and hear them, but they are serving for a whole variety of offenses, and they talk about gang behavior, better decision-making and that’s just the common thread, bullying, drugs, and all kinds of different things. And so we have sort of the model in place, and high schools from across the state have been coming to that for years, and some middle schools. So we kind of modeled this “Zero Fatalities Project” along the “Score Program” but targeted it specifically to DUI offenses, and it seems to be very well received. I have had lots of response from taskforces around the state, prevention taskforces, substance abuse coordinators, and as I mentioned we have all these partners, so the word is getting out through them. The family court has sent kids to us for it. Our partners in law enforcement are getting the word out, so it seems like there was a niche that we could fill, and hopefully it’s going to have an impact.

Len Sipes: Tracey is there a place where people can get in touch with you for additional information?

Tracey Poole: Yes, they can call me at (401)462-2609, or also email me at Tracey.Poole@doc.ri.gov, and we also have some information on the program on our website which is www.doc.ri.gov and if you click on the left-hand link for “media and community relations” there will be a link to a PDF version of the brochure on the program which includes a registration form, and all kinds of information.

Len Sipes: Alright, Tracey. Ladies and Gentleman, Tracey Poole, Chief Information Officer in Public Relations for the Rhode Island Department of Corrections, and she is talking about the “Zero Fatalities Project.” Ladies and Gentleman, this is DC Public Safety, and I’m your host Len Sipes, and we respond to every email, every comment to you get to us at www.media.csosa.gov or simply search for DC Public Safety. We enjoy your comments and we respond to each and every suggestion that you have for the program. And Tracy Poole, again, (401)462-2609, or Tracey.Poole@doc.ri.gov, and have yourselves a very pleasant day.

[End Audio]

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