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Photo: UNLV Creative Services

UNLV doctoral candidate Breanna Boppre has turned a childhood of visitation days into a career focused on the forgotten people behind prison walls and their rehabilitation.

When Scott Schlingheyde got out of prison the last time, his daughter, Breanna Boppre, was 21, getting ready to buy her cap and gown for graduation from University of Nevada, Reno.

After commencement, they went together to get matching tattoos: the words “Make it Last” on her thigh and his arm, a nod to a song from ’70s rock band Montrose that reflected everything they had come through. Today, it reminds them to enjoy the moments they have, and to resist growing up too fast.

A decade earlier, Boppre just wanted it all to end. Her father was in stuck in an incarceration spin cycle—descend into drug abuse, get arrested, do time, repeat. Now, she was in middle school, and he was going away again. Her dad was a sensation seeker, always taking things to the next level—“still is to this day to be honest,” she says—and his drug habit kept resurfacing.

She was angry and frustrated. How could her father have repeated the same mistake? For the third time he was going to prison for a drug-related felony, and this time the sentence was 9 to 29 years. In the end, he served 10, and by the time he was released, Boppre had become so intrigued by the world of corrections she planned to study the field as her profession.

“As I got older, my dad explained to me that some inmates don’t have family to come visit them or they don’t have the money and the means to get there.”

Since she was less than a year old, Boppre had been raised by her great-grandparents on her father’s side. Both of her parents were addicts, unable to care for themselves, much less an infant. Her mother moved east when she was little, and Boppre has not seen her since. Her father was in and out of the correctional system, though as a young child Boppre didn’t understand what that meant. He served time at a Nevada work camp, and when they took her to visit, her great-grandparents simply didn’t mention that they were visiting a prison. Once she started school, she wondered why her dad didn’t come home from work like everyone else’s. Her classmates asked her why her great-grandparents were raising her.

“I really became aware of this stuff when I was around 10 or 11 years old,” Boppre said of her father’s third conviction. “I was never really angry before. But at that point, I was like: ‘What the heck? Why haven’t you learned your lesson?’ I was angry at him. I was angry at the system.”

As she got older, Boppre also started to notice more about prison life during her visits. She saw that the particular facility could make a big difference, and that not everyone had family to visit them or keep their commissary accounts full of cash.

“The only things offered were narcotics anonymous and alcoholics anonymous,” Boppre said. “My dad took it upon himself to enroll in college classes and got two associate degrees in prison. But our family paid for it. There are no longer Pell Grants for inmates, no public funding for higher education while you’re incarcerated.”

Boppre was struck by the cumulative disadvantages of poverty, and a system that put poor people in prison for years on end for drug charges without offering any rehabilitative treatment. It was the seed of what would sprout into her career path, studying for her doctorate in criminal justice at University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

When she was little, her father served time in some rural areas, where they could play games together, and it “all seemed really normal.” But when her dad was placed in higher-security facilities, they weren’t allowed to sit on the same side of the table or have physical contact beyond their initial greeting.

“That was tough, but I also noticed who was and wasn’t there in the visiting room,” Boppre said. “As I got older, my dad explained to me that some inmates don’t have family to come visit them or they don’t have the money and the means to get there.

“The system is stacked against some people. People of color are more likely to be impoverished and lack access to transport. At some prisons it costs 99 cents per minute for people to call their families. Certain things make it difficult, and they are put at further disadvantage because they don’t have the social support on the outside.”

 

Boppre’s father kept pushing to straighten up each time he was incarcerated, and lucked into a warden with an eye on rehabilitation at Nevada State Prison, which closed in 2011.

“When I first got there, it was rated as one of the most dangerous prisons in Nevada,” Schlingheyde said, recalling a “lock ’em up and throw away the key mentality.”

Eventually, a new director of prisons took over and a new warden was installed at Nevada State Prison, Michael Budge, a reform-minded official, who instituted new educational, vocational and recreational programs, and allowed the prisoners more freedom in return for good behavior.

“It made 100 percent difference,” Schlingheyde said. “Before the helicopter came at least two times a month [to evacuate injured inmates]. I don’t know if there was one helicopter the whole time Warden Budge was warden of NSP … He allowed us to be human and not just some number.”

Schlingheyde took classes and, with the new freedom awarded by the progressive leadership, formed a rock band with his prison buddies. He was released in 2009, just in time to attend Boppre’s college graduation with a degree in criminal justice and minor in psychology.

“My dad got a welding job out of prison that came through a family friend, and he was super lucky to have that,” Boppre said. “My dad came from a middle-class family who could help him out, and had the means to pay for education and get him a job lined up right away.”

Now, Boppre is putting her inside knowledge to work as she finishes up her doctorate research and makes plans for future studies. She has focused on racial disparities in incarceration with women of color, and has collaborated with Mark Harmon, professor of criminology and criminal justice at Portland State.

“Women as a whole tend to be more disadvantaged than men,” she said. “They have less access to education and gainful employment. It makes it even harder for women of color to overcome racial disparities.”

Women of color are seven times more likely than white women to be incarcerated, according to Boppre’s research. Between 1985 and 1991 alone, black female imprisonment rose 828 percent, almost twice the rate of increase among black males (429 percent) and more than three times the increase among white females (241 percent). The flow of black women into prisons cooled a little in the ’90s, but still more than doubled from 1991 to 2005.

“There has been a cumulation of policies that led to far more incarceration for low-level crimes.”

The surge in black female incarceration coincides with a get-tough-on-crime era in the United States, when violent, property and especially drug crimes were met with new severity. Incarceration surged overall, and the policies, research shows, had a disproportionate impact on black men and women.

“There has been a cumulation of policies that led to far more incarceration for low-level crimes,” Boppre said. “It’s led into a huge increase in the incarceration of women, and our research shows that its the incarceration of women of color largely driving the increase.”

According to Boppre’s research, in 1983 black female and white female admission rates for drug crimes were nearly identical. Then, in the seven years between 1987 and 1994, the rate of black female drug admissions increased nearly 1,000 percent. She is following up with more research into the experiences of women, particularly African Americans, in prison.

Schlingheyde has settled back into life in northern Nevada and is working toward his general studies degree at University of Nevada, Reno. His goal is to become a drug addiction counselor.

“I don’t know the statistics, but a huge percentage of people in prisons are going to get out,” Schlingheyde said. (We looked: It’s 95 percent).

“They are going to need to be ready for society, ready to take on work and get a job and provide and be productive members of society. Or, they can get out and not have any skills and no tools to take on what they need to in today’s world, but they still live next to you. Why wouldn’t you want to help them while they are in prison?”

He still plays in the band that he started at Nevada State Prison, Down Time, and they get gigs around Reno. If his criminal past helped his daughter steer clear of drugs and turn her experience into something positive, it was all worth it, he says.

“I’m really passionate about what I do, and I think it helps that I had this first-hand experience,” Boppre said. “People in the criminal justice system and prisons are often forgotten about. Out of sight, out of mind. I hope I can help change people’s perceptions about how our criminal justice policies affect the people we incarcerate and their family members.”

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