August 4, 2008 in City

Inside Right Living

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Everyone is referred to as “Mr.” No spitting or swearing allowed.

No talking while others have the floor.

No horseplay, either.

At Airway Heights Corrections Center, these guidelines are part of a new prison-management model dubbed Right Living.

The concept, which requires inmates to obey rules of polite behavior that Miss Manners would applaud, has been used nationally in drug dependency programs for offenders preparing to re-enter society. The all-male Airway Heights facility west of Spokane will be the first in the country to implement the model prisonwide, according to the Washington Department of Corrections.

According to the Right Living handbook, inmates learn to interact as if they were participating positively within a community structure. The program stresses a work ethic, learning new skills, honesty, accountability, manners, civility and respect.

“The primary goal of the community is to provide members with a sense of belonging, acceptance, and skills for living without self-destructive behavior patterns,” the handbook says.

Inmates who have participated in similar programs “are 5 percent less likely to re-offend,” said Rob Herzog, Airway Heights’ associate superintendent of programs.

George Skinner, a minimum security inmate and an appointed leader in the Right Living program, said: “If one of us doesn’t come back in here, it has been a success.” Authorities say the program works because participants learn that they tend to get the respect they give.

A bulletin board in the hallway of one of the prison’s minimum security units lists behaviors expected of “community members” – performance, responsibility, self-examination and self-sufficiency. The five principles – honesty, open-mindedness, willingness, respect and humility – also are up there.

Airway Heights began implementing Right Living last month in its minimum security facility, which houses 600 inmates. Medium-security inmates will join the program in mid-2009, officials said.

“It wouldn’t be advisable to do this with every inmate at once because it would be chaos,” said Risa Klemme, a spokeswoman for the facility.

Especially because inmates initially resisted the program.

“At first I said, it ain’t for me,” inmate Joseph Washington, 44, said. “I was listening to the old me.”

Then Washington realized the Right Living model could provide needed structure in his life, he said. “I never took responsibility. This is helping me,” he said.

Washington is a Right Living leader, chosen by prison officials through an extensive interview process because of the respect he commands among his peers. Washington and others on the “business team” use computers to track other inmates’ names and schedules and create documents and handouts. For some inmates, it’s the first time they’ve used a computer.

The program is being phased in slowly, and administrators work closely with the inmates, said Kay Heinrich, Washington Department of Corrections clinical and therapeutic program manager.

“It’s a growing process,” said Joshua Brockman, 27, who is on the business team with Washington. Inmates say the staff is listening to their concerns and ideas, as well as being patient.

Airway Heights staff say prisoners already are showing more respect toward them and more willingness to take responsibility for their surroundings.

Recently, for example, five inmates took it upon themselves to clean up a prison courtyard, officials said. Inmates who have never been formal are saying, “yes sir” or “yes ma’am” and opening doors for each other.

Heinrich has helped implement similar programs at other corrections facilities, including Pine Lodge Corrections Center for Women, which has seen several people turn their lives around.

The toughest adaptation for inmates is being “held accountable to hold each other accountable,” Herzog said. If an inmate is stealing sugar, another inmate needs to tell administrators and talk to the thief, so the behavior that landed the person in jail in the first place can be addressed, officials said.

Edward Kemp, another inmate leader, said: “The hardest thing to do in life is change. Not knowing what’s coming at you, you push it away. But my counselor asked me to give it a try. It’s teaching me to recognize I can work out a situation without fighting.”

Said Klemme, the prison spokeswoman: “All offenders will benefit from an environment that instills self-esteem, pro-social values and a generally safer environment.”

She says prison staff naturally benefit from a reduction in violence, but studies have also shown that staff morale improves because they feel like they’re helping inmates, not just locking them up. “That gives a lot of meaning to what we do,” she said.

“It’s a win for the whole community. If we can get people to stop rummaging through their neighbor’s garage to steal tools or doing drugs around their kids, then it has made a difference.”

Contact Jody Lawrence-Turner at (509) 459-5593 or jodyl@ spokesman.com.

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