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Mar 26

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A look inside success at Coyote Ridge

Coyote Ridge D Unit, B Pod

Visitors may not immediately see differences between the two pods of D Unit at Coyote Ridge Corrections Center, a medium-custody prison located near the Tri-Cities.

In the right spot, they can see into B pod and neighboring A pod. In each, identical stainless steel tables dot the dayroom floor, offenders in khaki clothes enter and exit beige cell doors on two tiers.

But ask Correctional Officer Israel Villareal if he notices a difference, and he says, “It’s quieter.”

And, he says, the offenders are more respectful.

The data backs up Villarel’s assessment. The offenders in the B pod have committed 75 percent fewer violent infractions than those in the neighboring unit since April 2012.

Being one of two pilot projects – along with a pod at Airway Heights Corrections Center near Spokane – has been a challenge, the staff here says.

“I’m not going to say it was easy,” said Classification Counselor Joe Gunter.

The staff here at Coyote Ridge has noticed that by changing the way they operate they have changed the environment.

“It’s not the ideas we’re piloting,” said Correctional Program Manager Michelle Duncan. “It’s the operations we’re piloting.”

The Department of Corrections worked with University of Cincinnati’s Corrections Institute to train staff members in Core Correctional Practices and Motivational Interviewing. New practices include emphasizing positive reinforcement, such as verbal praise and short-term rewards. They also emphasize swift and consistent consequences.

“It’s exciting and nerve-wracking at the same time,” Villareal said of being involved in the pilot, which started in March 2012.

Targeting Risk and Needs

coyoteridge_officer_webSome offenders in the pilot felt like it was a demotion, said Roderick Caldwell Jr., one of the early participants.

He and other offenders didn’t ask to participate. But DOC is building a system in which programs and services are linked with what’s most likely to help offenders change their criminal behavior, not what they volunteer for.

“In the beginning, I was wild,” Caldwell said.

Caldwell had earned a Minimum 3 custody level and lost a few privileges when he went to the higher-custody D unit at Coyote Ridge.

Some acted out, hoping to get kicked out of the program — but DOC required the vast majority to stay in the pod.

Offenders attended classes in an evidence-based program new to Washington state called Thinking for a Change, which teaches people how thinking affects behavior, problem-solving and social skills. As they progressed, they earned additional privileges, including eating in the dayroom, monthly viewings of staff-chosen movies, preferential job placement and at the top level, a graduation ceremony, an opportunity to request a facility transfer and an ability to request Good Time restoration.

Officers like Villareal learned to recognize offenders’ improvements with words of encouragement or occasional coupons that offenders redeemed for small rewards and privileges, such as preferential haircut appointments, photographs to send home or, with enough coupons, they can check out TV remotes for their cells or bring to their cells materials and tools for hobbies.

“It’s creating an environment where offenders can practice these skills,” Gunter said. “Staff are the ones creating the environment.”

For this to be successful, it takes the understanding and support of all DOC staff regardless of role or job class, Duncan said. 

Overcoming Challenges

People involved in the pilots need to be “somebody who believes in change and believes that people can change,” Duncan said.

On a large whiteboard in her office, she scrawled a quote by W.L. Bateman, “If you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’ll keep on getting what you’ve always got.”

Not all staff members bought in and some misunderstood aspects of the program.

At first, “I thought it was a waste of time,” said Sgt. Matt Hanan. “I’ve seen other programs come and go.”

Annual training on evidence-based correctional practices has helped staff members who aren’t involved in the pilot understand, Duncan said.

Those like Hanan who have a closer view notice a difference for themselves. He says correctional staff are trained to read tone and tension, and he thinks they would feel that B pod has a more relaxed environment.

“The behavior that a lot of these guys have, the way they talk is more like what I’d expect on the minimum side, where they have more to lose,” he said.

He may not agree with every aspect of it, but “I do like the program. I do see it working,” he said.

For Classification Counselors, the pilot also meant teaching classes in addition to managing regular caseloads.

Gunter said managing his time has gotten better as the pilot progressed.

“It’s the way classification counseling is going to go,” he said of what’s kept him motivated.

When responding to staff members who may ask why bother with the program, Correctional Unit Supervisor Jeff Perkins said, “I tell them, ‘Why not? If what we’re doing isn’t working, why not try something else?’”

While the challenges may seem daunting, “People are wanting this to succeed, and that’s what’s making the difference,” Perkins said.

 Lessons

Caldwell said he can see the changes in himself, that he now better understands the effects of his actions on others and knows that while he may not be able to change a situation, he can choose how he responds to it.

“Everyone has the capacity to change if they want it,” said Caldwell. “If we can learn a behavior, we can unlearn a behavior.”

“Everyone has the capacity to change if they want it,” said Caldwell. “If we can learn a behavior, we can unlearn a behavior.”

Caldwell has seen parallels in parenting and offender behavior.

When a child wants a parent’s attention, “If I’m getting more attention from throwing a tantrum … that’s what I do.”

But praising positive behavior will give you more to praise, he said.

He recalled a recent day in the kitchen and noticed that another offender was showing attitude to a Correctional Officer. When Caldwell asked the Officer something, he got a testy reply.

Before, Caldwell may have focused on how unfair it was for the Officer to carry over his frustration with one offender to his interactions with him. This time, Caldwell read the situation.

“I said, ‘I’ve sensed a little tension, I’ll come back to you.’”

The Officer later returned to Caldwell to say he appreciated the understanding.

It’s a small thing, but the staff has noticed similar situations.

Prisons can be loud, people’s demands immediate and intense. Patience can be hard to find.

Perkins said he’s noticed that, generally, the offenders in B pod are quieter and their behavior is noticeably better.

“There are flare-ups … but we’re still in a prison,” he said. 

Caldwell said the classes have changed an attitude pervasive in prison, that if one person wins, another has to lose.

“That’s the wrong kind of attitude to have,” he said. “There’s room for me to win and you to win at the same time.”

He thinks that had he previously understood what he’s learned, maybe he wouldn’t be in prison.

“I tell myself I need to change every day,” Caldwell said. “The only thing worse to me than this (prison) is death.”

 A Change

As a Correctional Officer, Villareal said that some of the new practices run counter to what he first learned when he joined DOC five years ago. Part of the job now means asking an offender who’s acting out what they could have done differently, positively, to find a solution to their problems or concerns.

“They want us to notice behavior, know what’s going on in their classes,” he said.

But ultimately “you’re still going to do your job” ensuring the safety of staff, the public and offenders.

Change is tough anywhere, he said.

But “it’s kind of exciting to be a part of it,” he added.

He’s realistic. He doesn’t think the program can reform everyone.

He can tell that some have internalized the lessons and practiced the skills, but others don’t fully participate. 

Caldwell used to think DOC wanted people to stay in prison to ensure job security.

He now believes that DOC wants people to change, and that it may be on his side.

“When I get out … who is DOC defending? It’s defending people like me,” Caldwell explained.

“They have a lot to do … and I respect that. You’ve got to tip your hat to that a little bit.”

He said he tries to remember that while he’s waiting in line, perhaps to ask a simple question.

“I realize things take a little time,” Caldwell said. “I’ve got time.”

Permanent link to this article: http://offenderchange.org/a-look-inside-success-at-coyote-ridge/