March 21, 2013 | Vol. 116 -- No. 48

Pilot program reduces violent infractions in prison

Offenders enrolled in the Thinking for a Change program at the Airway Heights Corrections Center have demonstrated just how big of an impact modified thinking can have in a prison unit.

James Eik
Graduating offenders were met by numerous dignitaries, including the state’s deputy director of corrections, Earl Wright (right).

The program teaches offenders to change their thinking patterns and develop positive social and problem-solving skills. During the time the pilot program was implemented in the unit, violent infractions dropped by 75 percent compared to the neighboring unit. The non-pilot unit had 40 violent infractions since April 2012, while the unit using the pilot program only had 10.

Airway Heights targeted offenders who had several years left on their sentence, enrolling them in the program. Offenders involved were also, based on evaluations, among those at the medium-security facility likely to reoffend once their time was up. Most offenders in the program have anywhere from five to nine years left on their sentence.

At a graduation ceremony Friday, March 15, around 60 offenders moved on from the program. Unlike other programs, offenders must earn their graduation certificate, and will only move forward once they’ve shown that the classroom lessons have been learned. Around 130 offenders are currently enrolled in the pilot program at Airway Heights Corrections Center, with another 130 at Coyote Ridge.

Thinking for a Change taught offenders how to respond in different social situations, ranging from things like disappointment to helping others. Classes take place twice a week and typically last about 90 minutes.

“The skills they’re learning, many say they’re basic social skills,” director of the Offenders Change Division, Amy Seidlitz, said.

During a typical class, Seidlitz said offenders would take a skill and identify a scenario where the lack of the skill has caused them challenges. The course typically employs a number of role-playing exercises, used in tandem with textbooks and other traditional learning methods.

One of the offenders graduating in Friday’s ceremony was 38-year-old Apelu Tamau. Tamau was one of the offenders interviewed during a tour for Spokane media last September. At the time of the interview, he was 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 in September.

Without the program, Seidlitz said offenders would have had a 50/50 risk degree of reoffending.

At the graduation ceremony, Airway Heights superintendent Maggie Miller-Stout said the program worked hard to ensure lessons were fully grasped.

“You actually learn how to accomplish things in the program,” she said. “The end is when you reach competence at that.”

As a result of the program, the unit enrolled in the pilot program had 150 days without any violent infraction since April 2012.

“We believe you were the right people for this program,” Miller-Stout said.

Jesse Miller, one of the graduates, said the program kept him engaged at the facility.

“This program kept me here, so I bit into it,” he said. “There’s not one lesson that stands out; it’s the process. All the things I thought I was doing, I wasn’t.”

Thinking for a Change first started last year as part of a contract with the University of Cincinnati, where the program originates. The $1.9 million contract allows for the program to take place in both Airway Heights and Coyote Ridge.

Michael Rainville, correctional unit supervisor, said the program has a good chance for success.

“If it gives you the five seconds to think something through, it’s a success,” he said.

James Eik can be reached at james@cheneyfreepress.com.

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