Oklahoma Marriage Initiative (OMI): A Process Evaluation. Oklahoma Department of Corrections

05/23/2008

High rates of incarceration and reincarceration have fueled interest in services to reduce recidivism.  In 2001, Oklahomas incarceration rate was the third highest in the nation.  Concerned about both the social and fiscal costs associated with incarceration, Oklahomas Department of Corrections (DOC) began to focus on reentry programs to prepare inmates better for release and to reduce recidivism.

Research suggests that marriage is associated with lower rates of recidivism.  Compared to unmarried men, married men on average experience more successful transitions out of prison and are less likely to commit further crimes (Hairston 1988; Hairston and Lockette 1987; Fishman 1986).  Less research has been conducted into the predictors and consequences of female incarceration, but existing data generally show that factors associated with family relationships are the strongest predictors of successful reentry into society (Dowden and Andrews 1999).

Encouraged by such research findings, the DOC wanted to explore whether relationship and marriage education might improve inmates ability to return to and maintain viable marriages and relationships upon release.  DOC staff approached the OMI in the summer of 2002 to learn more about how they could address these issues.

General approach.  Implementation of marriage education in Oklahomas prison system began on a small scale, with pilot programs in one mens and two womens facilities in 2002 and 2003.  Prison chaplains were chosen to lead the PREP® workshops because they frequently provide or oversee other rehabilitative programming.  In response to favorable reactions from the chaplains and inmates at pilot facilities, which included minimum, medium, and multiple-level security correctional settings,  the DOC decided to make the program official, meaning that it was permitted to be implemented throughout the state.

After the pilot, DOC needed to decide on the target group for marriage education.  Since pilot participants were positive about their experience, regardless of their own marital status, release date, or mandatory/volunteer status, DOC ruled that all inmates would be eligible, with some exceptions.  It would not be open to sex offenders, those with no possibility of parole, and inmates in mental units.  Chaplains were permitted, twice each year, to perform marriages of inmates at their discretion.  For these marriages, DOC established a policy that requires inmates and their partners to undergo premarital counseling, a requirement that can be met by taking the PREP® program.  DOC ruled that for all other inmates, participating in PREP® workshops would be entirely voluntary.[11]

While DOC recognized that people entering prison, like others, face a wide range of circumstances in their relationships and marriages, the chaplains interviewed for this study indicated that they preferred to focus on inmates who were already married or in committed relationships upon prison entry, because married inmates are at high risk of divorce during incarceration.  Thus, although many unmarried or unpartnered inmates have participated in PREP® or Within My Reach, the chaplains generally have not encouraged single inmates to marry during their incarceration (because such marriages fail at a high rate). 

Implementation.  After the pilot program, expansion proceeded quickly.  By the end of 2007, all current DOC chaplains had been trained in PREP®, and 2,013 male and female inmates had participated in the 6-12 week curriculum.  At some of the male facilities, a few inmates have also been trained as workshop leaders or co-leaders.  All prisons with a full-time chaplain (usually the larger prisons) are encouraged to offer the workshops, but Oklahoma prisons have considerable autonomy and not all chaplains do workshops.  In some of these cases, and when prisons lack a full-time chaplain but have inmates who want to marry, the OMI sends in a workshop leader from the outside to provide the workshop.  Thus, even though PREP® is an official DOC program, it does not currently operate in all or even a majority of Oklahomas correctional centers.

Recruitment.  Participant recruitment is generally not difficult at the correctional centers that provide workshops for prisoners.  Inmates desire to improve relationships or relationship choices, as well as to increase their chances for parole or to obtain privileges on the compound (by receiving a certificate of program completion in their files) motivates them to participate.  However, prisons implementing the program have discovered that male and female inmates face different circumstances and relationship dynamics, a fact that has implications for the content and emphasis of the workshops.

Workshop leaders.  Both chaplains and inmates can be powerful workshop leaders.  At the three highly active prisons visited by research staff, the chaplains were greatly respected by inmates.  They have built strong rapport with the prison population through humor and a firm but compassionate approach, establishing a trusting environment in which inmates feel comfortable and safe.  At the two male facilities where several inmates have been trained as workshop leaders, their status as prisoners gives them extraordinary credibility with other inmates.

Couples workshops in prison.  Although most prison workshops involve only inmates, who may or may not have a partner or spouse, at least one male facility operates workshops for couples  workshops in which inmates participate together with their visiting spouse or partner.  Conducting couples workshops presents 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.  The inconvenience and sometimes humiliation of cooperating with security requirements and dealing with the general environment of a mens prison impose additional burdens on visiting partners.  To reduce the impacts of these burdens, the facility offers couples workshops on Sundays, when partners are less likely to be working and more likely to be coming to the facility for visiting hours.  This means that the chaplain essentially must donate his personal time to conduct the workshops.

Although including spouses or partners in workshops is not always feasible, inmates have strong interest in this approach.  Workshops for inmates attending without spouses or partners were also well received, but some male participants expressed concern about their immediate utility.  Many female inmates, for whom couples workshops were not an option, said they would like to have the opportunity to invite their current partners to attend some of the PREP® sessions.

The curriculum.  Some adjustments, formal and informal, of the basic PREP® curriculum have been made for use in prisons.  Although the pilot phase and subsequent statewide implementation in correctional facilities have used PREP® as the primary curriculum of instruction, chaplains often make informal adaptations.  In some womens prisons, the Within My Reach curriculum was added to address the needs and special circumstances of female inmates, many of whom have been in past abusive relationships.

In facilities for male prisoners, the program must confront the unusual relationship dynamics of incarcerated men.  According to interviews with prison chaplains and inmates acting as workshop leaders, even if inmates talk by telephone daily or several times a week with their spouses or partners, they often fear their spouses or families will eventually abandon them.  Male 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 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 their partners are making to keep the relationship together during incarceration.

Traditional PREP® is designed to be used with the spouse or significant other present during the session, which is not always feasible in correctional settings.  Moreover, many inmates are not currently married or involved in an ongoing relationship.  As a result, prison chaplains adapt the curriculum to make it more relevant for participants.  This includes modifying or changing the examples, techniques, topics of instruction, or points of emphasis of the curriculum.  Workshop leaders strive to address the unusual relationship dynamics experienced by inmates, such as the fear of abandonment discussed above, and how to manage anger and conflict.  For male prisoners not currently in relationships, chaplains often emphasize that the skills being taught have utility for other relationships, such as with other inmates, prison guards, or future employers.  In teaching skills for effective communication, chaplains may extend the original emphasis on communication between intimate partners to cover what goes on within the prison context.

Womens prisons.  Working with female prisoners has posed different challenges for the OMI.  In a survey conducted by DOC, nearly three-quarters of Oklahomas female inmates reported having been in an abusive couple relationship; as children, 35 percent had been sexually abused and 29 percent physically abused (Special Task Force for Women Incarcerated in Oklahoma 2004).  Experience led DOC to focus on the needs of women who were mostly single and had histories of abuse, rather than emphasizing participation for married women and focusing on sustaining current relationships.

In addition to the informal adaptations described above, chaplains serving participants in prisons housing female inmates sought a more formal adaptation.  They found PREP®s focus on sustaining marriage off-target for female inmates, many of whom needed instead to address unhealthy or abusive relationships.  As described above, leaders of the OMI received the same message from local welfare offices that began offering PREP® to TANF recipients, the vast majority of whom were single and many of whom had experienced abusive relationships.

In response, the OMI sponsored a formal curriculum adaptation.  OMI leadership asked the authors of PREP® to adapt it to meet the needs of these and similar groups.  The result was Within My Reach.  While traditional PREP® assumes that couples are in viable relationships, Within My Reach aims to teach individuals how to identify, stabilize, and sustain good relationships; identify and safely exit from dangerous relationships; and make good relationship choices in the future.  Within My Reach shares many topics with PREP®, but also deals with topics such as understanding whether relationships are safe, making decisions about beginning or ending relationships, and tips for parents who are not together.  At least one female correctional facility expects inmates to complete both Within My Reach and PREP®, a total of 12 weeks of instruction.  

Achieving sustained implementation.  Although the use of PREP® workshops in state correctional facilities has not so far been widespread in the Oklahoma prison system, it is strongly supported at the locations that do offer it regularly.  Program champions within the institution and workshop leaders whom inmates trust and relate well to are important factors in sustained implementation.  The workshops are seen by staff and inmates as a good fit with other rehabilitation services offered in the facilities, such as substance abuse treatment, education, and employment preparation.  The program offers personal and practical benefits to inmates, so filling workshops is not difficult.  The OMI is now looking into alternatives to enhance the applicability of the curriculum offered in male prisons. 

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