When the Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC) relied on a pre-release program that was steeped in military-style practices, it failed inmates miserably.
“(We found that) people who go through (that program) actually do worse than people that didn’t go through, so we realized that while there were a lot of individuals who had success—they were the outliers,” said Dr. Kirby Arinder, a methodologist from the Legislature’s non-partisan PEER Committee, in talking about MDOC’s former Regimented Inmate Discipline (RID) program. Once carefully scrutinized, RID showed it had a negative effect on recidivism.
RID had boot camp-style training and military discipline measures. When recidivism statistics were compared between Mississippi’s RID participants and the state, RID inmates reoffended 42 percent of the time compared to the state’s 37 percent.
MDOC has now scrapped RID in favor of Thinking for a Change, a 13-week pre-release therapy-style program that has small groups of inmates coming together to discuss a variety of topics and their emotions, and learning to pause and think before making decisions.
Currently, Thinking for a Change is offered at Mississippi’s State Penitentiary at Parchman, South Mississippi Correctional Institution, Hinds County Probation and Parole Office, and the Hinds County Restitution Center. It will soon be available at the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Rankin County as well.
MDOC inmates that have 6 to 12 months before they are released are provided with life, job and financial management skills, in addition to assistance with finding employment. Thinking for a Change adds a cognitive element to the pre-release program, and teaches inmates how to make better decisions.
“You know how you’ll be in the streets and you’ll be in a group of fellas who want to do something bad or illegal… that’s the type of class it was, it taught us to stop and think before we act,” said Desmond Brown, a former inmate from Hinds County in an interview with the Jackson Free Press.
Brown’s statement begs the question—how is this the first time most of the inmates are learning about empathy, compassion, communication and cognitive reasoning?
It’s important to remember that the average U.S. inmate is more likely to be from a disenfranchised and underserved community. Americans with low socio-economic status are greatly overrepresented in the prison system. The school-to-prison pipeline, along with racial tensions, play into this problem. Many youth that enter the prison system are still tangled up in it when they hit middle age, after being handed long sentences, or through the cycle of recidivism.
This means the average inmate is not an upper-class Caucasian who comes from a “good home” and has enjoyed access to a well-adjusted peer groups, confidence and social skill-building extracurricular activities and schools where gang activity, drugs and other crises were not an issue. When an individual’s early life is about survival, they have little time to build up skills such as patience, reliability and communication that are necessary for holding down a job, staying out of jail and making good decisions. Many Americans are, sadly, products of their environments, and many start from a place where their futures are more likely to involve incarceration than good jobs and opportunities.
Cognitive thinking is a skill, and it’s a learned one. Treating inmates with regimented programs like RID do nothing to foster cognitive development, but only serve to reinforce negative thoughts about authority and social interaction.
Thinking for a Change is a step in the right direction in the way inmates are prepared for release. Imparting job training and financial skills is important, too, but if people can’t self-regulate their thoughts and emotions or communicate effectively, they are much more likely to reoffend. Let’s hope programs like Thinking for a Change become the norm in the nation’s prison system.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com.