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Program helps inmates make better choices

CONNELL, Wash. — Gregory Parker has been locked up for 17 years, and in that time he’s cycled through a number of cellmates.

In the past, if a new cellmate tried to test him by bumping his shoulder, the 53-year-old Seattle man likely would have pushed back or gotten mad.

But two months after starting a new program at Coyote Ridge Corrections Center designed to get prisoners to change their thinking and start making better decisions, Parker has noticed a shift in his attitude.

Now if a cellmate bumps him, Parker said, “I would say, ’Excuse me,’ and not let them take my power away.”

“This class makes me take the time to think and not just react,” he told the Herald during a recent visit to the Connell prison.

The pilot program, called Thinking for a Change, is being tested at Coyote Ridge and Airway Heights Corrections Center near Spokane. It’s also being implemented as part of a new law that changes how offenders released from prison are supervised by community corrections officers.

The evidence-based corrections program focuses on giving cognitive behavioral skills training to expose and troubleshoot prisoners’ thinking and decrease the likelihood they will repeat their same errors, said Dan Pacholke, director of prisons for the Washington state Department of Corrections.

But, this new program takes it a step further than just providing classroom lessons for the inmates. It requires inmates to demonstrate what they’re learning in the class during their daily activities, he said.

“They have to not only learn it, they have to live it,” Pacholke said.

Another key part of the program is that all the staff involved are trained the same way. All the counselors teach the classes the same, and the corrections staff know how to give positive reinforcement when they see inmates demonstrating appropriate behavior, officials said.

About two months ago, 128 inmates at Coyote Ridge were moved into the D Unit’s B-Pod to participate in the new program.

The inmates selected are expected to be released in the next five to nine years and are considered a high risk to reoffend.

They weren’t given a choice to participate.

“The classes aren’t easy for these guys,” said Michelle Duncan, the correctional program manager. “They have to get up in front of a group and model behavior or do role playing.”

Jeff Uttecht, the prison’s superintendent, said not all the inmates were on-board with the new program. Some inmates naturally just believe that they shouldn’t show that they need help or need to learn anything in prison, he said.

Many also are used to knowing they have to sit through a class for a certain amount of time to get their certificate and move on, but there’s no set end-date in this program.

“They want to know, ’What’s in it for me?’ ” Uttecht said. “The payoff for them is to learn some better skills to help them back on the street … and learn the skills to help them stay out.”

The group of prisoners who talked to the Herald about the program said they essentially were “lassoed” into the new living unit and they probably all resisted the change initially.

“Five years ago, if you told me I’d be sitting here in this class, I would say, ’No way,’ ” said Parker, who’s serving time for kidnapping, assault and tampering with a witness. “I would have thought, ’No way would this work for me.’ “

Brian Skinner, a 50-year-old Richland man convicted in 1999 of first-degree murder, said he soon realized that it couldn’t hurt to see what the classes had to offer.

“Whatever you did out there before didn’t work, so you might as well try something different,” he said. “You get what you want out of it. If you don’t buy in, you’re just sitting there wasting time.”

Skinner was 37 when a Benton County jury found him guilty of raping and killing 26-year-old Vickie Bridges in her Richland apartment in 1979. DNA linked him to the crime 20 years later and he was sentenced to 28 years in prison.

Skinner’s expected to be released in 2018, and he said this program is helping him and others plan now so they don’t stumble again when they get out. He’s already seeing a difference through the lessons, Skinner said.

“I’ve noticed since the classes started that a lot of these guys have changed how they think,” he said.

Just one inmate has left the living unit because he didn’t want to participate in the program at all, said JC Miller, the D unit’s supervisor.

And not all are enthusiastic about it. During a recent class with a group of 10 inmates, some appeared as if they were just there because they had to be.

But, as the group worked through different scenarios using a “thinking report” — an eight-step guide to help them see a situation in a new way — some of the men started to see how changing their actions could make a difference.

Counselor Vincent Robinson had a pre-planned scenario in his lesson plan, but agreed to let the group pick a new situation when they resisted the first one.

They then had to examine what they thought and felt about the situation, how they would react and what the consequence would be. Next, they discussed how they could think differently and what their new reaction would be to the situation.

For example, when prison recreation time is canceled, the inmates said some ideas for a response would be: “Who’s not doing their job right,” “Why does it keep happening,” and “Now I’m going to get fat because I can’t work out.”

Typical reactions would be anger, frustration, disgust, anxiety, acting out or slamming cell doors, they said. Those actions could get them sent to segregation, earn them an infraction, or prevent them from seeing visitors or getting calls from family.

When Robinson asked for them to consider new ways to think and react, the inmates conceded they could work out in their cells, read a book or watch TV.

“Basically, there’s always a new path you could follow if you calm down,” one inmate said.

Kelvin McCauley, a 45-year-old Spokane man serving time for second-degree assault and residential burglary, said being in the classes has brought back memories and lessons about things they already knew but didn’t follow.

“I think, ’Wow, if I had used that before, I may not be here,’ ” he said.

Before being selected to participate in the program, McCauley said he was just doing his time and was in the mindset that life didn’t start until he got out of prison, but now he knows he needs to get prepared.

“The easiest part about doing time is getting out,” he said. “The hardest part is staying out.”

DOC officials say that’s exactly what they’re trying to do with this new program — give offenders the skills they’ll need once they’re out of prison.

“Ultimately, the purpose of a corrections system is to enhance public safety,” said Pacholke, the director of prisons. “The reason we do this investment is so somebody on the outside doesn’t become a victim. It really is about increasing the safety of people who are riding on intercity transit or are downtown at a park.”

Prison also can be a volatile environment just by its nature — and with the state’s low rate of incarceration, it means those who are locked up are fairly high risk and violent, he said.

“Based on the population you do have, it becomes very important then to do things like sex offender treatment and cognitive behavior change,” Pacholke said.

Uttecht, superintendent at Coyote Ridge, said he hopes it also will ultimately make the prison safer if offenders stop to think before they react.

“All inmates could use this program,” he said, noting that right now it’s targeted to medium-custody population who need it the most to reduce recidivism. “Down the road, hopefully it will be at every prison and every level.”

The goal also is to get away from thinking of it as a program that’s offered in the prison.

“It’s more of a lifestyle,” Uttecht said.

Only time will tell if the inmates participating will really absorb and use the skills they’re learning once they’re out, but McCauley said he thinks what he’s learning will help him when he’s released in four years and he wished DOC officials had offered it sooner.

“If they thought of it years ago, we maybe would not be here now,” he said.

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