Oklahoma Marriage Initiative (OMI): Marriage and Relationship Skills Education as a Way to Prepare Prisoners for Reintegration. Implementing OMI Services in Male Correctional Facilities


The Prison PREP experience has yielded important lessons about four aspects of conducting marriage and relationship skills education in prison systems. DOC and OMI staff have learned what strategies are effective in motivating inmates to participate. The experience has underscored the complex relationship dynamics that a program like Prison PREP has to address, and cast some light on the kinds of program leaders who can be most authentic in addressing them. It has highlighted the practical factors that must be addressed to implement workshops that include partners from the outside. Finally, it has shown what participants see as the most important rewards and benefits of the program and has also identified limits on the perceived relevance for inmates not currently in a couple relationship.

The desire to improve relationships, and an interest in improving chances for parole, create strong dual motivations to participate in Prison PREP.  Most male inmates enroll because they want to improve their current relationships, learn better communication skills, or plan to marry. These were cited as the main reasons inmates chose to enroll in the program. Many inmates, however, also cited the potential benefit of a certificate demonstrating their interest in self-improvement. A certificate of completion is placed in the files of those who complete the program, which some hope will play a positive role in their parole hearings.

Given these dual motivations, recruitment is generally not difficult at large facilities, and often there are waiting lists. Most participants learn of the program through word of mouth, especially from the inmates who have been trained as workshop leaders. Positive peer pressure within the prison setting exists and has lead to increased enrollment is classes. It is more difficult to recruit for couples groups, however, because of logistical barriers to attendance by spouses/partners at the prison. To address that issue, one prison is experimenting with presenting information about the couples program during orientation for new arrivals, in church sermons, and via flyers posted around the grounds and visiting area. Other facilities offer the program as a bonus to regular visitation, creating an incentive to participate and earn more time together in the process.

A program like Prison PREP must inevitably address the unusual relationship dynamics experienced by male inmates.  Interviews with prison workshop leaders and participants suggested the unusual power dynamics in relationships between incarcerated men and women on the outside. All too often, long-term inmates are deserted by family members, so even if inmates talk by telephone daily or several times a week (as most do) with their partners, their greatest fear is abandonment. As one workshop leader put it, There is no inmate that doesnt think his partner will eventually leave the relationship. Inmates often react to this fear in negative ways that can sabotage their relationships. For example, they may respond with anger and hostility if their partner misses a visit or phone call, which may only serve to push the partner further away. These fears and their effects have implications for what inmates need from the Prison PREP workshop. Workshop leaders felt that it was important to focus on those aspects of the curriculum that help inmates understand how to appreciate and respect the sacrifices that their partner is making to maintain the relationship while he is still incarcerated.

Relationship dynamics can also have implications for what happens to relationships after prisoners are released, and how Prison PREP might help couples manage their relationships transition. An inmate who married during his long prison term and is approaching release described a conversation he had with his wife recently, in which she expressed concern about whether he will be able to maintain his positive behavior on the outside when the structure and rules governing behavior in prison are absent. Because of skills he learned in the workshop, he was able to acknowledge this risk and discuss with his wife the ways in which they could address this upon his release.

The circumstances of incarceration can also affect the reasons women enter or sustain relationships with inmates, and Prison PREP may help couples recognize the significance of those reasons for the relationship. Workshop leaders noted that some women who have been abused in the past may look for relationships with inmates because it is a way for them to feel safe: the woman doesnt have to worry that he will abuse or cheat on her as long as he is incarcerated. This leader challenges inmates in such relationships to explore the reasons that their partners remain involved with them, so that they are not surprised upon release.

Inmates, familiar as they are with these complex relationship dynamics, can be powerful workshop leaders. At both prisons, the chaplains who lead workshops are highly respected. They have built strong rapport with inmates through their humor and firm but compassionate approach, establishing a trusting environment in which inmates feel comfortable and safe. Inmates have also been trained as workshop leaders, and their experience gives them extraordinary credibility. In one case, the inmate/workshop leader was completing his 21st year in prison for murder, but had apparently made dramatic changes in his life and was a role model for other inmates. He had married a woman on the outside four years ago, which allowed him to draw on his own experiences in the workshops. He could directly relate to the frustrations and challenges inmates face in trying to maintain a marriage or relationship during incarceration. For example, he was acutely aware of the sacrifices that spouses on the outside make to maintain their marriage, and he encouraged inmates to validate their spouses and show appreciation for them. In teaching the XYZ technique (when you do X in situation Y, I feel Z), he encouraged them to say things like when you visit me on Sundays, it makes me feel like I havent been forgotten.

Couples workshops present special practical challenges. Arrangements for couples workshops must address barriers related to the distances spouses or partners must travel to attend, child care, and security issues. If facilities are in rural areas or far from population centers where inmates originate, it can be difficult for their partners to attend, because of travel time and transportation problems. If they work, it is often difficult or impossible to be available for an evening session at a prison far from home. The cost of transportation and child care can present problems. Another cost for spouse/partners is the inconvenience and sometimes humiliation of cooperating with security requirements and dealing with the general environment of a mens prison. Prison visitors are often subjected to strip searches, encounter drug-detection dogs and irritable guards, and endure hot and crowded visiting rooms and hassling by other inmates. These factors combine to make the recruiting, scheduling, and conducting workshops for couples particularly challenging.

One prison has addressed both security and availability issues by holding couples workshops on Sundays when the majority of women are more likely able to travel to the prison. Sunday is also visitation day at this facility, and many women may already be planning to visit at that time. In addition, holding workshops directly following visitation avoids the need for an additional round of security clearance. However, this solution requires that the chaplain sacrifice time with his or her own family.

A less desirable, but practical approach to overcoming distance barriers is for the couple to go through the class separately. When a couple simply cannot participate together on-site, the OMI has assisted the outside partner in finding a local PREP workshop. Even though they dont learn the skills together, the opportunity to experience the class concurrently can be helpful in establishing better communication when the couple does see each other. This has been particularly helpful in situations where distance is an extreme barrier and when a couple is planning to marry while one of the partners is incarcerated.

Inmates attending couples workshops see immediate benefits.  Men who participated in couples workshops perceived tangible benefits to their intimate relationships and beyond, and were enthusiastic about what they had learned. One participant said that the most helpful part of the curriculum was learning how to stop and think before reacting. Instead of blowing up and saying things like hey, you dont talk to me like that! he now lets her talk her side, then I talk my side. Others agreed that the class helped them avoid letting arguments escalate by learning how to take timeouts. Another said that his typical reaction to conflict was to shut down, and that the class taught him how to open up and express himself better. According to participants, the benefits of the workshop went beyond their intimate relationships, to help them deal with the stresses of prison life, including relationships with other inmates and guards. In crowded facilities where two prisoners often occupy a cell designed for one, cellmate relationships can be tense and dangerous if not managed well. Learning to communicate with cellmates and guards and avoid escalation of tensions was seen as a valuable survival skill.

Program utility is less obvious to men participating alone. Workshops for inmates attending without spouses or partners were also well received, but some such participants expressed concern about their immediate utility. As in the couples workshops, participants in the singles group identified skills they had learned and found useful, including listening and speaking effectively and taking timeouts from interaction when needed. However, the curriculum is designed for use with couples, and some felt that the concepts were confusing since they were not currently in relationships, and may never have been married. Not having a partner with whom to practice the skills made the workshops seem more abstract, and as the chaplain said, it probably would not be effective to pair off male inmates and ask one of them to pretend to be the female partner. The single men thus felt that adapting the curriculum to make it more relevant to other types of relationships would be useful. Some suggested that domestic violence should be covered in greater depth, including how to avoid it and what to do when it happens. They also suggested that using terms like communication skills may be a better way to advertise the class rather than marriage skills. One inmate suggested that the curriculum workbook be expanded to contain more of the core information so that when he returns home and finds a partner, they could share it. These concerns have lead OMI to explore options with the PREP developers for tailoring the curriculum to have more applicability within the prison setting.

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