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Thinking for a Change Helps Formerly Incarcerated Navigate New Lives in Our Communities

March 18, 2020

By Rachel Noll

DOC Communications

A man shakes hands with a another man

T4C Graduate Timothy Hannon receives his certificate. (Rachel Noll, DOC Communications)

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Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC) believes that reentry starts at reception. When an incarcerated individual enters the receiving facility, Washington Corrections Center (WCC), they begin programming and classes and receive job assignments.

The goal is to create safer communities by releasing incarcerated individuals who have tools necessary to navigate in the community that they may not have had before so they are less likely to recidivate—or commit new crimes.

One of the evidenced based programs offered to meet these needs is a program called Thinking for a Change (T4C). T4C is a cognitive behavioral intervention program that uses a combination of cognitive restructuring, communication skills, problem-solving and learned emotional regulation.

Those who go through the class learn new thought processes, coping skills and how to take responsibility for their actions. Those who go through the entire program successfully are 57 percent less likely to recidivate.

Trained facilitators take a group on a journey together through 25 classes structured around the idea that it is possible to change the pattern of thinking that can lead to criminal behavior. As these individuals go through the classes, they learn to identify their risk factors and to be self-aware enough to approach their experiences differently.

T4C graduation

T4C was previously only available in prisons. Corrections assigned individuals identified as having risky thoughts that led to patterns of criminal behaviors to the program for completion while incarcerated.

Now, the Department offers the class to those at work release and under community supervision. Being in the community, even partially, while trying to attend all 25 classes, go to work, take care of homes and families, and make regular Department check-ins can make completing this program challenging and difficult.

However, even with these potential barriers to successful completion, T4C has now had its third graduation for those in work release integrated with those supervised in the community. In early March, a class of seven T4C graduates had their 25th class, before receiving their completion certificate from Corrections at Bates Technical College.

In their last class, they participate in a group activity where they present a challenging situation they had to deal with recently. They identify what their risk factors were, what skills they used to change their thought process and how the interaction or experience was managed positively.

“The bus was running late and I was worried that as a result, I would be late for work and possibly end up a violator,” T4C graduate Timothy Hannon said. “I immediately started thinking of excuses, how I could get out of it and blame someone else. I recognized my warning signs and that I was having risky thoughts. I noticed that one of my buddies from work was at the bus stop, too, and when I asked, he let me use his phone. I was able to focus and actively listen; I apologized, but remained calm.”

Hannon was able to resolve the matter without incident, and because he made every effort to communicate effectively, there was no issue with the fact that the bus was late.

Situations such as Hannon described can happen to anyone. Often those who are on work release or community supervision have a high level of stress associated with what others might consider small inconveniences. The consequences for being late or not showing up somewhere as expected can be significant.

Some of the graduates shared that, in moments like this, they felt like giving up, quitting their job or making the same choices they would have made before. However, each of these seven graduates shared a scenario where they used the skills they learned in T4C during high stress moments and successfully changed the pattern of their behavior. Regardless of their feelings when the class started, they now agree: this program works.

At times throughout the ceremony, family members, friends and community corrections officers in attendance would share how they saw T4C making a difference in the lives of each graduate.

Although there to support his friend, Wil Greer, owner and head coach for the Seattle Bombers, took a moment to address the class as a group.

“Make sure you take the time to celebrate your accomplishments,” Greer said. “I hear a lot of you sharing what you are going to do next, without really acknowledging what a great accomplishment this graduation is for you. Use this platform to embrace what you’ve gone through and be proud of your accomplishments because that will change your life forever.”

Community Partners & Mentorship

T4C facilitators Russell Alfaro and Sandra Sajewski work hard to ensure that the T4C graduates will have success post-graduation. They remain a resource for the graduates, but also ensure that graduates have resources and mentorship before the graduates leave to ensure they are fully supported as they continue their journey.

Bates Vocational/Technical College employees and DOC Educational Reentry Navigator Chris Hansen work with graduates to help them apply credits from the T4C class towards a high school diploma. They will also help with applications to any college as well as applications for scholarships and grants. The T4C program counts as two high school credits. One graduate realized this was the exact amount needed to complete their diploma.

The Department’s Tacoma Resource and Opportunity Center (TROC) (pdf) has an experienced Resource Advisor, Nanette Borders (commonly known as Miss Nan), who presents the graduates with community information and invites them to come to TROC for any resources they may need to face life challenges such as: housing, food, clothing, training, job services, employment fairs, medical needs, licensing needs, etc.

Davies Chirwa, founder of Channel A TV and Antonio McLemore from the Tacoma Urban League are passionate about their community and provide the opportunity for mentorship to graduates of T4C. They believe that it is important to help others in their community.

“A benefit to the partnership with the Tacoma Urban League is found in creating space for individuals who are willing to share their stories, their life experiences, and time with students who are desperately in need of mentorship,” said McLemore. “The Tacoma Urban League provides resources, collaborative community trainings and research-based, community-growth oriented programming that focuses on historically marginalized communities — understanding that our growth must come from within.”

“My mission as a Global Ambassador for human empowerment is to share my knowledge and visions of entrepreneurship by facilitating other’s dreams becoming a reality,” said Chirwa. “Further, my goal is to continue growing my quest towards set development milestones while helping others to attain their highest potential by providing mentorship and training to the youth and individuals in the community.”

Chirwa along with McLemore spoke motivationally to the T4C graduates about making positive and intentional changes — sharing the importance of surrounding yourself with people who support your change and growth and understanding that these transitions will not always be easy, but in the end, they are worth it.