Columbus -- Willie Wheat Jr. is tired of stretching the truth, to put it kindly, when he explains to his 6-year-old daughter why he's never home.
"We tell her, Daddy's on vacation,' " the Cleveland man says with a tinge of regret as he pauses to let those words sink deep.
Actually, Daddy is locked up, doing his third stint in state prison for being a small-time, drug-peddling street hustler. He doesn't have the heart to tell the girl the truth.
But this trip to the slammer is different for Wheat. He's getting help. He'll come out with a high school diploma. He's getting advice on how to handle adversity. And he's learning to live debt-free so that quick cash from dealing dope won't be so tempting.
It's the type of help Wheat wanted before, but he was always shut out of programs, he said. He thinks its discipline will keep him out of prison.
Wheat is enrolled in the Short Term Offender program at the Lorain Correctional Institution, where inmates with three months or less to serve before they are released are moved into isolated housing and offered a list of classroom-based programs.
Offering inmates programs such as fast-track GED, anger management and victim awareness is nothing new. But how the programs are now being structured at three Ohio prisons is.
The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction has a problem: too many inmates and too few programs to serve them. Compounding that problem is that 60 percent of Ohio's 50,000 inmates -- like Wheat -- are in prison for less than a year.
Those prisoners almost always miss out on programs because they are often released without ever coming off the long wait lists for services.
To address the problem, the corrections department began its Short Term Offender programs at its three intake prison facilities. Prisoners who arrive with months rather than years before they go home are shoved to the front of the programming line.
"I know right now that the people who are in that program have the ability to get something that they have not gotten before," corrections director Terry Collins said.
"Before, when you came in the system it was first-come, first-serve when you got there," he said. "Now when you come in the system, we take you to the front of the line."
At Lorain, inmates in the program are also kept in separate housing, said Warden Marc Houk, a change made three months ago.
Before, inmates with short terms would come in, mix with the general population and, more often than not, ride out their days in prison without giving thought to working or participating in a rehab program.
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