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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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Idaho's TCs segregate offenders from the general prison population during the first phase of the program and induct them into the TC culture. The segregation removes inmates from the deviant subcultures found in the general prison population, Brooks said.

"The socialization there just increases the anti-social [behavior]," Brooks said. "It can become physically dangerous to go against the criminal code. You can get beat up. You can get hurt or ridiculed."

Idaho TCs are set aside within an existing facility, often as its own tier or unit. The nine- to 12-month program targets an offender's parole date and offers a minimum of one year of after-care.

Researchers note that such programs can yield good results in male prison populations, but research on the application to female populations remains limited. Idaho Department of Correction officials say the outcomes of TCs remain promising, boasting lower-than-average recidivism rates: 14 percent of 2008 female TC graduates and 42 percent of male graduates relapsed and were back in prison after three years, according to IDOC data. Department of Justice figures put national recidivism rates between 43 and 51 percent during the past two decades.

The program works by creating a sense of community, Brooks said. But the community must first bind with the glue we call culture.

Culture permeates every aspect of therapeutic communities: values, morals, rules, beliefs, rituals and communication. Walk past the locked doors of IDOC's therapeutic community and you'll see, hear and read the signs of a unique culture. A different language ties one prisoner to another. Throughout the day, you'll hear inmates greet each other as "sisters," as they offer "pull-ups," "flag" one another and hand out "learning experiences," for "fake nutties," "dropping lugs," and "dope-friending."

"This creates a very tight bond because with it comes their own language," Brooks said of the TCs own vocabulary.

And then there are the rules, complete with a 19-page guidebook filled with missions, rules and guidelines that include principles such as "Live and Let Live," and "Secrets Keep Us Sick." A marker-colored poster reminds inmates how they came into this community: "Whenever you disagree with the program ... remember that your best thinking resulted in your current predicament."

Rules take the form of five dozen written values that include concepts such as family, spirituality, order and compassion. These values form the foundation of 45 principles that aim to reshape inmates' thinking and behavior. They are reminded of these principles throughout the day by fellow inmates who call each other out when they deviate from principles such as "Do what's right, even when no one is looking" and "Surrender to win." The principles appear in chants, colorful drawings that adorn the prison's walls and in the repercussions, or "learning lessons," inmates must perform if they violate a rule of the community.

"When you go into a TC, there's written and unwritten rules," Brooks said. "The unwritten rules we call concepts. And it's like the 'I am my brother's keeper.' You want to follow that concept. The rules that are attached to that are not necessarily written down--like being polite or making sure that my brother who is in the program doesn't get into trouble."

While language, rules and values aim to tie one sister with another, rituals aim to bind the entire community.

"It's very ritualistic," Brooks said. "Because when you identify rituals, the community comes together much more quickly."

Therapeutic communities offer 24 hours of structure for inmates who were largely socialized in an unstructured world. The day begins at 4:30 a.m. and follows a schedule laced with classes, chants, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and ample doses of ritual. They call one daily ritual "The Game."

The Game

"Thanks, I'll get on top of that," an inmate said during a second round of "the game." She uttered the words spoken again and again by inmates accused by their peers for a range of offenses: going to someone's defense, possessing property gifted by another inmate, failing to exercise, and according to at least one former prisoner, praying. The inmate swallowed the charges, acknowledged the blame and followed her script. She thanked her peers for the "pull-up," promised to "get on top of that," then accepted the staff-determined punishment: a 250-word essay on the benefits of keeping commitments. And the game continued. "I'm pulling you up for lying and verbal outbursts." "I'm telling you this because you are an amazing woman. But sometimes we need to take a close look at our behavior," a peer chimed in.

"Thanks. I'll get on top of that."

The punishment: 500 words on righteous honesty. And the game went on.

"I'm pulling you up because of cross communication."

"Thanks. I'll get on top of that."

"I'm pulling you up for lying and possessing a photo of another inmate."

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

Punishments, or "learning experiences," range from essays to dressing up in costumes to acting out scenarios in front of the entire community. Sometimes, the punishments aim to align with the infraction. A prisoner recently accused of "rescuing" another inmate or aiding a peer in distress was "pulled up" for what staff termed an enabling behavior then offered a learning lesson that included wearing a superhero's costume for a set period of time.

Other learning experiences are purely random. On this day, one inmate performed her punishment at an afternoon meeting before the entire community. She didn't know what her punishment would look like until she drew a slip from a box. The piece of paper she selected read something like, "Pretend like you see a hot guy and trip in front of him."

The inmate sheepishly walked before her 64 peers who moments earlier recited the Serenity Prayer, sans any reference to God, in drab unison. They followed announcements and accusations with claps and chants carried out with military precision and the enthusiasm seen in most detention halls.

The accused looked again at the paper. She walked a bit, looked over her shoulder and fell into a near stumble, catching herself before her body met the floor. She straightened out only to assume a folded posture as she made her way to her chair amid precise rows of prisoners and bowed her head.

One of the first games dished out a round of attacks at Synanon. Established in Santa Monica, Calif., as a therapeutic community for drug addicts in 1958, Synanon--which derived its name from sin and anonymous--started to attract self-help enthusiasts seeking a self-examined life through peer accountability and the truth-seeking methods that came to be known as the Synanon Game.

The game that came to define the unorthodox practices of the now-defunct Synanon holds its theoretical roots in attack therapy, a controversial form of psychotherapy that aims to reform through highly confrontational interaction between a patient and therapist or members of a group. The method subjects the patients to harsh criticisms, denouncements, abuse and humiliation by the therapist or peers.

In a recent game at IDOC's TC, women recovering from abuses, addictions, mental illness and years of self-destructive behavior attacked each other, one after the other, for gossiping, not exercising, associating with an unfavorable inmate and being too cliquish.

A 1990 report from the Institute of Medicine on attack therapy suggests that the method could yield good results on people with a positive self-image. But it warned that individuals subjected to attack therapies assessed as patients with a negative self-image could potentially be harmed by its tactics.

The sometimes brutal accusations thrown from player to player of the Synanon game drew a host of critics. But the game nonetheless spread beyond the walls of Synanon and found its way into the living rooms of addicts looking for self-help through a peer-help prescription for addiction. Thousands of alcoholics, dope fiends, junkies and those generally tired of the highs of vice created their own games.

Instead of spending their Saturday nights drunk and wasted, they joined together in a circle and began to attack. In groups of six to eight at a time, they'd face each other and begin the merciless confrontations and brutal allegations. Players exposed one another's deep-rooted fears, hidden prejudices and personality flaws. The game held only three rules: honesty, nonviolence and no heading for the door.

IDOC security measures ensure the last two rules stay in place at its therapeutic communities but one lawsuit alleges that the rules of honesty fall short at Idaho prisons.

Gretchen Cacciaguidi called the therapeutic community home for 35 days then abruptly left, forgoing her chance at an early parole.

"I took the long way home," she said.