Politics & Government

Inmate rehabilitation program needs changes, officials say

Washington state prisons are rethinking a program designed to change inmates’ thinking.

Independent researchers and state officials say the pilot program tested on hundreds of inmates at Eastern Washington’s Coyote Ridge and Airway Heights corrections centers must be restructured before the program can expand.

“The first thing we are going to do is fix the two pilots, Airway and Coyote,” said Dan Pacholke, deputy secretary of the Department of Corrections.

The agency is drawing up a “corrective action plan” based on recommendations in a March report from Washington State University researchers, who said the program did not achieve lasting changes in inmate behavior.

The report sheds more light on a program that is the subject of a lawsuit by Corrections employees, who allege agency officials falsely labeled it a success.

The program’s goal when it debuted three years ago was to provide, in prison, “cognitive-behavioral services” that Corrections officials said are more typically used around the country to help released inmates cope with life outside prison than inside prison.

The program aims to replace antisocial thinking with empathy, problem solving and self-reflection. It offers rewards for good behavior that have ranged from movie night to ice cream.

“If you fundamentally don’t change someone’s criminal orientation, you can give them a GED or you can train them to be a welder, but if you haven’t somehow kind of undid the thinking process that got them involved in crime to begin with, the intervention’s not going to take as well,” Pacholke said.

Similar programs have seen success elsewhere, researchers say. At one point less than a year into Washington’s experiment, officials announced it was working here, too. The program was paying off with more safety for staff, Pacholke said in an agency blog post that cited 75 percent fewer violent infractions in the cell blocks that housed program participants than in neighboring cell blocks.

Officials today neither fully stand by nor disown that claim, which was questioned in 2013 by two state employees who later sued the Corrections Department saying they were demoted in retaliation. The employees cited a preliminary version of the WSU report to show that agency claims were overblown.

Pacholke said his assessment reflected a ground-level snapshot of what staff were seeing at the time, not the kind of scientific measurement that took WSU years to compile for the final report.

The program needs to change but shows promise, said Corrections Secretary Bernie Warner, who would like to eventually secure funding to expand it statewide.

WSU researchers found inmates learned important skills in the program, even though it has been hampered by staff turnover and even though some staff haven’t yet bought into a philosophy of rehabilitation over punishment.

Researchers also compared nearly 500 inmates enrolled in the program with similar inmates, not just neighbors.

The study found no changes in the program participants’ number of violent infractions. Meanwhile, comparable inmates maintained or even decreased their number of violent infractions, perhaps because some were in more therapeutic settings, researchers suggested.

Participants did show improvement in other areas. Their low-level infractions declined while a comparison group’s stayed the same, or stayed the same while a comparison group’s infractions increased.

All those were short-term outcomes. Researchers also kept tabs on one group of inmates after they finished the program. Two years later, they found the program didn’t have a positive effect on infractions and other measures of inmate behavior.

They linked the stalled progress to the program pulling inmates across the Cascades to take part.

The Corrections Department forced many of the inmates to Airway Heights and Coyote Ridge from Western Washington prisons, where they may have had families and other sources of support.

Afterward, “many of these participants were left idle, likely increasing frustration and displeasure with their current situation,” researchers wrote.

Pacholke said the type of offenders sought for the program were often in Western Washington, while two Eastern Washington prisons were best suited for the program, one with new and up-to-date facilities and one with a history of treating sex offenders.

But the agency will consider changes to both the facilities and inmates involved, Warner said. WSU researchers recommended letting inmates remain close to home.

Researchers also called for the program to be retooled to train inmates with less than two years to go in their sentences, and to let them keep rewards after finishing the program. As currently set up, inmates go into the training with as many as nine years left in prison.

One of the state employees suing over alleged retaliation, Teri Herold-Prayer of Lacey, said the report validates her contention that the program is being used on the wrong inmates.

The Corrections-planned revamp would move the training closer to an inmate’s release date, but it’s not clear how much closer.

Warner said he’s also trying to make prisons safer, so he doesn’t want to shift the program’s full focus to preparing inmates for release. And Pacholke said the training must be balanced with drug treatment, sex offender therapy and other programs an inmate may need as his date of freedom nears.