History of Community Corrections – An Interview With McKinley Rush

This Radio Program is available at http://media.csosa.gov/podcast/audio/?p=30

[Audio Begins]

Leonard Sipes: Hi and welcome to D.C. Public Safety, I am your host Len Sipes. Since July of 1972, McKinley Rush has been involved in the correctional system in the District of Columbia. He is currently the deputy associate director for the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency. He supervises or co-supervises a total staff of about 400 and he basically is in charge along with his associate director Tom Williams-in charge of the community supervision arm of the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency. And we’re here today to talk about what’s happened in the past and what’s happening now and how you can connect the two with somebody who has seen it all, done it all, been there, and probably knows that the criminal justice system better than just about anybody else. McKinley, welcome to D.C. Public Safety.

McKinley Rush: Thank you.

Leonard Sipes: And McKinley, you started off a long time ago back in 1972, in fact when we were talking, you gave me the exact date. What did you do when you entered the criminal justice system?

McKinley Rush: I began my career in community corrections as a correctional officer at the Lawton Reformatory.

Leonard Sipes: Okay, and what was that like?

McKinley Rush: It was an institutional setting where you had a lot of dormitory suites on the compound and there were approximately six institutions that made up the Lawton Reformatory.

Leonard Sipes: I’ve seen correctional officers in action in another job, it is one of the most difficult and tasking jobs I’ve ever witnessed. I’ve seen a correctional officer in the Maryland prison system get in between two individuals both very big, both very, very, very upset with the actions of the other person, and I saw that person who was half their size get in between the two of them and talk them down and resolve the situation peacefully. That certainly was an inspitation.

McKinley Rush: Well I came into the profession and I had a sense of fear because I was going into an institutional setting. However, the agency provided the training and experience support systems that helped me make it through and begin to develop and understanding of institution corrections.

Leonard Sipes: But that gave you, I would assume, a perfect background, a perfect base to take your career and move it further.

McKinley Rush: Correct. As an officer, you had to be among the population, you’re without any firearms, you only had a telephone and back in that day the telephones were very old rotary type. So you had to establish relationships with inmates in order to get a sense of comfort and understand who you were working with and why you were there.

Leonard Sipes: Right, and you were forced to do it?

McKinley Rush: Yes.

Leonard Sipes: You had no other choice. Either you developed skills to get along inside of the institution, or you left or you got hurt or you didn’t do well.

McKinley Rush: Exactly. Your skills are developed by interacting with people. And you get the support, you get the training, but there’s nothing like actually doing the work.

Leonard Sipes: Right. And in essence of that is the heart and soul of community corrections because we do two things: we supervise offenders in the community and we hold them accountable and the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency within the District of Columbia probably has higher contact levels, lower case loads, and more resources than just about any parole and probation organization in the country. But the key to our success is that ability to talk to individuals, that ability to talk to people who are caught up in the criminal justice system, correct?

McKinley Rush: Correct. You have to develop your communication skills and you have to be trustworthy yourself when interacting with any inmate or community corrections offender, you must be truthful, upfront, and explain what your requirements or expectations are.

Leonard Sipes: You and I have had conversations in the past in terms of the fact that we get new bright energetic people from all over the country who want to come here to work for us. But that skill, I mean, they may have a college degree, they may a graduate degree, they may have worked in the system previously. And a lot of people who come to us have good criminal justice experience, but it’s that ability to talk to offenders, holding that individual accountable, making sure he does what he’s supposed to do, making sure that he shows up for his drug testing. And at the same time to talk to him in such a way as to move him along socially in terms of getting that GED or getting that job or completing drug treatment-that’s a skill that is not instantaneous the day that you come onto the job.

McKinley Rush: Oh I agree totally. What is unique about CSOSA, is that they have the resources that can promote through betterment of an offender or enhance their skills and dissipate with their antisocial behaviors. So what we have as a tool are those resources, and those resources are support systems that you use in your communication with the offender so that they understand you’re trying to move them to a better quality of life for them and their significant others and family members.

Leonard Sipes: I was a state trooper very early in my career where you learn how to interact with individuals, and you learn that sometimes you have to get in their face and sometimes you have to ask them how they are as a person. There’s a continuum of interaction with that offender and our job is to hold them accountable and at the same time help them. And that takes a unique set of vocal skills that as I said before, not everybody has, and a lot of times what you’ll do, from what I understand, is take our new recruits or our younger individuals off to the side and personally train them in terms of how to interact with people to again, do that level of accountability and at the same time help the offender that they’re working with.

McKinley Rush: Everyone that comes into this profession must realize that we’re working with human beings, the situation that brought them here is not exactly issues that we’ve been in within our own lives, but our responsibility is to try to improve this human being by providing support, and also correcting them when they’re wrong. So you develop a skill set, and certainly I will pull aside any community supervision officer that I think is speaking inappropriately to an offender or is just too familiar with an offender and we’ll correct them and let them know the reason why I’m discussing it with them and we’ll come back and provide additional training to staff if that’s the requirement for that particular person or group of people.

Leonard Sipes: Everything we do is walking a tight rope whether it’s making decisions about an offender, whether it’s whether to supervise intensely or not , how to talk to an offender, how to hold them accountable, not becoming too familiar, maintaining your professionalism, but at the same time rreaching out-that’s a tight rope that everybody in this agency walks to one degree or another, and everybody throughout the country that deals with offenders has got to walk that tight rope one way or the other, correct?

McKinley Rush: That is correct. You never know what situation you may be in, and ironically after working in this field for such a long time, I see offenders in my personal life because I’m a resident of the city as well.

Leonard Sipes: Right.

McKinley Rush: So I have to communicate effectively with the offender and explain to them what my purpose is. I believe that when you begin working with someone you establish the ground rules at the initial meeting and you discuss what the expectations are-you discuss the goals of what you’re trying to do, you assess where the individual wants to take him or herself, and you communicate that with them, and then you meet their significant others. Basically, when you work with the offender population, you have to work with them as well as their families and significant others in their life. Once you establish that, ‘I’m here to be a support system, but I’m going to hold you accountable,’ you have open discussion and you can begin to engage the offender so that they can look at life from a different perspective and try to become a positive community person while they’re in the community.

Leonard Sipes: You started off as a correctional officer, how many years as a correctional officer?

McKinley Rush: I was a correctional officer for two years.

Leonard Sipes: Okay, and from there you went to where?

McKinley Rush: I became a case manager at the youth center which housed youthful offenders under the Federal Youth Corrections Act between the ages of 18 and 27.

Leonard Sipes: Toughest of all populations to work with.

McKinley Rush: Yes, but the experience was wonderful.

Leonard Sipes: I’ll take an adult offender any day of the week over a younger offender any day of the week.

McKinley Rush: Well I believe at that time that the agency that I was working for felt the same way, so they tied us in to the offenders based on our ages. So I was particularly the same age as many of the offenders while I was in the institution setting. And I would share some of my experiences with them and conduct group and individual counseling sessions and try to discuss with them opportunities that were available within the institutional setting and once their projected release date-what they could do within the community to better themselves and enhance their skill sets.

Leonard Sipes: I did-let’s see-I did gang counseling in Baltimore City when I was on the streets. I did Jail or Job Corp Kids in Job Corps, and I ran a group in the Maryland prison system. Now my work with kids was just amazingly difficult, it was. I mean, it was like sometimes you just wanted to scream, yell, holler. Sometimes you just wanted to hug-if that sounds appropriate in today’s day and age, or counsel, or bring that person along. But there are so many individuals who just seem to be intent on wasting their lives and that’s the tragedy that I take away from it. And you’ve gotta have a sense of armor to work with younger individuals just to protect yourself from what you see and what you experience.

McKinley Rush: Yes, but you can utilize the tools that they gave you. At that time, the Federal Youth Corrections Act was a sentence that could be expunged from the record.

Leonard Sipes: Right.

McKinley Rush: Which was an incentive?

Leonard Sipes: Right.

McKinley Rush: So you needed to use this as a tool to encourage the offenders that you were engaging. You have an opportunity to have this taken off of your record and live a productive and successful life. This is what this act is actually for, is to help you as an individual get back to being whole again. So I used that as my approach to group and individual counseling and I also looked at the competency of the individual, and if they were more structured for a vocational skill or academic skill.

Leonard Sipes: Okay, but both tough jobs-correctional officer and youth counselor. Where did you go from there?

McKinley Rush: Absolutely, I became a parole officer in the District of Columbia meaning that I left the institution setting-

Leonard Sipes: Right.

McKinley Rush: –and came up to Washington D.C. and I still had the Federal Youth Correction Act offenders.

Leonard Sipes: Okay. So you were working with younger offenders on a parole basis?

McKinley Rush: Correct.

Leonard Sipes: Okay. Now were these judged as adults or judged as juveniles?

McKinley Rush: They were judged as adults.

Leonard Sipes: Okay, so these were adults committing-these were kids-they were teenagers?

McKinley Rush: They were adults-the age of 18.

Leonard Sipes: Oh, okay that’s right, you’re right. Okay, so the age of 18. So again, you were working with them on a parole basis and you were going out into their communities, into the streets talking to them, doing office visits, that sort of thing?

McKinley Rush: Home visits, office visits, job visits, going out meeting their families, establishing employment opportunities and educational opportunities for them as well.

Leonard Sipes: Okay, and how long did you do that?

McKinley Rush: I did that from 1975 until 1988.

Leonard Sipes: Okay. And so were you rising in rank or were you still at that point a street personnel aligned person?

McKinley Rush: I was a street parole officer and I didn’t a desire to rise in rank because I enjoy the job so much.

Leonard Sipes: You know, that’s a problem that most people are not going to relate to, but that happens to a lot of us within the criminal justice system. We didn’t get involved in the criminal justice system to sit behind a desk and push paper; we got involved in the criminal justice system to be on the front lines because that was the enjoyable part of the job.

McKinley Rush: Actually, I burned up four Volkswagens within the period of time of being a street officer because I enjoyed going out and visiting and establishing relationships and developing resources for that population.

Leonard Sipes: Right, and it is interesting, interesting work. Now to a lot of people going out into high-crime communities visiting offenders, criminals if you will, and their families is not their idea of enjoyment. It is strange people like you and I who find that sort of thing enjoyable and exciting and work that we look forward to.

McKinley Rush: Yes. I reflect back to the institution and I remember when we were doing a shakedown one day and the inmate said that, ‘you know, we can kill you in here,’ and I said, ‘yes you can, but I’m here to try to help as well.’ And so I’ve carried that with me throughout my career and it has been beneficial for me. I’ve known so many people to come through this system within the 35-year period that I’ve been involved with corrections, and what I’ve found is that you’re known more so than you think you’re known when you go into the community. So establishing good relationships with your communication skills and trying to support the offender population as far as turning them around and getting them on a prosocial(sp?) active path will pay off for not only the community and the offender, but for the officer as well.

Leonard Sipes: You’ve seen the same people time in and time out.

McKinley Rush: Yes I have.

Leonard Sipes: You’ve seen the same offender cycle into the system cycle out of the system, in the system, out of the system, right?

McKinley Rush: Yes.

Leonard Sipes: And you’ve seen this probably thousands of times. You probably know a whole mess of offenders on a first-name-basis.

McKinley Rush: Yes I do.

Leonard Sipes: Okay. What’s your conclusion after all those years of watching people-I mean, we do know that-and the research is pretty clear that the more assistance they get, and when I say assistance, we still hold their feet to the fire. This organization, the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, we have more accountability with offenders who we supervise than practically and other parole and probation agency in the country. We hold their feet to the fire in more dramatic ways; we drug test the dickens out of them. So a lot of it is accountability but a lot of it is helping. And we know that we have a positive impact on public safety, but consequently you do see a mess of people in the system, out of the system, in the system, out of the system. How do you feel about that personally?

McKinley Rush: Well during these years of service, recently I’ve recognized that they are staying on the street longer with the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, I can now tell them, ‘you do not have a reason to fail. We provide you with whatever assistance that you need, so do not come and give me an excuse-well if you would have provided me with an opportunity for substance abuse treatment, if you could have help assist me for inpatient treatment-‘

Leonard Sipes: Or find their job.

McKinley Rush: ‘-find a job or come and work with me and my family to help enhance the relationship there. You have no excuse not to be a productive person.’

Leonard Sipes: Because of the resources are there and case loads are fairly small, so we say that to our own employees and we say that to the offenders as well.

McKinley Rush: Exactly. And we hold our employees accountable as well as offenders and it’s a performance-based agency so staff have to do certain required activities in order to show that they have made the effort to assist the offender with a positive change.

Leonard Sipes: But you’ve seen-going back to that point, you’ve seen so many people because I’ve talked to you about some offenders, and it’s amazing because you’ll say, ‘yes, I know that case, I’ve known that case for the last 15 years, I know all about him,’ and I’m just drawling up a name and you know that individual. I’ve been with this agency for three and a half years, you’ve been with this agency since its inception and you’ve been around for so long. In a personal sense, I’m going try it again-do you feel discouraged, how do you feel when you see so many people pop in and out of the system?

McKinley Rush: Well they’re still alive, which means we still have an opportunity to help them, to assist them-within just in the criminal justice system people go back and forth to jail. It takes them-they have to come to the realization that they want help; they will come to you when they want help. This organization has provided us with the tools to say, ‘okay, here is the help you’re asking for. I’m going to monitor you through this, I’m going to assist you with it-‘ and on my way here this morning, a guy I know stopped me and he said, ‘well I need some help with my reading and writing.’ Not so much a job right now, reading and writing-he’s in his late forties. I’m going to find something for him in reading and writing. He’s reached out for help.

Leonard Sipes: Right, and we have the tools and the resources within our organization to do that assessment and actually get down and help him learn how to write.

McKinley Rush: He’s going to the Day Reporting Center Agency because I know that they can take him and start working with him.

Leonard Sipes: Right.

McKinley Rush: But he has decided himself that he wants to make positive change.

Leonard Sipes: Well we could go on for the next half hour about that. I did a television show yesterday on the high-risk drug offender, a very interesting topic. And we started off with two offenders who have done well. But I ask all of our offenders the same question on these radio shows and television shows and that is, ‘at what point are you really ready to make that change? I mean, do we have to wait until you’re 35 before you make that change? Is there a way of reaching out to that 20-year old?’ And consistently, the offenders have basically said, ‘look, when you’re ready to make that change, please be ready for us, but you’ve gotta make that change yourself, you’ve gotta have that willingness to change your life around because kicking drugs is one of the hardest things you’re ever going to do in your entire life.’ So is that correct? We have to-it all comes down to a matter of the offender being sick and tired of being sick and tired?

McKinley Rush: Yes and no. There’s also motivational discussions with the offender to try to move them to that position of being tired of being sick and tired.

Leonard Sipes: Right. Helping him or her realize what their state is.

McKinley Rush: The damage that they’re doing to themselves and their significant others and their community-what they need to do to possibly get away from the substance abuse issues and get to arrest that substance abuse habit. And a large portion or our population have a history of substance abuse, but I’ve seen a large portion over the years stop using. Some have stopped using with support systems, support groups, NA AA inpatient-some have actually stopped because they were tired.

Leonard Sipes: Right. Right, they had just had it-they just came to the conclusion that the lifestyle and the drug use was just killing them. And sooner or later, it’s interesting; they all come to that same conclusion.

McKinley Rush: We’re just trying to get them there faster.

Leonard Sipes: [Laughs] We’re just trying to get them to understand that faster. One of the things that’s always amazed me about crime and criminality in my 37 years within the criminal justice system is that if it’s so apparent if drug use and drug dealing-I mean, nobody has any money, their houses look like burned out shells, they don’t have any possessions, they’re sick, they’re injured-it’s a dangerous, dangerous, dangerous profession. You would think that people would simply not do it, that the evidence is so overwhelming that the lifestyle leads to nothing else besides sickness and injury and poverty.

McKinley Rush: Well yes, we see the results of the substance abuse after long-term usage, but on the front end, you see the glorifying of having their automobile and the diamonds and gold and everyone thinks this is the way to make a living, and they find out down the road that was the worst choice they could have possibly made.

Leonard Sipes: Yeah, well as the both of us know that the diamonds and the gold and the car last about a whole year or two.

McKinley Rush: If that long.

Leonard Sipes: If that long, and then it all disappears. Every drug dealer’s house I’ve ever been in looks terrible.

McKinley Rush: Yes.

Leonard Sipes: There’s nothing there. All that entire whatever money they made was gone a long time ago.

McKinley Rush: Exactly, but what I like to hear from offenders is in my discussions as I see them in my passing is, ‘I don’t have to look behind myself anymore.’

Leonard Sipes: Right. The freedom of being out of the lifestyle.

McKinley Rush: Yes.

Leonard Sipes: How do we get them out that lifestyle is the question from criminologists. So let’s go back, so you started off as a correction officer and then you did the years in terms of dealing with younger people and then you worked as a parole officer in the streets of the District of Columbia, and what did you do after that?

McKinley Rush: About 1994 I decided that I needed to begin to help the younger staff that were coming into the organization for the predecessor agency.

Leonard Sipes: Okay.

McKinley Rush: And so I applied for a supervisor’s position.

Leonard Sipes: Okay.

McKinley Rush: And ironically I got it. [Laughs]

Leonard Sipes: That deadly position behind the desk pushing paperwork. And so why did you take the supervisor’s position? And again, a lot of us like being on the front lines, we hate making that transition to supervisor, but I would imagine there’s a certain point where we need to make more money.

McKinley Rush: As I looked at the staff that were coming into the agency and saw that they did not have some of the skill sets, I thought that I could be an asset to teaching that staff how to work with the population.

Leonard Sipes: And what agency was that?

McKinley Rush: This the D.C. Board of Parole.

Leonard Sipes: Okay, so you worked for the D.C. Board of Parole, so this is entirely adult offenders now.

McKinley Rush: Yes, these are adult offenders.

Leonard Sipes: Okay. So there’s a certain point where the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency came into being. Now we were declared an independent agency-we’re a federal criminal justice agency, we’re part of the executive branch of government and we were declared independent as of August of 2000 under what is known as the Revitalization Act that tried to lift some of the financial burdens from the city of Washington D.C. that ordinarily would be picked up by state government such as parole and probation. So parole and probation became federalized, it’s a federal agency, and you were there at the very beginning.

McKinley Rush: Well actually, I was there when the decision was made to create a federal agency and dispose of the D.C. Board of Parole.

Leonard Sipes: Okay.

McKinley Rush: Around 1975 or ’76, a person was murdered in the District of Columbia by a offender under the D.C. Board of Parole.

Leonard Sipes: Okay.

McKinley Rush: And they recognized that the case loads for parole was approximately 175 to 200 per staff person.

Leonard Sipes: Now, I want to dwell on that for a second because the average person listening to this show is not going to have any idea as to what that means. Our case load on average now, if you exclude the people who are wanted on warrants and if you exclude the people who are unavailable because they’re in a mental institution in Pennsylvania, it is something like 40 to one.

McKinley Rush: Correct.

Leonard Sipes: And yours when you first started were like 200 to every agent-parole and probation or parole agent?

McKinley Rush: Correct.

Leonard Sipes: And you really can’t do a whole heck of a lot with that offender, that offender’s family, that offender’s community when you have that large of a case load.

McKinley Rush: You’re lucky if you get a chance to see them, more or less interact with them and spend quality time to find out what are some of their concerns and what are some of their barriers that they want to address that can open up some doors so they can be productive.

Leonard Sipes: Right, and I also want to add that if you take a look around at the various states in the United States, that large caseload, whether it’s 100 to one parole and probation agent, whether it’s 150-I mean, those numbers are not unusual even today in various parts of this country, they have very high caseloads. The Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency within the District of Columbia is very lucky to have the smaller caseloads that we have.

McKinley Rush: Oh we are very fortunate as an agency and that’s why we have certain expectations and performance targets because we have the resources to help the offender engage in change in their behavior.

Leonard Sipes: So bring us up-to-date. So because of this incident with the person murdered, there was a lot of concern and the sense was that we had to improve the resources devoted to this particular task, and the decision was made to us a federal agency.

McKinley Rush: That is correct. And the justice department appointed a trustee and his name was John J. Carver. And he had a vision for an agency to go into a scientific approach to working with the offenders to get them to change. What I really appreciated from him as the trustee was that he provided the staff with an opportunity to express what their views and concerns were and some of the resources that they needed in order to do an effective job. Be careful what you ask for, you just might get it.

Leonard Sipes: And we have the agency that we know today with fairly low caseloads, lots of money to do drug testing. The community supervision officers are out in the community constantly, they’re ordered to be there, every other contact’s gotta be made in the community. And you are leading these 400 people; Tom Williams is the associate director. You’re directly under Tom Williams and you’re seen as the veteran who holds us all together.

McKinley Rush: Well my responsibility is to ensure that the staff are meeting the performance expectations. So when we begin to develop the policies and procedures for this agency, staff had input with the number of contacts that needed to be made under the certain levels of supervision. We needed an assessment tool that would identify the risks and needs of the offenders so that we could manage that person to lower that risk and give them to a support system for their needs. We talked about having vehicles-having federal government access to the vehicle is very important because you need to get out and do a lot of visiting.

Leonard Sipes: We need cars to get out there.

McKinley Rush: Yes.

Leonard Sipes: Yeah.

McKinley Rush: And you don’t want to use your own car and tear your car up.

Leonard Sipes: Right, absolutely not, no.

McKinley Rush: So when they brought these about, I said, ‘this is-‘

Leonard Sipes: Which happens in a lot of states by the way, they use their own vehicles.

McKinley Rush: How often are you going to tear up your own vehicle?

Leonard Sipes: How often are you going to take your vehicle into a high-crime area?

McKinley Rush: Correct.

Leonard Sipes: Correct.

McKinley Rush: Especially in the District of Columbia where everybody knows your car basically.

Leonard Sipes: Right. So I mean, you get out there more if you provide them with government vehicles. And we have the resources in terms of drug assistance, in terms of drug treatment, in terms-not all, not everything we want. Probably not everything we need, we’ll never ever reach that point I suppose, but in terms of job placement, in terms of educational assessments, in terms of anger management, in terms of domestic violence, in terms of sex offenders, in terms of drinking and driving, in terms of lots of programs, we have those programs available.

McKinley Rush: We certainly do, and these resources-and our stakeholders also are very supportive of the organization here and they provide us with community places to conduct certain activities with our offender population. The faith community-our law enforcement community also assists us with managing out population.

Leonard Sipes: Yeah, a good partnership. We’re constantly doing ride-alongs with the metropolitan police department and they’re partners with us in terms of orienting new offenders.

McKinley Rush: Yes.

Leonard Sipes: So there’s much here and you’re one of the people who put the whole package together-the glue that held the whole thing together as we made the transformation from a D.C. agency to a federal agency.

McKinley Rush: I participated.

Leonard Sipes: [Laughs] Indeed you did. All right, the interview has been with McKinley Rush, he is the deputy associate director of the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency. Look for us on our website, www.csosa.gov for additional information. I’m Len Sipes, have yourself a very pleasant day.

[Audio Ends]

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