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Therapeutic Communities: 20 Years of Breaking the Cycle of Addiction

September 29, 2017

By Rachel Friederich

DOC Communications

An inmate shares the impact that Therapeutic Communities at the Washington State Department of Corrections have had on her.

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Podcast Transcript (pdf)
INFOGRAPHIC: Therapeutic Communities

GIG HARBOR – Bridie Clevenger started using drugs when she was 9. It was the only way she knew how to mask the pain of abuse and sexual assault she endured from family members.

As an adult, she stole money from people's bank accounts to pay for her addiction, which landed her in prison. She never guessed prison would save her life.

"I got to a point where I realized I'm not getting what I want," Clevenger, now 44, said. "Something had to change. I've been broken for so long, I didn't realize I was broken. I didn't know how to deal with life. I blamed myself, but now I realize it's okay to be broken and fix what needs to be fixed."

Clevenger is one of hundreds of inmates at facilities across the state who participate in therapeutic community programming. Therapeutic communities are an intensive form of substance abuse treatment provided to inmates with substance abuse disorders.

While in prison, participants live in a space apart from the general population. Therapeutic communities use a hierarchical social learning model in which inmates earn increased social and personal responsibilities as they progress through stages of treatment.

Prisons across the country use therapeutic communities. Washington state has been using therapeutic communities in its prisons since 1997 and nearly 12,000 people have participated over the past two decades.

The program nets a positive return on investment. Washington state sees $5.05 in benefits for every one dollar spent on the program (pdf), according to the Washington State Institute for Public Policy.

The Washington Corrections Center for Women (WCCW) held a celebration in July commemorating the 20-year anniversary of the program with several staff and guest speakers including King County Judge Susan Craighead and King County Prosecutor Natalie Walton Anderson. A former therapeutic community participant who is now a substance abuse counselor also spoke at the event, along with a panel of inmates currently in the program.

How it Works

The main goal of therapeutic communities is to give inmates a sense of belonging, acceptance, and skills to live without self-destructive behavior patterns.

Participants undergo various exercises at each level of treatment. Each participant has a role in the therapeutic community, which can include responsibilities such as dorm inspections, facilitating portions of meeting, and serving as mentors to new members.

Participants must follow a code of conduct and house rules. If they break a rule, they are given ether a verbal or written "awareness." Awarenesses are used to alert the participant they are engaging in inappropriate conduct so they can be held accountable for their actions.

Sometimes, the participant is required to complete a learning experience. The learning experiences are designed to help inmates pinpoint what caused the behavior so they can take steps to ensure it doesn't happen again. For example, an inmate may be asked to write a "goodbye" letter to a family member in response to a make-believe scenario explaining why he or she can't come home because his or her behavior has resulted in re-incarceration.

"Everything we do in therapeutic communities reflects real life," says Al Lopez, a correctional program manager in the Substance Abuse Treatment Unit. "We want them to stop and think about their behaviors and think about what core skills to use to address the issue."

Looking to the Future

Restoring confidence and helping inmates realize they have the power to lead productive lives after release is also a large component of therapeutic communities. Inmates regularly participate in peer accountability groups. Peer accountability groups are meetings with around eight participants. The participants acknowledge actions and characteristics each individual exhibits that demonstrates progress in recovery.

Peer support is one of the most important components in to keep participants making progress in recovery, but is one of the hardest things for them to do, according to Linley Allen, a program specialist and recent therapeutic communities facilitator at Mission Creek Corrections Center for Women (MCCCW).

"It's filled with positive affirmation, and women especially need that," Allen said. "They're constantly fighting with themselves and what they did in the past and it can be difficult to change sometimes."

The therapeutic communities model has five levels of treatment and it can take between six and 18 months to complete, Lopez said.

WCCW launched its therapeutic communities program one year ago and has already served nearly 100 people.

Meghan McCrory, therapeutic communities assistant manager at the Gig Harbor prison, says she enjoys watching the transformation the participants show during the program.

"The best part is seeing the therapeutic community magic," McCrory said. "When they (inmates) first come in here, they don't want to be here. They can be angry, defiant, and resistant. But once they see there is an opportunity to change, they can open up and the program saves their lives. You can see it change their lives and their families' lives."

Clevenger seems ready to embrace that change. She completed her last level of treatment and spoke at the ceremony celebrating her own progress in recovery, as well as her peers'. She's set to release from prison in September and plans to go back to school to become a substance abuse counselor.

"I want to give back what I was given,"' Clevenger said. "The person I am now is the person I've wanted to be for so long. I've learned today not to live in the wreckage of my past, or have it around my neck like an anchor. I live in the hope of the future, and I have to tell you that nothing has ever been brighter."