Oklahomas experience in providing marriage and relationship skills programs in correctional institutions has several potential implications for replication of such services in other jurisdictions.
Incarceration appears associated with specific couple dynamics that may merit special attention. These relationship dynamics may partly explain why inmates relationships are difficult to maintain, suggest why relationship skills programs are popular with prisoners, and point to issues that should be emphasized. The imbalance of power created by incarceration, the abusive nature of some relationships, and the greater likelihood that male partners will not wait for female inmates to complete their sentences imply that curriculum providers should give special attention to particular topics.
While the female partners of male inmates are more likely to remain involved with prisoners during their incarceration, the greatest fear of male inmates is that their partners will leave them. Unfortunately, male inmates often lack the skills for expressing this constructively. Instead they are prone to behaving in ways that are not productive and that contribute to dysfunctional relationships. This confirms that a strong focus on managing conflict is essential, but also that interventions should focus on showing respect, appreciation, and expressing ones feelings. These are the curriculum topics that men in the couples groups resonated to the most.
Conversely, the male partners of female inmates appear more likely to leave the relationship during incarceration than are female partners to leave male inmates. This suggests that female inmates are more likely to be single than male inmates. Along with the frequency of female prisoners histories of abuse, this suggests that interventions should focus on ways they can choose better. This emphasis was well received by the chaplain and female inmates. Nevertheless, some female inmates may be in relationships or marriages that are at least as healthy as those of male inmates, and many of the female inmates interviewed suggested that they would welcome the opportunity to participate in the workshops together with their partners/spouses.
Emerging evidence indicates that relationship education is not only valued by inmates and their partners but may also lead to changes in their understanding of what it takes to make relationships work better. In a recent article published in Family Process, Einhorn, et al, show that inmates in the Oklahoma prison PREP program actually reported gains in such relationship variables as satisfactions with relationship, communications skills, and friendship. Although not based on a random assignment treatment protocol, the pre/post analysis showed potential for improved prison programming directed at strengthening family relationships. Findings held true regardless of gender and racial/ethnic backgrounds.
Marriage education for prisoners who are not in a relationship or marriage may need to be enhanced. The OMI quickly recognized the need to adapt PREP to address the needs of women prisoners who were primarily not currently in a partnered relationship and worked with the curriculum developers to do so. More men than women in prison were in coupled relationships, but men who participated in the singles group were less enthusiastic than those who had participated in a couples group. They found it harder to apply the couples-based skill lessons, were concerned that they wouldnt remember enough to share the knowledge with a partner once they found one, and were interested to learn more about domestic violence. Agencies implementing relationship education within a prison context need to consider whether multiple kinds of relationship education might increase the value of this training in their facilities.
Characteristics of the correctional setting may have implications for programs in other prison systems. Every state prison system is different. The nature of prison settings in Oklahoma and the relationship between the OMI and the DOC may help explain why relationship education has become an accepted part of prison programming, even if not regularly offered in every Oklahoma prison. Practitioners thinking of offering similar programs elsewhere need to address these issues as part of their planning process.
- Richness of the service environment and focus on rehabilitation. Oklahoma has a relatively rich service environment in its prisons, providing a variety of programs from educational and career development services to substance abuse treatment. Other states may not be as focused on providing reentry services and programming for prisoners.
- Autonomy of individual prisons. Although state systems usually govern individual prisons, some states give considerable autonomy and flexibility to local prisons. This autonomy can mean that even within the same state system, some wardens will be more open to new programs than others.
- Supply of respected, experienced, and engaging personalities committed to the program. At each of the prisons we visited, the chaplains (and trained inmates, at the mens facilities) were highly respected by participating inmates, and described as charismatic and caring. Participants remarked on how this drew them to the program and contributed to what they got out of it.
- Instability in staffing chaplain positions. Due to budget pressures, not all Oklahoma prisons have full-time chaplains. Some prisons experience considerable turnover, sometimes using volunteer chaplains from the surrounding community with limited time to spend with inmates. Stability of the program leadership is important for implementation success.
- Security issues (for couples classes). When spouses/partners are expected to participate with inmates, striking a balance between security and programming becomes important. The program provider must skillfully navigate this balance to meet the inmates needs without compromising safety.