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Playing the Game: Behind the Fences at the Idaho Women's Correctional Center's Therapeutic Community

Therapeutic Community for female prisoners changes perspectives, raises controversy

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"The game" plays out like a ping pong of charges bouncing from one inmate to another.

The women sit facing each other in a circle, and in polite attack, the accusations begin.

"I'm pulling you up for breaking a verbal commitment," one inmate said.

"If it seems little to you, it might be big to others. ... A slip-up could be a sign of relapse," another chimes in.

"I agree, it's a serious matter," one added.

The charges flew as the accused sat in silence. Then the group fell quiet and the condemned spoke:

"Thanks, I'll get on top of that," she said.

The charges, the allegations, the words of blame are spoken daily and, for the most part, remain private matters, kept within the walls of the community, unheard by the world that lives beyond the rolling sage-covered hills that buffer the accused and the accusers from freedom.

The community resides beside a vacant stretch of road that connects a vast desert landscape to the barbed-wire-encased Idaho Maximum Security Prison south of Boise. In the shadows of guard towers and an imposing fence sits a more diminutive building. Out of context, it could pass for a modern church or school. Women mill about the grounds, doing yard work, carrying out chores, passing in and out of the building's doors unbridled by security gates, fences and the fixtures of imprisonment. Sans the drab beige uniforms, the women could pass as cooperative members of a collective--a commune perhaps, or given their quiet rhythm of work and study, a religious community.

Communal living, cooperation, communication and contemplation define this community. Although housed as a part of the Idaho Department of Correction prison complex, the facility is set apart physically from the high-security facility it neighbors and philosophically from conventional institutions of reform. They don't call its surrounding walls a cellblock. They don't even call it a prison. Gone is the vernacular of crime and punishment, and the trappings of imprisonment remain purposefully absent.

This isn't a prison, it's a therapeutic community. This isn't a prison population, it is a "family." And these are not prisoners, they are "sisters."

Prison officials say therapeutic communities have become the preferred way to reform some inmates suffering from co-existing addictions, mental illness and criminal behaviors. They say the programs that aim to re-socialize inmates through cognitive therapy and peer accountability reduce recidivism rates and transform deviant personalities into functional, productive citizens.

But some former sisters say the program does more harm than good. A lawsuit filed against IDOC by a former inmate alleges the program denies prisoners their constitutional rights and subjects participants to false allegations and unwarranted punishment.

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Gretchen Cacciaguidi lived in the TC sisterhood for a month. She said she spent her time playing games, learning chants, dressing in costumes and learning the ways and culture of a community she was forced to call her "family." Her lawsuit challenges the efficacy of the program and charges IDOC with cruel and unusual punishment.

"It's not a family. It's a cult," Cacciaguidi said in an interview following her release last fall. "It's a totalitarian regime."

Inmates who pass through two locked doors and into IDOC's Therapeutic Community at the South Boise Women's Correctional Center find some familiarity. The concrete floor and cinderblock walls look customary to the repeat offender. But some things are different. An open floor plan replaces the panoptic design that came to define the modern prison. Conversation and movement replaces quiet confinement. And then there is the color.

Inmates don't enter cells at IDOC's Therapeutic Community for Women. They enter classrooms, and as they walk into the rooms adorned with dry erase boards and colorful magic marker drawings scrawled with the words "Define or be Defined" and "Life Isn't Fair"--a few of the values and rules of their community--they enter into a new model of prison reform.

"This program is teaching me how to live," said inmate Heather Hansen.

Before Hansen entered the TC program for women at IDOC's Boise facility last year, she knew of only one way to live. Addiction ruled her life, leading her to forge checks, steal and violate probation.

"Addiction comes before everything--before your kids, your job, your health," she said. "This program is teaching me how to live my life the way I've always wanted but didn't know how."

Punishment has changed considerably in the last century, notes the late sociologist Michel Foucault in his work Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison. In his evaluation of our assumptions about prison reform in the West, Foucault looks backward, taking readers through the history of punishment: Crimes of passion ended with hard labor and grisly public spectacles of violence; prisoners felt their limbs drawn and quartered; guards threw nearly lifeless bodies on the stake then set blazes. But things have changed. Punishment no longer targets the body through public displays of torture, Foucault noted. The modern prison aims to reform by privately targeting the mind.

Idaho entered into a new era of prison reform in the late 1990s--one that aimed to reform criminal thinking and behavior using cognitive-behavioral techniques. Therapeutic communities were introduced in the state in 1997 in an effort to give criminals with co-occurring substance addictions the tools they need to change the thoughts and behaviors that lead to criminal activities. The emphasis in TCs went from serving time to changing the mind through what IDOC calls cutting-edge therapies that include support-group programs, relapse-prevention strategies and education. A TC inmate's prison sentence isn't confined by cell walls but takes the offender through days of therapy, classes and exercises in problem solving. A TC sentence resembles something between intensive therapy and a busy academic schedule.

But not everyone gets a chance to leave a traditional sentence and enter a therapeutic community. Judges recommend TC programs for nonviolent inmates with substance issues that lead to their criminality. Some enter TCs on rider programs. Participation in the community remains voluntary, but completion of the roughly year-long program could yield an early release for the approximate 400 inmates who take part in TC programs across the state. Soon-to-be graduates credit the program with changing their lives, but some inmates say the intensive participation required of TCs and the litany of rules and rituals woven into the programs aren't for everyone.

Boise Weekly caught a glimpse into the guarded world of modern reform with an inside look at the workings of one of Idaho's therapeutic communities. But the tour didn't come with full access. Prison officials carefully selected model prisoners for interviews, and most staffers opted to speak off the record.

Officials and experts painted a contrary picture of an innovative approach that reduces recidivism by changing the way offenders think and behave. But court records and former inmates paint a picture of a system that still uses torment as the crux of reform. The methods may not scar the body, but they scar the soul, critics say.

Idaho's eight prison-based therapeutic communities aim to reform criminal ways of thinking with a model that uses the community as the method.

British psychiatrist Thomas Main coined the term "therapeutic community" in 1947 to describe psychiatric treatment methods that allow patients to become active participants in their recovery through democratic, group-based therapies. The method caught on. Therapeutic communities became standard practice at mental institutions in England by the 1960s. The United States adopted the approach that same decade as a tool in addiction recovery. Also in the 1960s, one of California's more infamous early therapeutic communities, Synanon, made the news for its cultish tactics, IRS violations and sometimes harsh methods. Criticism waned with the evolution of the model, and by the 1980s, penal systems began embracing the approach as a way to change deviant behaviors through peer accountability. The first IDOC therapeutic program opened its doors in 1997, offering stages of rehabilitation.

"Prison has its own culture. It's a very anti-social culture. Even if a person is not very anti-social, they're pressured to conform--don't talk, don't tell, mind your own business--all of these things that allow criminality to happen," said Scott Brooks, IDOC program coordinator.

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