Classes offer first-hand look at changes in thinking process
By JAMES EIK
A new 12-week course at the Airway Heights Corrections Center aims to prevent current offenders from committing crimes that may incarcerate them in the future.
The program, Offender Change, began April 16 this year and is managed by Kay Heinrich, correctional program manager at the facility. The current class is called “Thinking for Change,” which attempts to find and fix behaviors that led to the offenders' criminal actions.
“By taking charge of our thinking, we can take control of our lives,” she said.
Most offenders enrolled in the program have anywhere from five to nine years left on their sentence, and are typically high-risk offenders.
According to AHCC Superintendent Maggie Miller-Stout, the program is starting with half of a unit at Airway Heights and half of a unit at Coyote Ridge Corrections Center. Both facilities are partnering with the University of Cincinnati throughout the process.
“It's to make the offenders less likely to commit crimes after they go out,” she said.
Heinrich said the success rate with offenders, based on the University of Cincinnati's program, is around 80 percent.
Offenders in the class role-play potential interactions, like offering different answers to questions. The approach is meant to provide simulated real-life situations offenders would face upon their release.
Heinrich said many offenders, if they had the chance to think twice in their decision-making process, wouldn't have committed their respective crimes. As such, Thinking for Change is meant to provide a step-by-step process for offenders to use.
Homework from the class extends the lessons outside the classroom, enhancing the value of the program.
Apelu Tamau is an offender currently taking the Thinking for Change classes. At 38, Tamau has been imprisoned for most of his life, and is five years away from finishing a 20-year sentence for first-degree assault.
“I tell my mother that this program brought me discipline changes in my life,” he said.
Coming to the U.S. from American Samoa in 1983, Tamau first went to Compton, Calif., where he became involved in drug activity.
“Family was always second to my choices,” he said.
Tamau, who only spoke a few words of English when he arrived in the U.S., is particularly encouraged by the program's emphasis on reactions. He spoke candidly about the difficulty offenders face in finding employment after their release, with many falling back into the habits that led them to commit crimes. Tamau hopes that, through the classes, he'll be able to help the next generation before it's too late. Today, family has taken priority in his life.
“The hardest thing is getting out there and finding a job,” he said.
Once his sentence is served, Tamau said he will likely return to the American Samoa to raise livestock, building his future.
Currently 130 men, half of a unit, are enrolled in the program. Airway Heights houses over 2,000 offenders.
Another offender in the program, Lionel George, is seven years away from his release. George, a Native American, said he went through life much like a hunting or fishing game.
“If I caught it, it was mine,” he said.
Since the program began, George said he's seen its effect outside the classroom, in situations within his unit.
“I've seen a big change for a lot of younger people working with the older people,” he said.
Overall, Offender Change is meant to pinpoint specific areas to help offenders in their transition.
“Incarceration doesn't change them. We have to look at the entire picture,” Heinrich said.
James Eik can be reached at email@example.com.