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San Diego Corrections Re-Entry Programs: A Model to Fight Recidivism

by Charlotte Dean, published

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A March 2012 realignment report card assigned a failing grade in realignment progress to the Community Corrections Partnership of the county of San Diego. This was largely due to a planned expansion in local jail capacity to both the East Mesa and Las Colinas detention facilities which the Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB) deemed wasteful.

Since then, East Mesa Detention Facility, originally a juvenile facility, has been renamed East Mesa Reentry Facility (EMRF). It has introduced new work and behavioral therapy programs to its 549 low-risk inmates (out of a 5,817 county total) and throughout existing re-entry programs for the county.

The expanded Las Colinas facility is offering the same intensive behavioral therapy course, called "Thinking for a Change," authored by the National Institute for Corrections.

Thinking for a Change (T4C) is a 25-lesson cognitive behavioral therapy program designed for correctional staff, using videos and play-acting of real-life scenarios to exercise critical skills of self-awareness, empathy, anger management, and problem solving.

Definitive information on how many corrections systems use Thinking for a Change is not widely available, but the NIC's website claims "eighty plus" agencies, over 400 trainers, and 8,000 trained corrections staff in unnamed facilities nationwide.

Their lesson plan is summarized in detail online and in "Aftercare" documents designed for post-completion follow-ups. The 50 social skills considered necessary for socialization by the National Institute of Corrections are grouped in 6 stages:

Basic Social Skills

"Basic" is slowly introduced first, including active listening, conversational basics like asking questions, saying thank you, introducing oneself and others, and offering compliments unbidden.

Advanced Social Skills

"Advanced" expands on that base, and range from surrendering motions like apologizing, asking for help, or following instructions, to leadership motions like convincing someone or giving instructions.

"Dealing With Feelings"

"Dealing With Feelings" offers guidance in the healthy observation, identification, and expression of thoughts and emotions that could otherwise be unbalancing. Participants process fear and anger, identify the negative emotions of others, and learn to express affection without self-doubt.

Alternatives to Aggression

"Alternatives to Aggression" is arguably the most critical area of improvement in the T4C curriculum, severing destructive cognitive patterns and introducing alternatives through experience. Offenders learn to ask permission from, help, share, and negotiate with others fairly. They are cautioned to identify trouble situations and avoid fights, but they are also taught to rationally identify malicious teasing and "stand up for your rights."

"Dealing With Stress"

While aggression alternatives get offenders to release and rerout explosive emotions, "Dealing with Stress" prevents the initial accumulation of explosive emotion. Inmates give and receive complaints, and deal with difficult or embarrassing situations like being left out, deceived, pressured, or accused of something.


Lastly, "Planning" provides the framework for the repetition of emotional self-control and life goals that carry offenders away from past destructive habits. Participants examine event sequences in hindsight, identify the consequences of problem behavior, and reflect on constructive activities they want to repeat. By objectively identifying their abilities and prioritizing problems, they're taught to make a decision, stick with their intuition, and concentrate fully.

In addition to expanding Thinking for Change to include realigned offenders, EMRF inmates earn a GED and certificates in "construction trades, printing press operation, janitorial services, computer graphics and industrial laundry machine operation."

The county that once earned a failing grade in community-based options has also since hired 108 new probation officers to serve 3,000 realigned offenders, as well as a panel of experts for a Behavioral Health Screening Team and protected funding for re-entry services.

Which detention centers in the county using these techniques, and what direct effect are they having? The most recent data on repeat offenders is slow to release, and CURB has not released a similar report card since March 2012.

When contacting the CCP, Mack Jenkins, chief probation officer for San Diego County, emphasized that CURB's evaluation was wrong and held no influence over an expansion of anti-recidivism programs which was already planned.

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