State Correctional Institution - Retreat is a mammoth concrete facility laced with concertina wire and protected by steel gates. It can be found on the opposite side of the Susquehanna River in the Hunlock Creek area off Route 11. A steel bridge spanning the river connects the facility to the main roadway and serves as a metaphor for the inmates. "I can't wait to get across that bridge," is the mantra of many of the prisoners there.
Jeff Dengler, '01 hears that statement a lot. As the Drug and Alcohol Treatment Specialist Supervisor for SCI - Retreat, it's his job to help many of those incarcerated eventually to make it across that bridge.
As the supervisor of drug and alcohol treatment, Dengler is in charge of making sure 100-plus inmates receive all their medications for treatment. He says most of the inmates wind up in jail because of their addictions to drugs and alcohol. "Eighty percent of those committing a crime are caught with some type of illegal substance in their system," Dengler states. There is also an increase of incoming prisoners with mental health issues.
Dengler helps with inmate processing, assigning proper care of treatment, crisis intervention, and teaching basic living skills. "Often a low educational background and poor coping skills leads people to substance abuse and eventually committing some type of crime where they wind up here," he states.
"Some of the inmates are life termers, but many are receiving treatment and training to eventually return back into the community," Dengler points out. With more than 1,100 prisoners, Dengler is responsible for all inmates with drug and alcohol issues. "That includes tracking who needs medication, ensuring they are taking their medicine, and setting up distribution methods. In addition to meds, we provide drug intervention, examine family structure and support groups, teach basic coping skills, and act as role models. My team here provides evidence-based treatment and the success rate has been increasing." That success is totally up to the individuals. "Sometimes it's finding the right button to make it click in someone before he gets it together."
Dengler grew up in the Plymouth area and attended Wyoming Valley West High School before enrolling at Luzerne County Community College to pursue a criminal justice degree.
"I always liked law enforcement," he says. Dengler's father was a mental health social worker who worked with the police department and a halfway house. " My neighbor was a police officer," he recalls. "I found what he did really interesting. Financially, LCCC was the best option for me, and offered a great program in criminal justice."
After graduating from the program in 2001, Dengler attended Pennsylvania State University Wilkes-Barre to continue his education in Administration of Justice and went on to Marywood University for his graduate degree.
"Luzerne challenged me tremendously," he remembers. "I enjoyed the case studies, and the case law procedures. We did crime scene reenactments and used a police cruiser to demonstrate take downs. My teachers had practical experience and presented real life scenarios."
Dengler also touted learning the importance of filling out paperwork. "If it isn't on paper, it didn't happen."
Choosing to work for a prison has its challenges. "You are dealing with people who have sold drugs or killed people," he says. "To keep yourself grounded, you need to have tight bonds with colleagues and a good sense of humor."
Dengler believes the biggest hurdle when working with treatment is trying to get the person to want to change. "Our job is to help the inmate to hopefully get out of jail and stay out of jail," he says. "We try to get them to do the right things, take their meds, exercise, stay out of trouble, avoid negativity, and make positive connections with their family members. They need to have an objective of a positive outcome".
"It's tough when loved ones and kids come here to visit," he admits. "We have to help develop coping skills with the fact they are incarcerated and cannot be with their family for a while."
For some inmates coping means creating artwork. Dengler says there are some who are rather amazing artists. "It's very therapeutic," he says. "They create posters and hold exhibits on their walls."
Dengler's main advice to students interested in this type of career: take an internship. "An internship allows you to see if you like it. See how well you interact with colleagues and inmates. If you don't handle an inmate well during your shift, it may cause difficulties with staff on the next shift."
"In this kind of a position, you have to make quick decisions on your feet, establish that you are in control, and have good communication and de-escalation skills. You are in their territory."
Dengler says there is a lot of room for advancement in this field. "It's very challenging and never dull," he states. "A prison is just like a city; whatever type of career you would find in town, you would find here: therapists, police officer, cook, public relations, plumber, groundskeeper, mechanic, and many more. You just have to cross that bridge to get there."