Feb 9, 2010

"Thinking for a Change": Why Cognitive Behavior Interventions work with Offenders

Lately, the Task Force has kicked into high gear, preparing for the launch of its Pilot Case Management Program which will partner with the Division of Parole to work with offenders who are at the highest risk of returning to prison. Among many of the program's unique features are its community-based nature -- the focus will be on offenders returning to the 25th police precinct in East Harlem, its use of a Collaborative Case Management Team (which includes representatives from the Task Force, the Department of Parole, the NYPD, the District Attorney's Office and community-based treatment providers), and its use of a new Behavioral Intervention program for offenders called, Thinking for a Change.

This Monday and Tuesday Task Force Staff and Parole staff attended the first two days of a four day training program on Integrated Cognitive Behavior Change (a.k.a, Thinking for a Change). The program was developed by the National Institute of Corrections which describes Thinking for a Change as, ". . .a program for offenders that includes cognitive restructuring, social skills development, and development of problem solving skills."

During lunch, I sat down with Dr. Juliana Tayman's, co-author of the program and our trainer, to ask her a few questions about this innovative approach to reducing criminality.

How would you describe the Integrated Cognitive Behavior Program, Thinking for a Change, in a few sentences?

It is a way of working with offenders that focuses on the connections between their thinking and their offending. It is an intervention that is empowering for the offender because it allows them to learn about themselves in an interesting and productive way. Both service providers and offenders clearly see that the offender is in charge of his or her thinking and that is the key to behavior change.

You mentioned that studies show that traditional talk therapy does not work with offenders, but that Cognitive Behavior Change does. Why is that?

Many offenders have led extremely difficult lives that provide very rational justification for what they do. In talk therapy what we do is explore reasons for behavior based on a person's childhood and history. This is really non-productive for a lot of offenders because it is easy for them to justify what they do based on how they grew up and the current challenges they face. Cognitive based interventions deal with the here and now--its asks what are the situations you are in and what decisions you make. It helps offenders become aware that they have a lot more power and control that they think they have. It is a way to hold offenders responsible for what they do but in a way that is productive and humane.

Can you make any generalizations about the way adult offenders respond to Thinking for a Change?

For some people it just clicks. When it clicks it is this huge AHA moment that people finally have. A lot of offenders say that they wish they had been told this before. I believe that they have been told it before, only not in a way that has clicked for them. That is what cognitive behavior interventions tend to do - present things in a way that helps people connect with their thoughts and actions concretely and explicitly.

Do you have a specific story of an offender who was able to make a behavior change based on your work?

There was an offender I worked with in Texas [who was incarcerated] and was out working in the fields all day. When he came back [into the prison], he was all hot and sweaty and took his clothes off to take a shower. It turned out that someone had used his name to take his shower and when the Correctional Officer informed him that he couldn't have "another" one, he was furious.

He told me, "I stood there and realized I had a choice. I could go off on this guy and get locked up [placed in solitary] or I could decide to back away and not get in anymore trouble. So, I put my dirty clothes back on and went to my cell."

My take on this is that the Cognitive Behavior Program he underwent helped make him okay with what he did. He made a decision.

What are your challenges doing this work?

Each group has own challenges. Therapists often have a hard time with this work. The work requires them to forgo using some of their very well developed skills and instincts. Some Correctional Officers and Parole Officers have their mind already set about criminals, especially if they have worked in this field a long time. They are accustom to being efficient and straightforward in their communications and so it can be hard for them to engage in this process of stepping back. It is a very different way of interacting with people.

What are your hopes for this work in the criminal justice field?

Cognitive Behavior Change can be a way of interacting across a system. That is when it is going to be most effective. It is least effective when offered twice a week and the offenders don't see any evidence of it the rest of week. I have seen it being really effective in the prison setting when both the Correctional Officers and Case Managers use it to help inmates with problem solving. This program, Thinking for a Change, doesn't mean backing off from any essential components of a correction system. If anything it should help people be more consistent with the rules.