|Connecticut Program Turns Gang Members Around|
|By Michelle Gaseau, Managing Editor|
Just as rehabilitation is a general goal of corrections agencies as a whole, that element also crosses with the management of security threat groups. Most believe it is not enough for corrections officials to merely separate gang and security threat group members from others in the general population.
An integral part of gang and STG management in corrections is providing group members the opportunity to escape gang life and head in a new direction that can prepare them at first for the general population, and later for release.
In Connecticut, corrections officials have had great success with a gang renunciation program that originally was launched in 1995.
'We don't just lock them up and throw away the key, [but] it's all up to them,' said John Aldi, Close Custody Program Coordinator for the Connecticut Department of Corrections' Northern Correctional Institution.
In 1999, the program was consolidated and moved to one correctional facility and statistics show that it has made a difference for this group of inmates. Aldi said that the total number of completions for the program is 1,182 offenders and the recidivism rate for those offenders is a respectable 4.8 percent.
Aldi recently spoke with The Corrections Connection about the program's structure and the elements that help change these offenders' lives.
Q: Does the program have a particular philosophy?
Aldi: When the program was retooled in 1999 the participants got newer material and the DOC decided to link it to other behavior programs in the system so that anywhere you turn as an inmate you will get anger management programming and that kind of thing.
We have three units full of gang members. There are three counselors and myself as program coordinator and two unit managers. Everyone is one the same page and keeping the consistency going. The officers have to buy into the program; they know what is taught in the groups and they are able to support it through their everyday interactions.
Also, in our security division, the security risk coordinators and our staff hold meetings to keep information flowing. If something happens at our facility, we can call other facilities and compare notes. We also have some pretty strong ties with outside law enforcement.
Q: Can you explain how offenders enter the program?
Aldi: Before entering the program they must wait four months to clear to enter the program. They could be waiting for a disciplinary report to clear as well. At this time they are getting themselves settled and ready for the programming. Then, when gang members first come to the program they are placed in a two-week beginning phase called Getting Started, Getting Going.
They spend two weeks in their cells and learn about the program and work on active listening skills, the two sentence technique - which is getting your point across quickly, and basic communication skills as well as getting along with your cellmate - who is also a gang member. This is a formal cooling off period.
To get here they must sign a letter of intention that they intend to progress through the
program to renounce their gang affiliation. As they progress into the program itself, they will be placed in a group of 12-gang members called a squad - they work with this group throughout the entire five and a half month program. This group could include rival gang members, gang members from rural areas or urban areas.
Q: What are the incentives to encourage participation?
Aldi: The incentives to joining the program are several. When they are active gang members they can only see immediate family members during visiting times, they are in lockdown 23 hours a day with one hour for recreation and they are limited in most ways during their incarceration.
The program allows them to be free of this and to do their bid in the general population. When they program, they can be in the general population. Also as an active gang member, if they are not legally married or their name is not on their child's birth certificate, then those family members are not allowed to visit until the offender is in general population. Also, until they are in general population, they do not qualify for good time credit.
Q: Can you describe how the offender progresses through the program?
Aldi: In Phase 2 the offenders join the 12-member squad and they receive a booklet about the program rules and regulations, which includes a list of 38 rules such as, making their bed each day. If an inmate breaks a rule, they are given two informal infractions and the third infraction requires them to start the program all over again. Our philosophy is you want to ease up a bit and let them admit their mistakes.
At this time program leaders and counselors go over the program rules with the squad members, describing how the unit works, what the adjustment is like, and how to live and get along with a new cell partner. The counselor also goes over examples of active listening and other techniques they will be using. Then they start their first program, which is anger management.
In this course they learn techniques about how to deal with their anger, what makes them
angry and this is also a point where the squad members begin to see similarities among each other. They may say, 'Hey, he gets mad over the same things I do.'
Anger management takes one month in which they must complete a booklet with homework and answer questions for discussion among the group members such as how it was when they grew up, who their parents were, and who was around them as a child. This facilitates discussion among the 12 in the squad.
Another program is called Building the Ladder. This addresses skills building and the
beginnings of making a plan for the rest of their lives. The questions asked of the group are what do they want to do with their lives, what are their skills, and they learn how to take responsibility for themselves. This is a time for self reflection and future planning for when they are in general population as well as when they are released.
I've had guys who have done exactly what they said they'd do: get a GED, take college courses or enroll in an industry program. During this time they also talk about the role of religion and where they each stand, what their beliefs are and they learn that they can still talk to each other even if their beliefs are different.
One of the last exercises for the group in this section is writing a letter to their child or
a child that looks up to them where they give their advice about what they should and shouldn't do. It hits home for them because they care so much about their kids. They tell them why they should get an education or not do drugs. I have had guys who have broken down in tears and we also get letters back from their kids.
Another section for this phase is How to Do Your Bid. Here, each member of the group talks about what they do to help them get through their sentence whether it is reading books, watching the news every day or tips about how to make it easier, such as how to avoid being angry and not reacting to situations. It ranges from everyday interactions to how to do 50 years. We also discuss future plans and setting goals.
Q: How are the offenders eased out of the program into general population?
Aldi: In Phase 3, the last phase, they can eat outside of their cells and in the day room, their infractions are wiped out and they are two months from general population.
The first section of this phase is relapse prevention. Here they review the skills they have
learned, discuss how to avoid being sent back, how to deal with difficulties that may arise
for them and discuss strategies to not fight every battle. The group leaders have the offenders discuss how to recognize a negative overall state where they may fall into hanging out with a crowd of trouble makers, how to recognize patterns of negative behavior, to be focused on your goals, how to identify high risk situations, either after release or in general population and how to avoid them. We discuss what are the consequences of their actions and that they have to be responsible for themselves.
Another section in this phase is called Double Trouble, which discusses instances where guys will be doing the right thing and then they can mess it up when they are in a negative emotional state. It is at that point where you may put yourself in a high-risk situation. We also discuss lying to oneself about their bad choices and distorted thinking - which is turning a blind eye to things. For example, an inmate from the program was in general population for eight or nine months and then was caught smoking a cigarette in another inmate's cell. For him, that was his wake up call. He straightened out after that.
The final group is called the Bridge Group. These guys may have not seen general population for a long time. It's not the same as when they left, so I lay it out for them. I tell them what it's like, what others who have come through the program are saying about their problems and difficulties they encounter and also discuss also when they will be eligible for parole or discharge and what property they'll get when they enter.
We talk about that and then what they have learned, what aspects of that are they going to use and then we give them an opportunity to make suggestions for changes in the program.
Finally, we have an aftercare program where for one year I go to their housing units twice a month. I interview them about what they are doing and ask if they are having any problems. That shows that we are not forgetting about them; it's like a probation while they are out.
But overall the changes are theirs to make. Unless they want to stop doing time like this [as a gang member] there's nothing I can do to change their minds.
For more information about the Connecticut DOC's program, contact the DOC at 860-692-7780.
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