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Program aims to change how inmates think, react

Instructor Cheryl Steele helps Airway Heights Corrections Center inmates Billy Davis Jr., center, and Timothy Durst through a role-playing exercise as part of a Department of Corrections’ Evidence-Based Offender Change Program being implemented at the prison. (Colin Mulvany)
Instructor Cheryl Steele helps Airway Heights Corrections Center inmates Billy Davis Jr., center, and Timothy Durst through a role-playing exercise as part of a Department of Corrections’ Evidence-Based Offender Change Program being implemented at the prison. (Colin Mulvany)

Airway Heights facility takes part in national effort to effect correct behavior

Lionel George and Apelu Tamau are intimidating guys.

But don’t be fooled by their sumo-wrestling size, Tamau’s long black hair or George’s tattooed arms.

These men are not afraid to talk about their feelings.

They will tell you about their turbulent pasts, but they also want you to know about their futures.

George wants to become a commercial fisherman and hopes to be a positive role model for his family.

Tamau wants to help young people learn to make better decisions, as well as help his own children grow up. He might even move home to American Samoa to raise cattle.

After decades of incarceration, the future is what the Airway Heights Corrections Center inmates are working to protect.

The two are part of a pilot program to correct inmates’ behavior at a cognitive level, a national effort localized at the medium-security prison since April. The program also runs at Coyote Ridge Corrections Center in Connell, Wash.

The goal of the Evidence-Based Offender Change Program is to change the way inmates think and react, to avoid losing their tempers or making decisions that would land them back behind bars. Unlike the usual 12-week prison class that requires little more than attendance, the new program doesn’t let offenders off the hook until they demonstrate a pattern of changed behavior in all aspects of their life at the facility.

Correctional Program Manager Kay Heinrich said the multidisciplinary program includes building skills through role-playing between inmates as they verbalize how to think through their interactions with others.

“By taking control of our thinking, we’re taking control of our lives,” Heinrich said.

The program so far includes 130 inmates of the prison’s 2,150 residents. Heinrich said the goal is to expand the program across the Department of Corrections.

To qualify, the inmates must be determined to be at a high risk to reoffend and must have between five and nine years left on their sentence. The participants take classes on topics like active listening and are given homework to implement what they’ve learned into their interactions with other inmates and the staff.

The program isn’t voluntary, either.

Maggie Miller-Stout, superintendent of the prison, said some inmates enter the program “kicking and screaming.”

“You’re done when your behavior’s changed,” Miller-Stout said. “And that’s a real different program for us.”

Heinrich said the classes have had a ripple effect on the prison as a whole as the newer inmates watch the veterans turn to words instead of violence to settle their differences.

A University of Cincinnati study of the evidence-based approach showed high-risk offenders who went through 100-199 hours of the program were 81 percent less likely to reoffend.

The program’s researchers and administrators aren’t the only ones who said the new approach is working for those inmates who are ready to try it.

“This program taught me discipline,” 38-year-old Tamau said. “This program (taught) me that I am worth it.”

Tamau said he has taken the skills he has learned in the classes and used them to help others. He said he recently acted as a mediator between a staff member and an inmate.

Tamau, who has five years left to serve for first-degree assault, also serves as the program’s liaison with the other inmates. Whenever a change is implemented, the staff goes directly to Tamau and he helps spread the word.

“Whatever I can do to help,” he said.

The idea of changing the thought processes and behaviors of repeat offenders does have its public relations challenges – including among the inmates.

“Sometimes people are afraid to change,” Tamau said.

He admitted to some skepticism himself on the first day of the program, when the topic of discussion was how to be a good listener.

“It was kind of like kindergarten,” he said.

As far as convincing the outside world that convicts can change, Heinrich said she has received calls from inmates’ family members who said their loved ones were better listeners and had more patience as a result of the program.

George, who has seven more years to serve for an armed robbery, said he hopes the patience and thoughtfulness he has learned will translate back into the real world.

“I’ve been incarcerated most of my life,” George said. “I’m not proud to say it.

“I’m trying to make this my last time.”

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