By Nancy Eshelman
So there was Andre West in the Dauphin County Courthouse again the other day. He was in Courtroom 3 in front of Judge Richard A. Lewis and Michael Potteiger, chairman of the state Board of Probation and Parole.
It was familiar territory for West, 45, of Oberlin, who said he’s spent time in seven prisons and eight rehab facilities.
Only this time was different. This time Lewis and Potteiger were praising West, shaking his hand and congratulating him on a job well done. They gave him a plaque and carved up a sheet cake to share with West and other participants in the state board of Probation and Parole’s Re-entry Program in Dauphin County.
After years of being laid low by addiction, West was basking in the glow of being the program’s first graduate. And he was beaming.
He looked at the assembled team and marveled.
“They all helped me,” he said, “and they didn’t want anything in return.”
Then, he expressed special thanks to Georgia Latsha, the state parole agent who oversees the program.
“She knows when to be a pillow and she knows when to be a brick,” West said of Latsha.
Latsha said the program mimics special courts for drug addicts, veterans and people convicted of driving under the influence. The state wanted to put a program in place that would serve addicts who have spent time in state prisons in the counties they call home.
It began in York and Lackawanna counties and is set to spread to Philadelphia and Allegheny counties. Once parolees graduate, they remain on parole, but under less intensive supervision.
The re-entry program lasts for 12 to 18 months and consists of four phases. Two men in the courthouse with West the other day received certificates and moved into the second phase of the program. That required, among other things, a minimum of 90 days without drugs or alcohol, attendance at treatment programs, employment and making payments on court-related debts.
Once a month the team that helps the former inmates meets for an hour to discuss how each has been doing. Then the men and women come into the courtroom, where the atmosphere is casual, to offer updates.
Lewis and Potteiger pepper the room with praise. Progress is good. Busy is good. “You’re doing well.” “Keep on going in that direction.”
It is simple positive reinforcement, Lewis said, something that has been lacking from many of these people’s lives.
“Very rarely the people we see have gotten pats on the back,” Lewis said. “Even the smallest type of reward, a round of applause, means so much.”
West said he has found other rewards in his new, sober life. He awakens Saturday and Sunday mornings, clear-headed and anxious to spend the day with his children.
In his days of drugging and drinking, he said, “I didn’t know people lived like that. I wasn’t living. I was existing.”
Despite his determination and the support he has gotten, West said temptation sometimes returns. “When I get those thoughts, I pick up the phone,” he said.
The program, Lewis reminded one of the parolees, “is not about perfection. It’s about progress. One step at a time. One day at a time.”