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Written interactions predict incarceration.

The evolution of how prisoners in substance-abuse programs communicate is a good indicator of whether they will return to crime, research in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment has found. The relationships among prisoners enrolled in "therapeutic communities," which focus on rehabilitation from drug and alcohol addiction, are key to those programs' effectiveness, notes social worker Keith Warren.

The theory behind these efforts rests on the idea that peer interaction will support learning that displaces ingrained (and unhealthy) ways of thinking that stand in the way of people leaving addiction behind.

In this study, Warren and coauthor Nathan Doogan analyzed written communications collected at minimum-security facilities with programs designed as an alternative to traditional prison time. The more a participant's language choices changed during rehab, the less likely that individual was to return to prison, they found. "It's not just being in the program that seems to help; it's the cognitive engagement in it," Warren states.

The messages exchanged come in two forms; "push-ups," are congratulatory notes to a peer--something like, "Good job talking about your triggers in group today, man." The second, called "pull-ups," are meant to steer a fellow prisoner toward better choices--something like, "Hey brother, next time try talking to me instead of getting into a fight." Once approved as appropriate for group consumption, the written notes typically are read aloud to the group during mealtime or meetings.

The researchers examined how these communications changed for each of the men included in the study. They looked at push-ups and pull-ups in each inmate's first two to three months in the program and held those up against the messages they sent fellow prisoners in the second two to three months. In all, the researchers analyzed about 267,000 messages.

The more their word combinations shifted, the greater the chance those individuals did not return to prison. In cases where the inmates did return, those who showed the least change in how they thought and wrote tended to return to prison most quickly.

The study did not focus on "positive" or "negative" word choice, but on change in general, with the goal of getting a handle on whether the program was reshaping the participant's way of thinking.

Shifts in how we put together our thoughts and express them in writing are a good indication of a true evolution in how we think, Warren maintains. "Learning is a change in connections among ideas. In a therapeutic community, you would hope that they are abandoning some old connections and developing some new ones."

Understanding--and being able to measure--changes linked to reduced rates of repeat incarceration eventually could help program directors refine how they approach different participants. For instance, if it is clear an addict's communications with others in the program are not changing in nature, it might be a clue that the individual needs more one-on-one attention.

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Title Annotation:Your Life
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2017
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