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Delaware's life skills program reduces inmate recidivism.

A pilot program to teach offenders life skills is controlling anger, changing behavior and reducing recidivism among inmates in Delaware. The Delaware Life Skills Program was established through a $293,608 grant awarded by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Vocational and Adult Education, in November 1993 and renewed for two years. Preliminary results from the first class, which started in June 1994, have been so encouraging that the governor has included continuation funding for Life Skills in the 1996-1997 state budget request.

The Delaware Life Skills program serves adult offenders in the four major prisons throughout the state of Delaware. The program, which targets the average inmate, has been set up as a demonstration model. Inmates with six to 22 months remaining on their sentences are informed about the program and invited to apply. The response from inmates has been favorable. A small number with serious behavior problems or mental or physical illness that would interfere with attendance are screened out by the institution's classification team. Participants are chosen randomly from the list of remaining applicants. If the pool is large enough, a control group also is chosen.

The Life Skills group is representative of the part of the prison population from which it is drawn. Eighty-four percent of Life Skills participants are male; 66 percent are African-American; 25 percent are white, non-Hispanic; and about 6 percent are Hispanic. The average age is 31. The lead offenses of 33 percent of the participants are violent offenses against persons; 38 percent are drug offenses, the more serious of which also are classified as violent in Delaware.

The program runs for three hours a day and continues for four months. Teachers conduct a morning and after noon class of 12 to 15 students. The program's total capacity is 150 students.

Life Skills combines instruction in applied skills training, basic academics, violence reduction, and the acquisition of moral values and life skills needed for inmates to successfully reintegrate into society.

Applied skills training includes self-development, interpersonal relationships, communication skills, job and financial skills and family values. Academic instruction focuses on reading, writing, arithmetic and mathematical problem-solving.

The violence-reduction component includes anger control, personal peacemaking, stress management, conflict resolution, and Moral Reconation Therapy (MRT). MRT, developed by Correctional Counseling, Inc. of Tennessee, is, in the words of its developers, a "systematic step-by-step process of reeducating inmates behaviorally, socially and morally. It builds appropriate motivation, goals and values into a person's life. It is designed to raise the moral reasoning level of inmates by presenting a series of structured tasks and exercises completed in groups as well as individually with a counselor."

The primary goal of MRT is to raise individuals from relatively low levels of personality, identity and moral development to higher levels of development. The therapy utilizes behavioristic methods with a systematic, 12-step treatment approach aimed at impacting personality and behavior. The system assumes that individuals enter treatment with little moral development and a strong resistance to change. Thus, therapy works to reeducate clients socially, morally and behaviorally, while instilling appropriate values, goals and motivation. It attempts to alter how individuals think and make judgments about right and wrong.

Although MRT is therapeutic in effect, it is not conducted as traditional therapy in Delaware, but rather as education. Offenders are taught how to develop moral reasoning and act accordingly. Including MRT in the Life Skills program conveys the message that the ability to make moral choices is a skill as important as the ability to read and write or to apply for a job. MRT is the most popular component of the Life Skills program and serves as the core around which the rest of the program is oriented.

Teachers involve the family in the program, contacting a family member named by the inmate and informing him or her about the program and the inmate's progress. A family event, such as a picnic or inmate presentation followed by socializing, is held for each class. When a class has been completed, families are invited to attend the graduation ceremony, which also is attended by corrections administrators, program staff and special guests from the community. The governor has spoken at several graduations. Other speakers include judges and state senators.

The power of the program lies in its capacity to hire and train correctional educators who are motivated to help incarcerated students succeed. Student evaluations give all the teachers high ratings. The teachers are enthusiastic about the program and their students.

Carol Eagle, who teaches men in the state's largest institution, which houses the most serious offenders, comments on the program:

"As a Life Skills instructor, what I like best is the challenge. I like having academics, the practical life skills portion and behavior modification. You don't ever get tired of teaching the same thing. You can incorporate information about why you need a certain kind of math, for example. If I am teaching geometry, I can tie that into construction work or some of the more practical skills that my students enjoy. We also, in reading, read the Constitution, which ties across the board with history, morality and their legal rights and responsibilities. I have speakers from family court, technical training programs from the Department of Labor, and other areas. What my students have benefited from the most is ending up with a goal plan. We work on the goal plan during the 12 steps of MRT. Overall, the goal plan is most helpful in dealing with what is moral and what is not and trying to encourage them to be committed to change. That probably is the most inspirational part for all my students."

Isabel Companiony, who teaches women, also comments on the program: "Most students like their book How to Escape Your Prison, which uses MRT and stresses the need of addressing behaviors that have gotten them into trouble in the past and rectifying these behaviors. I like to say to my students that their lives are like a full cup of water. If they remove the negative behaviors, they will replace them with something, so I encourage them to replace them with realistic, tangible goals that they can pursue."

Students may continue serving their sentences for months after completing the program, and it appears that they are able to use their new ideas and skills in the prison setting. One still-incarcerated student recently spoke about the changes he has made in his life since graduation. He stated that he benefited from the decision-making skills he learned in Life Skills. He also considers how his actions will affect others (his family, for example). He has made changes in his life by choosing not to engage in negative behavior when his peers approach him. This is a major accomplishment for this 21 year-old. When tempted to engage in inappropriate behavior, he remembers that he has committed himself to doing the right thing and that he can't let others or himself down. He has enrolled in the high school program and applies himself diligently based on a goal he set for himself while in Life Skills.

The primary goal of the program is for Life Skills participants to have a measurable and significantly lower recidivism rate than those in the control and comparison group one year after release from prison. Recidivism is defined as incurring pending misdemeanor or felony charges or convictions. Returning to prison from work release centers and halfway houses for rules violations or absconding also are tracked.

One-year recidivism results are available for more than half of the first Life Skills class. The criminal records of all Life Skills participants who had been released before the third week in March 1995 were examined to see if they had re-offended during the first year after release. In addition to the graduates, those who did not complete the program - those who dropped out, were transferred to another institution or were expelled for behavior problems - were included in the statistics.

Because of the small numbers of participants in the community for one year (64 participants), results will be presented for all institutions combined. A comparison group statistic was constructed by averaging the results for the control groups at the two institutions where the numbers of qualified volunteers were large enough with recidivism statistics from earlier studies of the other two institutions. The recidivism rate for Life Skills participants is a low 8.1 percent compared with 34.9 percent for the composite comparison group.

In addition to following up on new criminal offenses; work-release experiences also are being monitored. Delaware inmates typically transition back to the community through work-release facilities. To compute preliminary results, graduates and participants from the first program cycle in all institutions were combined and compared with members of both control groups from the first class. Current success to failure ratios are 3-to-1 for graduates, 2.25-to-1 for all participants and 1.29-to-1 for control group members.

After completing the program, students showed significant decreases in feelings and likelihood of expression of anger as measured by the State Trait Anger Expression Inventory (STAXI). Even before the STAXI results were computed, a prison administrator commented on the dramatic behavior change seen in one inmate. Before the program, this young woman presented a hostile, angry demeanor, got into frequent arguments, and often had to be disciplined. Following her participation in Life Skills, she presented a cooperative and friendly demeanor and was able to express her complaints and make requests in an appropriate manner.

The data presented in this report were collected and analyzed by an independent research consultant contracted by the department of correction to evaluate the program and report periodically. The most critical data will be in the final statistical report that will present results for all participants and compare results for participant groups with their control groups. However, preliminary results suggest that the Delaware Life Skills program is effective in meeting its goals to improve the quality of life of inmates and significantly reducing recidivism.

Marsha L. Miller, Ph.D., is project evaluator for Delaware's Department of Correction Life Skills Program. Bruce Hobler, Ph.D., is director of education for the Delaware Department of Correction.
COPYRIGHT 1996 American Correctional Association, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Programs That Work
Author:Miller, Marsha L.; Hobler, Bruce
Publication:Corrections Today
Date:Aug 1, 1996
Words:1696
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