Therapy to help close revolving door on prisons and jails

Photo by Marc Soller via Flickr.

When California legislators decided that certain felons no longer would be held in the state’s overflowing prisons, they were under pressure from a court order to relieve the system’s dangerously overcrowded conditions. But part of their goal also was to keep lower-level convicts near rehabilitative programs in their own communities. Some counties are embracing the goal of rehabilitation, too, and are turning to local non-profits to help people convicted of non-violent, non-serious and non-sexual crimes start a new life.

Counties didn’t necessarily have all the resources they needed for rehabilitation in place before the criminal justice reform law, AB109, and the funding from the state that went with it, began in October 2011. When the Stanislaus County Probation Department asked the Center for Human Services in Modesto to conduct a program aimed at keeping ex-offenders from returning to jail, the center’s program manager, Jody Vasquez, had to start by identifying successful approaches. She found one called Moral Reconation Therapy (MRT).

The program, developed in the ’80s as drug therapy for offenders in Tennessee, expanded over the years and now is used to treat a variety of problems, including antisocial behavior, juvenile delinquency and sex offenses. “It’s been used about 25 years both in and out of prison,” Vasquez said of MRT. The goal of the program is to reduce recidivism by changing behavior and patterns of thought.

California’s prisons were overflowing in part because of their so-called revolving door. More than 60 percent of offenders return to prison within three years of their release. Now, people convicted of non-serious, non-violent and non-sexual crimes may receive a split sentence – part jail, part probation – with the period of probation meant in part to provide support for those who want to start a new life.

MRT’s goal is to change how ex-offenders think and act through cognitive-behavioral therapy. MRT classes deal with seven issues: confronting beliefs, attitudes and behaviors; assessing current relationships; reinforcing positive behaviors and habits; providing positive identity formation; enhancing self-concept; decreasing hedonism and developing frustration tolerance and developing higher stages of moral reasoning.

A workbook called “How To Escape Your Prison” leads ex-offenders through 12 steps, different from those in Alcoholic Anonymous. There is no timetable for completion, but most participants can finish the steps in three months. Class participants vote on whether a peer has completed a step and can move on. “They get to be in the position of judging did they meet standards,” Vasquez said.

The first exercise is called Pyramid of Life. The participant illustrates one half of the pyramid with “Real Life Happenings” from 20 years ago to the present. The other half of the pyramid pictures “What Could Have Been.”

Vasquez described an ex-offender who appeared surly during the first MRT class. His attitude softened after he explained his drawing to his classmates, telling them that a major What Could Have Been for him was the chance to play on a football team.

Ex-offenders learn about themselves as they complete an action plan for a life outside prison, explore their worries, wants and needs and take a moral inventory of their lives. Vasquez and a colleague are co-facilitators and the classes’ “only goal,” Vasquez said, “is to reduce recidivism.” They took a 32-hour workshop to learn how to teach MRT and Vasquez admitted that some of the exercises seemed like they wouldn’t work.

The ex-offenders feel the same way. “They say, ‘Can this really work?’ ” Vasquez said, adding that the classes sometimes “seem hokey,” but they’re “well designed.”

She didn’t know what to expect from the class, having never worked with ex-offenders. Her expertise had been in treating adults and children as a licensed marriage and family therapist and later supervising therapists who work with adults and children.

Yet the twice-a-week class that started in February is going so well, “It’s blowing my mind, actually,” Vasquez said. “I love it. They’re so much fun and they appear to be responding. There’s something going on in there.”

“The atmosphere is really, really helpful,” said Vasquez. “The curriculum facilitates a positive atmosphere in class.” But there are rules, she continued. A Life Wheel exercise has to be completed in two to three weeks. If it takes longer, it doesn’t count and the step has to be started again.

“It’s very energizing,” Vasquez said of the atmosphere in the MRT classes. Ex-offenders are “doing things, helping each other. It’s a new way to feel good about yourself.”

Research indicates Moral Reconation Therapy works in reducing recidivism. The Cognitive Behavioral Treatment Review in 2010 published a 20-year follow-up of 1,052 MRT-treated offenders and a control group of 329 individuals.

MRT-treated offenders had a 46 percent reincarceration rate after 10 years, compared with 65 percent in controls, the study found.

Those statistics might seem depressing. Not to Edward Latessa, though.

He directs the School of Criminal Justice at the University of Cincinnati and has spent his career considering criminal behavior and how to change it.

While some look at California’s recidivism figures and see the 60-plus percent who have broken the terms of their parole or reoffended within three years, Latessa focuses on those who have not.

“We have programs that have tremendous effects,” he said.

MRT is not his favorite, Latessa noted, calling it too heavy on cognitive therapy and too light on behavioral. He favors Thinking for Change, which is free as opposed to the proprietary Moral Reconation Therapy.

“I’m a big believer in skill building,” Latessa continued. Say the ex-offender got into legal trouble after getting paid on Friday and heading straight to the bar, where he would get drunk and belligerent and end up arrested. Latessa would have him practice alternatives: Drink only one drink at the bar. Skip the bar and drink at home.

“If I get you to understand why you shouldn’t continue to go to bars,” said Latessa, the next step is change.

“What we try to do is build alternatives to your risky behavior,” he said. The major risks factors in criminal behavior, according to Latessa, are attitudes, values and beliefs. “You think what you do is OK,” he said, or you justify your bad behavior. That makes you more likely to keep doing it.

Cognitive behavior classes are all about challenging an individual’s thinking. When an ex-offender says he doesn’t want to return to jail, Latessa’s question is this: What changes do you have to make to avoid that?

He acknowledged that age is key to recidivism rates. Young ex-offenders return to custody at a rate of 70.3 percent if they’re freed at the age of 24 or younger, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. The three-year recidivism rate for all felons released in 2007-08 was 63.7 percent.

“The problem with age is it’s not dynamic, can’t change it. So we work on age maturity,” Latessa said.

“A lot of offenders, they’re like teenagers,” he continued. “A lot of them say, ‘I’m never coming back (to prison).’ ” But in the case of the ex-offender who always got in trouble at the bars after getting paid on Fridays, it’s not enough to say, “I just won’t do that.”

“You have to work on ways to change the risk,” Latessa advised. “The truth is what we do to change them is yell at them, threaten them.”

Better to work on changing an ex-offender’s thought processes and behavior.

“You can’t arrest your way out of the crime problem, you can’t incarcerate your way out of the crime problem,” Latessa said. “If jail works so well, why the hell do they keep coming back?”

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