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Changing Offender Thinking and Behavior Through the Cognitive Community Model

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Editor’s Note: This is the second article in a three-part series about the Virginia Department of Correction’s Cognitive Community model. In the first article, read about the origins of the model and its efficacy. In the third article, read about challenges implementing, maintaining, and replicating the model.

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

Historically, correctional facilities have offered offenders various programming to help them reenter society. However, these approaches were often limited to occasional sessions in a classroom setting. To give offenders the best chance at successful reintegration, the Virginia Department of Corrections (VADOC) developed a reentry program called the Cognitive Community model where offenders live together in a structured and supportive community environment. This allows them to develop healthy habits, better understand their errant thinking, develop positive social skills, and make significant changes to their behavior.

Creating a Community Environment

A Cognitive Community consists of 40 to 90 offenders, depending on security level of the facility. Offenders are selected to participate in the community based on their release dates. Selected community members are moved to a designated housing area, which can operate in either a dormitory setting or a celled housing unit, but it is critical for the community to be segregated from the general population. It is also important for the membership to be diverse regarding age, race, criminal history, years served, and so on. Such diversity enhances the character of the community and helps offenders learn how to positively interact with a diverse group of people. The community setting is highly structured and operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Following Rules

Within this community, just as in society, offenders are expected to follow rules and standards that emphasize right living. This prepares offenders to follow laws in society. Community rules, in order of significance, are:

  • Cardinal: These are the strictest rules, which ensure the safety and security of the community. Examples include restrictions regarding drugs, fighting, and violations of confidentiality.
  • Major: These rules define the relationship between individual members, as well as between members and staff. Examples include being on time for all activities, full participation in community activities, and no derogatory comments regarding race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, etc.
  • House rules: These rules support the integrity of the community and are specific to each unique community. Examples include no eating or drinking during group, no non-related classroom materials allowed in the group, and things like not dragging chairs across the floor.

Structured Days

In addition to rules, each community holds a morning development meeting (AMD) and an afternoon development meeting (PMD). The AMD and PMD meetings are similar to a morning briefing for correctional professionals. These meetings help to offer structure, accountability, and responsibility, while keeping community members informed and focused on their personal development.

Duties and Responsibilities

Each meeting has a “structure board” which displays names of offenders and their roles and duties. For example, the structure board lists an offender as a “Senior Coordinator” who is responsible for ensuring the community is operating smoothly and efficiently. There are several other coordinator positions that are responsible for a crew of individuals assigned to carry out specific tasks for the community. For example, crews include:

  • Information Crew: Provides the news, weather, sports and entertainment for the day.
  • Expeditor Crew: Announces events and ensures groups start and end on time.
  • Creative Energy Crew: Leads the community in creative energy activities.
  • Service Crew: Cleans general areas of the housing unit.
  • Inspiration Crew: Offers a “thought for the day” that the community expounds on and reflects on throughout the day.
  • Education Crew: Provides a “word for the day” and education seminars.

Although the coordinator is the person responsible for the crew, the program is designed to ensure that every community member contributes and has value. It should also be noted that offender job positions have no authority, but rather a great deal of responsibility. Although offenders are in positions of leadership, staff maintains all authority within the community. For example, community members do not have the authority to cancel an AMD or PMD meeting, but it is essential that they disseminate a schedule change.

Benefits of Cognitive Community Environment

Improving Communication Skills

Living in this community environment challenges offenders to step outside of their comfort zone. For example, this population often struggles with public speaking and effective communication. To overcome those issues, meetings are highly structured and all members of the community must contribute. Practicing public speaking in this environment can help an offender build communication skills and confidence that help them after incarceration with things like employment, education, and personal relationships.

Learning Productive Schedules

The Cognitive Community design also helps offenders develop positive and productive daily habits, something many offenders have not had in their lives. Offenders work to develop a behavior pattern that they can use when released. This can include ensuring cell compliance and grooming standards are in place prior to the morning meeting. Throughout the day, community members are expected to attend group, complete homework, work in the housing unit, assist other community members as needed, and prepare for the upcoming PMD meeting. Instead of spending their incarceration time sleeping through the day and relying on recreation as their only means of organized daily activity, offenders learn how to effectively schedule their time. This skill is practiced throughout their time in the program, while offenders attend daily AMD and PMD meetings, and spend their day completing job duties and other programming tasks.

Taking Care of Each Other

At the core of community is the concept of brothers/sisters keepers and helping everyone be successful. Each offender has a level of responsibility not only for themselves, but for other members of the community. Learning about productive confrontation techniques and how to hold one another accountable are important components of the community. Developing these skills challenge the criminal mindset of “snitching” and assists in replacing destructive thinking patterns with a more pro-social thought process of being a concerned community member.

Positive Confrontation Skills

The issue of confrontation can be difficult for this population. Incarcerated individuals often struggle with anger management and lack the needed skills to confront another individual in a productive manner. The community teaches offenders the value of receiving feedback and the steps needed to confront others in a healthy way. Offenders and staff hold one another accountable through verbal and written feedback, learning experiences, behavior contracts, and confrontation meetings. Again, these tools are highly structured and guarded through specific standards.

Push-Up & Pull-Up System

To commit crimes, individuals often lack empathy and have limited regard for others. However, in the community, developing empathy helps offenders understand victimization and the harm they do to others. To help identify both positive and negative behavior, the Cognitive Community program employs a “pull-up” and “push-up” system, which is used by both staff and community members.

The “pull-up system” is a verbal or written awareness that highlights a problematic behavior that needs to be addressed. For example a staff or community member will say something like, “Mr. Smith, I am pulling you up for not being in group on time.” This process clearly states the behavior that needs to be corrected.

On the other end is the “push-up system” that is used to affirm positive behavior that needs to be reinforced. Push-ups are verbal or written affirmations that are specific and inform the offender that their change is visible and their new way of living is supported by the community. For example, a staff or community member may say, “Mr. Smith I noticed you assisted another community member clean the bathrooms and this is not your assigned job. Your contribution to the community is appreciated.” A push-up can be given immediately when a positive behavior occurs, or it can be acknowledged during AMD or PMD meetings.

Community members are taught the importance of giving four (4) push-ups to every 1 (one) pull-up. Often times, offenders have experienced a great deal of criticism throughout their lives, but it is through positive reinforcement that change is possible. Therefore, the 4-to-1 ratio forces staff and offenders to affirm others and reinforce positive behavior rather than focusing on the need for correction. This teaches the value of affirmations over criticism.

Influence of Staff

Each community is managed by a team of staff that consists of one Cognitive Counselor, one Case Manager, and a Treatment Officer who all support the community in its development. While these staff receive specialized training, all staff working at a correctional center where a Cognitive Community exists are expected to attend a 40-hour Cognitive Community staff training.

The staff working within the Cognitive Community must lead by example. These employees are fundamental to the community’s growth and development. One program led by staff is called, Thinking for a Change, which is a cognitive behavior change program that consists of 25 lessons addressing cognitive restructuring, social skills, and problem-solving skills. As staff engages offenders, they focus less on command and control and more on raising awareness of the thinking that drives offender behavior. For example, it is common for staff to pose questions like:

  • “Share what you were thinking as you made that choice.”
  • “How did your thinking in this situation move you closer or farther from your goal?”
  • “What thoughts and feelings influenced your action in this situation?”

Offenders are often asked to complete “Thinking Reports” that provide a glimpse into a person’s thinking process and can help guide change. Thinking Reports are a formatted document that asks the writer to identify a situation and then share their unfiltered thoughts and feelings that arose from that situation. The author can then evaluate their risky thoughts and feelings, physical responses, and attitudes. It is critical to note that the author of the report is always the expert on the report. Often a person’s thinking is rooted in a core belief system that may be contributing to their criminal lifestyle. It is important to challenge this thinking to assist in the change process and by actively pinpointing thoughts, a person can alter their actions and lifestyle.

Positive Impacts of Cognitive Community at VADOC

The Cognitive Community model has contributed to a significant reduction in recidivism rates. VADOC started the first pilot program in 2004 at a low-security, 50-bed female facility. Since then, there have been significant statewide changes to Virginia’s reentry practices. There are now 18 Intensive Reentry Cognitive Community sites at major correctional institutions throughout Virginia, serving more than 3,100 offenders per year.

These changes have paid off. In the last two years, VADOC has recorded the lowest rate of offender recidivism among 45 states that produce three-year recidivism rates for felons at 23.4 and 22.4 percent. It attributes much of this success to implementing changes to its reentry programs and embracing the Cognitive Community model.

About the Authors:

C. 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 to In 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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