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Challenges Implementing, Maintaining, and Replicating the Cognitive Community Model in Corrections

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Editor’s Note: This is the final article in a three-part series about the Virginia Department of Correction’s Cognitive Community model. Read about the origins of the model and its efficacy. Learn more about how the model aims to change offender thinking and behavior in the second article in this series.

By Dudley Bush and Jessica Lee, contributors to In Public Safety

In 2003 and 2006 respectively, the Virginia Department of Corrections (VADOC) began two pilot programs (one male and one female offender group) to evaluate the potential of the Cognitive Community model. This innovative reentry program places 40 to 90 offenders together in a structured and supportive communal environment to learn healthy habits, better understand their errant thinking, develop positive social skills, and ultimately change their behavior.

The outcome of the pilot programs showed outstanding promise. For the female group, only 2.5 percent of offenders returned to custody after three years compared to an average of over 30 percent of females in the general offender population. For the male group, 7.9 percent returned to custody after three years, compared to an average of almost 40 percent.

These positive recidivism results built confidence in the effectiveness of the program and VADOC administrators agreed to expand the Cognitive Community model to other facilities in the state. Initially, 15 facilities were selected as intensive reentry sites to house offenders within 12 to 18 months of release.

Expanding the Cognitive Community Model in Virginia

To accommodate the program’s expansion, VADOC created a plan to establish the model in each facility and hire and train additional staff and administrators to oversee it. However, instead of rolling out the program in three years, it was shortened to just one-and-a-half years. This revised timeline meant that the two master trainers charged with implementing the program—myself and Mark Gornik—had only about five weeks in each location to implement the program before moving onto the next facility.

We started program implementation by delivering a week-long community-building training event for all staff including security, administrative, and clinical. This hands-on experience provided staff with the knowledge and skills to work together to help build and manage the Cognitive Community model in their facility.

Next, staff were given homework assignments asking them to consider the logistics and challenges of implementing the model in their facility. This information helped the master trainers better understand unique requirements of each facility as well as further engage staff in the implementation process.

Over the course of the next three weeks, the master trainers assisted staff with the set-up of the new live-in community, addressed any questions from staff, assisted in overcoming challenges, and ensured that the start-up process was on schedule. With each new facility, the master trainers were able to refine and modify the implementation process to make it as effective and streamlined as possible. Today, 18 VADOC facilities are running a Cognitive Community engaging more than 3,000 offenders in the intensive reentry process.

Maintaining Program Fidelity

With any large programmatic initiative spread over several locations, there will naturally be a tendency for program drift (diminishing program fidelity) over time. This is especially true for attempting to maintain a pro-social offender culture when members of the program are constantly changing. Since the Cognitive Community model is designed to be an intensive six-month program, offenders are regularly joining and exiting the program.

The VADOC has employed several strategies to mitigate program drift. It has appointed offenders who are serving lengthy sentences to be program elders who provide leadership, stability, and help preserve the norms and values of the community. Individuals volunteer for these positions and are carefully screened by staff. Typically, a program elder will serve for a year or longer and provide peer support to offenders as well as institutional staff.

Another tool to assist in maintaining program fidelity is a special training call Revitalization Training. This training is scheduled every six months at each of the reentry sites.  Offenders who are currently in the final months of pre-Cognitive Community (a six-month program phase that precedes entry into the Cognitive Community) are eligible for Revitalization Training. During this three-day training, between 50 and 70 offenders gain a better understanding of how the Cognitive Community model will help with their successful reentry into society. The training helps bond the new members and also reinforces the use of cognitive restructuring tools such as thinking reports (read more about this in the second article of this series). Another benefit of this training is that program staff receive a refresher every six months on the norms, values, and tools employed within the Cognitive Community model. All these elements help maintain program fidelity and reduce program drift.

Training staff in the new model is critically important in program start-up and maintaining program fidelity. The VADOC has developed a Cognitive Community Staff Training that is essential in preparing staff to lead offenders in the creation and maintenance of a Cognitive Community.

To further help maintain the integrity of the program, a Treatment Officer (TO) position was created and assigned to each reentry pod of approximately 90 offenders. This specialized officer is responsible for maintaining safety in the community and delivering programming to offenders. Each TO receives training to deliver two or more of the curriculum utilized within the Cognitive Community such as Thinking for a Change, Anger Management, and Cognitive Behavioral Interventions for Substance Abuse. TOs are carefully selected and must have strong verbal communication skills as well as specific training in conflict resolution and motivational interviewing techniques. Another goal of the TO position is to help offenders change their negative perception of authority figures by demonstrating that those in positions of authority genuinely care and are committed to helping them on their path toward successful reentry.

Lastly, to ensure program fidelity, VADOC created regional Cognitive Program Managers (CPM). These individuals have oversight of the whole program and conduct monthly visits and quarterly reports. It is critical that CPMs develop a strong rapport with the administration, treatment staff, security staff, and offender population to gauge the program’s health and development.

Recommendations in Replicating the Cognitive Community Model

Based on the outcomes in Virginia, the Cognitive Community model has a high potential for successful replication in other correctional systems, both adult and juvenile. However, there certainly will be challenges in widespread application of this evidence-based model, so the following best practices must be followed.

Initial Planning and Support

With any new initiative, there needs to be alignment among key stakeholders. One way to develop support and alignment is to send a team of key stakeholders to visit a successful implementation site. The VADOC has hosted teams from other states and jurisdictions to visit select Cognitive Community sites. These guided visits allow corrections administrators from other states to observe the model in action and ask questions of staff and offenders at the reentry sites.

Set Up Pilot Programs

Correctional administrators must fully examine and determine the resources needed to properly implement the model and maintain ongoing program fidelity. It is recommended that, just like in Virginia, the state set up pilot sites to evaluate the program. This strategy provides an opportunity to evaluate how the model works, what resources are needed, and how the program can be modified and improved. Given that the Cognitive Community pilot program in Virginia yielded successful and desirable results, VADOC officials felt confident expanding the program throughout the state’s correctional system.

Involve Outside Stakeholders

Once the decision to replicate the model has been made, correctional administrators must work to garner further outside support to help offenders transition to life after release. For example, it is important to reach out to and involve those in probation and parole, community service boards, workforce development centers, and, of course, the offenders’ families. It is imperative to involve these external stakeholders prior to an offender’s release and throughout the first six to 12 months of release.

In addition, the VADOC found it beneficial to reengage former graduates of the program and have them return to the facilities to share their experience and success since their release. The voice of the returned citizen garnered increased buy-in from staff and also provided confidence and motivation to offenders in the program.

Create an Appropriate Physical Space

The physical environment is often a challenge in replicating the model. Many, if not most, correctional institutions were not designed to have a shared community space. The Cognitive Community model requires that offenders are housed in the same physical location within a dorm or cell block in order to create a sense of community and common purpose. Whenever possible, it is best to isolate members of the Cognitive Community from the general population. VADOC found offenders were most successful when they were released directly from the positive and supportive environment of the Cognitive Community into society.

Prepare for Resistance

Finally, administrators must prepare for potential staff resistance to implementation. This model challenges the typical correctional officer mindset that focuses heavily on command and control techniques and approaches. It is vital that staff understand the value of the program, how it better prepares offenders to successfully reenter society, and ultimately how successful reentry lends itself to greater public safety and a stronger community.

About the Authors:

Dudley Bush, M.S. is a clinical psychologist and received his clinical training at the Menninger Foundation. He directed mental health and drug treatment programs in three states and has served as a consultant to criminal justice agencies since 1980. As Executive Director of Corrections Research Institute (CRI), a non-profit research and training organization based in Powhatan, VA, he delivered technical assistance and training to jail and prison, juvenile and community corrections agencies in 48 of the 50 states and provided more than 1,000 training events over the past two decades on behalf of federal and state agencies. He has extensive experience designing correctional treatment programs for adult and juvenile populations. Bush has published in Corrections Today and The Counselor and authored several national curriculum. He has written and managed several federal and state grants as CRI Executive Director. In June of 2003, Bush joined the Virginia Department of Corrections as Statewide S/A Programs Manager responsible for the oversight of many prison-based therapeutic community programs and transitional community reentry programs. In his current role as Administrator for Cognitive and Reentry Services, he is responsible for the oversight and clinical supervision of the numerous Virginia Department of Corrections drug treatment and Intensive Reentry Cognitive Community Programs. He is also responsible for agency oversight of several Federal grants and contract monitor for drug treatment services provided by vendors at several DOC sites. To reach him email IPSauthor@apus.eduFor more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe toIn Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.

Jessica Lee currently serves as the Cognitive Program Manager for the Virginia Department of Corrections (VADOC) Programs, Education and Reentry Division. This position offers technical assistance to Reentry Sites throughout the Eastern and Central Region. In addition, Jessica serves as a statewide trainer for both staff and offender trainings.

Jessica was instrumental in developing the first Cognitive Community Program in the state of Virginia. She has been with the Virginia Department of Corrections 14 years now. Prior to working in the VADOC, she worked in the field of corrections for the state of Iowa for 10 years, where she assisted in the implementation of the first Therapeutic Community Program for Iowa Department of Corrections.

Jessica’s work reaches beyond reentry, noting she is a Victim Offender Dialogue Facilitator and she has served on numerous committees focusing on such issues as Female Offenders, Gang Population, Substance Abusing Offender, etc. Jessica recently co-chaired the Creating Safer Communities Through Long Lasting Public Safety Committee that developed the four-year Reentry Strategic Plan for the VADOC.

Jessica earned a B.A. Degree from Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa with a double major in Sociology and Journalism/Mass Communications. She has been a Certified Substance Abuse Counselor for over 18 years and she recently completed the Commonwealth Management Institute at VCU.

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