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Washington prison program shows signs of cutting crime

Sat., March 9, 2013

A pilot program to correct the behavior of violent prison inmates at a cognitive level is helping keep the peace in one pod of the Airway Heights Corrections Center.

The program graduated its first 60 members Friday in the wake of the state releasing results showing a dramatic decline in violence among the test group.

From April 2012 to January, the group involved in the program had 75 percent fewer violent incidents than a pod made up of inmates with similar histories. The pod also had a 150-day stretch with no infractions.

Airway Heights Superintendent Maggie Miller-Stout said a streak like that is almost unheard-of in any prison.

“Reducing fights is a big deal for us,” Miller-Stout said. “It makes it safer for offenders and my staff.”

The other goal of the program, which is a partnership with the University of Cincinnati, is to reduce a person’s likelihood to reoffend once he is released. However, those involved in the program all have at least four years left before they are released, so that data won’t be available for several years.

The program builds skills in being a better listener and more patient person, partially through role-playing exercises. It aims to change the way inmates think and react.

Miller-Stout said the 127 inmates involved in the program were all considered high-risk to reoffend. Now, she said, they are more respectful and able to communicate without resorting to violence.

The program, which amounts to between 200 to 300 hours of work, is mandatory for those chosen to participate and doesn’t let inmates off the hook until they demonstrate changed behavior in their daily lives.

“The offender population we have to work with can be influenced to change,” Miller-Stout said. “I’d love to see the entire department (of corrections) go that way.”

Expansion to other pods as well as other Washington prisons is under consideration.

To start and operate the program at Airway Heights and the Coyote Ridge Corrections Center in Connell cost about $1.2 million per year, which included staff training and implementation.

Department of Corrections Secretary Bernie Warner said the department is looking for an additional $1.4 million from the state to expand the evidence-based program.

Warner said the state has a responsibility to help its inmates change, not just lock them away. The domino effect is to reduce crime, he said, and therefore reduce the cost of investigating and prosecuting offenses.

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