Innovative Prison Project Utilizes Landmark Education Course Concepts

Moving beyond prison system

From the Philadelphia Inquirer
By David Parrish

Today, everyone is concerned about crime. We all live with the threat of becoming victims.

The alarming costs of crime include loss of life, traumatized people, disrupted families, and the enormous financial burden involved in maintaining a police presence and housing an ever-growing prison population.

The evidence continues to indicate that what we are doing to reduce crime is not working, and yet the actions we take continue to be the same.

I have worked in the prison system for 33 years as a psychologist and an administrator. I have interviewed thousands of inmates and watched as the justice system processed them through the prison experience.

I have concluded that our social perceptions of people we call criminals are the source of our ineffective actions.

Psychologically, this is fairly simple to see. If you perceive and relate to someone in a particular way, it is highly likely that person will behave consistent with your expectations.

This is evident when frustrated parents see their teenage children as “problems” and punish them with restrictions. The teens fight these attempts at control and escalate into more risky forms of behavior.

In our justice system, we label people as “criminals,” confine them, punish them, and subject them to experiences that leave them with the conclusion that they are no good.

Then we expect them to change into good, law-abiding citizens.

This process often starts with a one-time, nonviolent offense. But after being processed through our system, the offender begins to see himself as a criminal for life and is then willing to escalate to more serious offenses because he no longer sees a future in which he is on an equal playing field with the rest of society.

Last year, at Riverfront Prison, in Camden, we introduced a transformational approach toward inmates that we call the Impact Project.

Our project has been granted permission to utilize leading-edge technology designed by Landmark Education, an internationally recognized industry leader in the training and development field.

At Riverfront, this approach helps reveal to the incarcerated offenders how their view of the world around them – and of themselves – results in their destructive and threatening behaviors.

In turn, the program enables those who supervise the inmates to get at the sources of criminal behavior, and thus help change it rather than just impose their moral judgments.

Prisoners are oriented toward a new view of themselves and the world, one that empowers them to imagine and create a future that breaks the cycle of incarceration.

Inmates at Riverfront must qualify for the Impact Project.

To qualify, inmates must be within a year of parole eligibility, pass an interview by a committee consisting of custody and treatment staff, and make written agreements for full participation, which includes committing to completing a high school education.

Currently, 85 of our 1,000 inmates are enrolled in the program.

The project begins with a three-day, 36-hour intensive “Breakthrough Course.” This is a rigorous inquiry that provides the inmates with a clear picture of how they developed anti-social identities, and leaves them with the choice of who they want to be in the future.

Then the inmates participating in the course are moved together into a housing unit and guided to establish a peer learning community where they practice using their newly acquired self-transformational tools in everyday situations.

Follow-up seminars are provided to expand on the foundation material.

The project provides inmates with continual programming and support for the duration of their incarceration and even after their release.

So far, two of the “graduates” have been released. Both seem to be doing well in adjusting to society outside.

This weekend, I am scheduled to make a public presentation of this crime-fighting strategy.

I will speak at 3 p.m. Sunday at the First Unitarian Church, 2125 Chestnut St., Philadelphia. Admission is free. For more information call: 610-329-6755.

I hope to prompt a new conversation about crime in which we collectively transform our approach to dealing with it.

Slowing, if not ending, the cycle of crime and incarceration will create a safer environment for all of us.

David Parrish, a forensic psychologist, is administrator of Riverfront State Prison, in Camden.

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