Skip to main content

Teaching Social Skills to Prison Inmates

May 4, 2016

By Andrew Garber

DOC Communications

(Tim Kelly , DOC Communications) Watch video on YouTube YouTube video

WALLA WALLA – It’s the soft skills that often determine if inmates will find jobs and stay out of trouble after leaving prison.

“A soft skill is how I relate to you right now,” said Calvin Thorpe, a workforce development specialist at the Washington State Penitentiary. “How I talk to you, the questions you ask, and if I can respond. And if you make me upset, will I hit you upside the head with a bar.”

Thorpe teaches inmates appropriate ways to deal with people. While the social skills he teaches may seem like common sense to the rest of us, many inmates did not learn them growing up.

“I see the light bulb come on often,” said Thorpe, 36, who previously worked as a corrections officer and as a family counselor before taking his current job with Correctional Industries, CI. “It’s so hard to measure change while you are in prison. But I do see offenders get that aha moment of ‘yeah, I shouldn’t have done that. I can see how that is stupid … I can see how that’s not right.”

Thorpe was awarded the Petrine Marciniak award this week for his work. The Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC) award is named after a former agency employee known for inspiring the people around her.

Todd Cunnington says that’s certainly been true of Thorpe.

“He’s really helped everyone here, who works at Correction Industries, to up their game,” said Cunnington, the CI general manager at the prison and Thorpe’s supervisor. “He’s a good role model for everyone he’s around.”

Cunnington praised Thorpe in particular for demonstrating that the work Correctional Industries does is about more than making items, “it’s about producing a better person leaving here.”

Thorpe’s main job is to run inmates through a 20-hour course at the penitentiary where the men role play scenarios they might encounter in the work place after release, and the best ways to respond.

Thorpe not only teaches inmates about the workplace outside of prison, but also helps them prepare resumes and cover letters. In addition, he helps coordinate a yearly mock interview fair where local businesses come inside the prison.

“We want the offenders to get an actual real life interview, because a lot of them have never had it,” Thorpe said. “And we want the outside employer to see what an offender is really like outside of what they see on TV. Both are really surprised.”

Inmates are often nervous in the days leading up to the interviews, Thorpe said. “As tough as these guys say they are, the week before the mock interview fair, they are throwing up, they are getting nervous they are scared,” he said. “I can’t tell you how many times they’ve cried in my office, saying they don’t want to do it, because they’ve never had to do something like that before.”

David, an inmate due for release in late May, said that when he went in for mock interviews last year “I just froze. It wasn’t so much the questions as just the presence. I was in shock, kind of. It was a little intimidating for me.”,

The experience, however, helped him understand what he needs to do in interviews and not be as nervous in the future, he said. “When I get out, I think I’ll be better prepared.”

Companies that participated in the mock interviews last year are eager to come back. “They didn’t realize how intelligent offenders are,” he said, noting that one employer told him he was “shocked at the talent we have inside prison.”

Thorpe said what he likes most about his job is the knowledge that he’s making a difference.

He described an exercise in his course where inmates clasp their hands together, then do it over again and put a different thumb on top. “I say, ‘Does it feel different?’ All the offenders say, ‘Of course it does.’

“I ask why and they say ‘because it’s not something I usually do.’ I tell them. ‘you know what? From now on every time you put your hands together, you’re going to think about where you put your other thumb on top. It’s not that I changed you, it’s that I gave you something else to think about.’ ”