At this point in history when there is a growing consensus for prison reform, we have an opportunity for making systemic change that can impact great numbers of inmates by re-envisioning prisons as “launch pads” for success. We believe this is feasible through a well-designed integration of the self-help therapeutic community (TC) model and a strong network of community and prison training resources within a correctional system that is primed for prison reform and reentry success.

Public safety concerns dictate that prison inmates are housed in secure environments and serve out their sentences primarily behind-the-walls. The quandary that we encounter is that the greater the seclusion and disconnect, the more likely the rates of recidivism will be higher. While it has been known for many years that northern European prisons are much more humane and integrated with the outside community and have exceedingly low recidivism rates,1 the American justice system with high recidivism rates has shown a preference for being “tough on crime and punishment” while overlooking the fact that approximately 95% of inmates return to society with very little preparation for success, often posing an increased threat to public safety.

Recently there has been a growing consensus that many nonviolent felons with primarily drug related crimes don’t belong in expensive prisons that foster recidivism and can actually be treated in the community more effectively at a fraction of the cost. Major state efforts are underway to reduce prison populations through diversion and by implementing early release.2 However, rarely is it suggested that prisons can fundamentally be altered for those who must serve time so that they receive enhanced opportunities for success upon release.

Historically, a considerable amount of research has demonstrated that prison-based TCs are effective for recovery and recidivism reduction.3 Supported by these studies, Spectrum and others have successfully implemented prison TCs across the country. However, over time prison TCs have lost some of their innovative quality and become influenced by prison bureaucracy with an emphasis on rule following and good behavior rather then inspiring journeys of self-discovery and fulfillment of the self-help “promise” that if you work hard there are few limitations to future success. There has been a growing recognition of the importance of education and vocational training for successful reentry and recidivism reduction.4 Clearly, recovery, education and vocational training go together and provide increasing synergy for success when integrated. However, in prisons as in the community, these important opportunities are often available in silos thereby decreasing their overall potential. Finally, there is now a promising movement led by the VERA Institute,5 an 18-month initiative called “Re-imagining Prison” that is focused on making prisons more humane and less destructive while enhancing high-quality educational and skill-development opportunities.

Operation of the Virginia Indian Creek Correctional Center (ICCC) Therapeutic Community has provided Spectrum a unique opportunity to work with Virginia Department of Corrections leadership to undertake a systemic exploration which goes beyond improving prison rehabilitation services to fundamentally restructuring ICCC into a so-called “launch pad.” Because ICCC is one of the few U.S. prisons fully dedicated to substance abuse treatment, the TC offers an opportunity to inspire and train participants to shift from being “good clients” who receive services into “change agents” who energetically contribute to both their own recovery and to the creation of the launch pad. A description of the components and processes to create a launch pad will be described in my next blog.

Spectrum’s revised Prison TC model integrates cognitive-behavioral treatment, social learning approaches, self-help principles and a newly proposed entrepreneurial perspective that inspires participants and staff to identify environmental challenges and come up with solutions that enhance the program. The integration of self-help and entrepreneurship integration has been pioneered by the “Recovery Through Entrepreneurship” program in New York City that provides training programs in community TCs for individuals coming out of prison.6

2Wexler, H.K., “Criminal Justice Reform: California Transformation & Challenges.” 22th National TASC Conference on Drugs, Crime & Re-Entry, Chicago, ILL, April 2016.
3Wexler, H.K. & Prendergast, M.L. (2010) Therapeutic Communities in United States Prisons: Effectiveness and Challenges. International Journal of Therapeutic Communities. 31(2), 157-176.

4Reentry educational and vocational efforts are being intensified lead by White House initiatives

6Wexler, H.K. Melnick, G and Wexler, J. (2014) “Recovery Through Entrepreneurship: Overcoming Criminal Record Stigma” Offender Programs Report, Vol. 18, No. 4 ISSN 1093-7439 Pages 49 – 64. November/December.