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Teaching inmates thinking skills.

Editor's note: The following is an edited version of a workshop presentation delivered at the ACA Winter Conference in Miami in January. This and other selected presentations from the conference and the 1993 Congress of Correction will be included in The State of Corrections, to be published in January 1994.

Most correctional educators believe that teaching inmates how to think is as important as teaching them how to read and write. Academic skills and thinking skills go hand-in-hand. Inmates who earn their GEDs but lack the self-control to react wisely to various situations will return to the prison system again and again.

In March 1990, the Western New Mexico Correctional Facility in Grants completed a pilot program called Time To Think, or TTT. The program, developed by Robert Ross and Elizabeth Fabiano of the University of Ottawa, was completed over a nine-week period by two groups of eight inmates. Six education faculty members underwent in-service training on the program at the same time.

TTT is a multi-dimensional program aimed at addressing the cognitive and social skills offenders typically lack. The program is designed to be delivered to a group of four to eight offenders, who ideally should begin and end the program together. It addresses thinking and social skills such as starting and ending a conversation, asking for help, apologizing, following instructions, handling failure, concentrating, relaxing, setting goals, decision making, and expressing emotions such as affection, encouragement and anger.

Each lesson builds on and reinforces skills acquired in previous lessons. The program emphasizes developing consideration for the thoughts and feelings of others in decision making. Lessons are designed to move quickly.

In addition to the basic program presenter's manual and supplements and the participant's workbook, the program uses educational materials such as Thinklab and The Moral Dilemma Game, as well as popular games such as Scruples and Pictionary.

The original program had a stringent screening and selection process. At Western, the eligibility requirements have been broadened, but offenders with IQs below 70, with brain damage and with serious thought disorders such as schizophrenia are ineligible.

Two additional programs--"Social Thinking Skills," a problem-solving program developed by Katherine A. Larson in 1988, and "Managing Conflict: A Curriculum for Adolescents," developed a year later by the New Mexico Center for Dispute Resolution--have been incorporated into the TTT program. The social skills program uses cooperative learning along with model demonstration, role play, vocabulary practice and group discussion to teach social skills. "Managing Conflict" focuses on conflict resolution and communication skills for staff and inmates.

Educational curricula often tend to stress basic academic skills and concepts without addressing social or moral training. However, regardless of the subject being taught, instructional methods can teach thinking skills, problem solving and interpersonal relationships within the academic curriculum. At Western, every instructor--regardless of subject--teaches and reinforces the skills taught by the TTT program.

Based on the positive response to the initial program by inmates, faculty and institutional staff, TTT is now being offered every nine weeks at Western and is also being taught at the Penitentiary of New Mexico in Santa Fe and the Central New Mexico Facility in Los Lunas.

Ross, who measures program success by the decrease in recidivism, says, "Effective programs include as a target of their intervention not only the offender's environment, or his feelings or his behavior, or his vocational skills, but his cognition, his reasoning, his attributions and his self-evaluation of his world. They include some techniques which can increase the offender's reasoning skills, improve his sensitivity to the consequences of his behavior, teach him to stop and think before acting, increase his interpersonal problem-solving skills, broaden his view of the world, help him to develop alternative interpretations of social rules and obligations and help him to comprehend the thoughts and feelings of other people."

Staff Involvement

One goal of TTT is to improve the quality of life in a facility. The institutional administration at Western recognized that the program would benefit inmates but had not realized that inmates' behavior in their dealings with institutional staff would improve so dramatically.

It soon became apparent that staff, too, could use the skills taught by TTT. Condensed classes were conducted for line officers, security supervisors, caseworkers and inmate employment system supervisors. This training not only teaches staff valuable skills, it also helps allay any fears they may have that inmates may be learning ways to get over" on them.

For the most part, staff have responded positively--they now know what inmates are learning in class, inmates and staff now are interacting in more positive ways and inmates are receiving fewer misconduct reports.

Our future goals for the TTT program include teaching the TTT curriculum in conjunction with living units set aside for inmates participating in the program, conducting more training for institutional staff, working with classification to identify prospective TTT students, conducting follow-up studies on recidivism rates among TTT inmates, and conducting internal institutional management/disciplinary studies.

The TTT program at Western is an excellent way for inmate students to learn anger management and is an effective behavior management tool. If inmates know how to express their feelings appropriately, identify their needs appropriately, understand other people's views and explore solutions, the facility will be a happier place.

Inmate management problems arise because offenders often don't know how to listen to others, how to separate fact from opinion or how to think situations through rather than react. At Western, we have had success in talking issues through.

Inmates now know that it is OK to disagree with the administration in an appropriate manner. They also know that there is always a base line of rules that govern every society. They are incarcerated because they broke the laws of the free world. While incarcerated they are dealing with a different set of laws--policies and procedures. They now have a new chance to be good citizens within a different society.

The education department at Western strives to provide academic and literacy skills while helping inmates define and accomplish personal goals and objectives. TTT classes provide inmates with the opportunity to develop attitudes that will lead to changes in self-esteem, responsibility and behavior. Inmates have the opportunity to take responsibility for their actions, explore their values and learn problem-solving techniques that will lead to positive changes in behavior and attitudes.


Baker, Michael O. 1989. What would you do? Developing and/or applying ethical standards. Midwest Publications. Larson, Katherine A. 1988. Social thinking skills: A problem solving training program. Lawson, N.K. 1988. Thinking is a basic skill: Creating humanities materials for the adult new reader. Literacy Volunteers of America Inc. Managing conflict--A curriculum for adolescents. 1989. New Mexico Center For Dispute Resolution. O'Reilly, Kevin, and J. Splaine. 1987. Critical viewing stimulant to critical thinking. Midwest Publications. Ross, Robert R. 1989. Time to think: A cognitive model of offender rehabilitation and delinquency prevention. Research summary.
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No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Article Details
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Author:Sanchez, Cynthia S.
Publication:Corrections Today
Date:Aug 1, 1993
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