Joey Toutsaint

On Therapeutic Community

The program I completed at the Fayette State Correctional Institution in Pennsylvania was called “Therapeutic Community.” This is a four-month drug treatment program administered at the prison. Patients/participants are referred to as “community members” and are housed on a separate block, which is intended to help them feel removed from the prison environment. 

I was assigned to Therapeutic Community against my will, because I answered “yes” regarding heroin use on a questionnaire. And this brings me to two important problems with our “correctional” system. 

First, every part of the system rewards deceit. Every question has a right answer, every process needs to be “gamed.” There is a time to shut up, a time to deny, a time to lie, and a time to feign contrition. 

In Pennsylvania, prisoners are sentenced to a range of time, with a maximum sentence typically double the minimum (e.g., 24 to 48 months). After serving the minimum sentence, prisoners can become eligible for parole if other criteria are met, but they do not have an automatic right to parole. 

The range of a prisoner’s sentence is decided at a sentencing hearing by a judge, who in most cases refers to the “sentencing guideline” chart. This chart prescribes sentences based on the crime committed. It also gives the judge a discretionary range, with the maximum sentence possible being at least double the minimum sentence possible. The judge considers a list of factors when choosing the sentence to impose, one of which is the defendant’s professed remorse. Convicted persons who are innocent and are honest about it (a statistical certainty) will be considered remorseless. In most cases, I’d estimate that they can expect to be imprisoned for at least four times longer than defendants who showed remorse. This occurs because not only will they likely receive the long end of the sentencing guideline range, but they will likely also be denied parole for not “accepting responsibility” and not “showing remorse.” In reality, many people are left with two options: falsely confess or die in prison. 

Convicted persons who are innocent and are honest about it (a statistical certainty) will be considered remorseless. In most cases, I’d estimate that they can expect to be imprisoned for at least four times longer than defendants who showed remorse.

Our system rewards deceit, so kids raised in the system learn to be deceitful. While the naive among them may feel like they are “tricking” well-meaning counsellors and parole board members, I believe something more insidious is going on. The system needs to protect its narrative. There must be witches to hunt, druggies finding Jesus behind bars, and some unrepentant Jeffrey Dahmer types to hold up as justification for a prison system that has eclipsed our school system in terms of cost. 

To promote these narratives, the system rewards – or at least offers to reward – those who say the right things and appear reformed and repentant. Those who will help the system justify itself. 

In Pennsylvania, even weed dealers are expected to “show remorse” to be paroled. The system needs these narratives because it doesn’t have numbers: on their own, “programs” like Therapeutic Community can quantitatively be shown to not work. Studies in Texas and California have showed that completing Therapeutic Community in prison does not significantly lower one’s risk of being re-arrested. Plus, the statistics used to show the program’s effectiveness are from studies among people who are released and stay drug-free and arrest-free for three years. It’s like Trojan claiming its condom is 100 per cent successful among women who don’t get pregnant within the first three years. These programs survive on the notion that it would be good if the programs did work. They are the “ab belts” and “fat freezers” of government spending.

And not only does the program not work quantitatively (the only way that seems to matter), it also doesn’t work anecdotally: it didn’t work for me or anyone else I know. 

There must be witches to hunt, druggies finding Jesus behind bars, and some unrepentant Jeffrey Dahmer types to hold up as justification for a prison system that has eclipsed our school system in terms of cost. 

Which brings me to the second problem. During “intake” at the State Correctional Institution at Camp Hill, where I was imprisoned from December 18, 2019, to January 13, 2020, I was asked if I wanted to participate in Therapeutic Community or other drug treatment. I said no. (This was two and a half years after my arrest and almost four years after I last used heroin.) 

I was transferred to SCI Fayette, where my classification was “manually overridden” by a prison counsellor to now require Therapeutic Community. No reason given, just decreed upon my arrival.

Why? If you guessed “money,” I’d say you’re right. If you didn’t guess money, I would encourage you to Google Fayette County, Pennsylvania. I am the economic activity in this region. Requiring completion of the four-month program means longer total imprisonment for those already near or past their minimum sentences (like I was). That’s thousands of dollars every month to Fayette County. 

Why doesn’t Therapeutic Community work?

From the outside, Therapeutic Community looks like it is doing impressive, albeit cult-style, brainwashing. People recite mantras, write essays, hold intervention-style confrontations with problem members, and attend twice-daily meetings. 

But imagine this hypothetical situation for a moment: You win a free trip to China! On the plane, you are seated beside a Jehovah’s Witness. After a few polite attempts to rebuff him, you feign a headache, but not before he hands you a packet of literature on his faith. You arrive in Beijing, and customs finds the handout and accuses you of illegally distributing Western literature, promoting superstitions, and “subversion.” You’re arrested, but before you can even Google the Chinese definition of subversion, your appointed legal representative says instead of 10 years in a labour camp, all you have to do is plead no-contest and complete a four-month re-education program. (Of course, in reality, the penalty would more likely be a fine or confiscation of the pamphlet. )

Now ask yourself: how receptive are you going to be to court-mandated re-education?

If you didn’t guess money, I would encourage you to Google Fayette County, Pennsylvania. I am the economic activity in this region.

Since Therapeutic Community is essentially punitive, with emphasis on strict rules, attendance is mandatory. But since it is mandated, people actively reject everything it tries to instill. Put frankly, the program is viewed as “bullshit for parole,” and since everyone knows it’s bullshit, everything is staged – the patients/participants perform obedience, with no real buy-in. It’s nothing but a bad improv class. 

Ultimately, it is a poorly designed program that seems to think the key to drug-free living (the non-optional goal) is army-style discipline. Not only is there little value to the curriculum, the program itself focuses little on drugs or education. 

To give an example, I was tasked with writing down news stories from TV, which someone else would read during twice-daily meetings. Purposeless activities like these comprised a decent chunk of the program. And that is truly poor design, because the time wasted from a literally captive audience could have been used to save lives, such as by teaching basic harm reduction and CPR. Teaching things like how to obtain Naloxone or find needle exchange programs, or what to do if someone overdoses, could prevent people from dying in real life. Instead, everyone is made to play-pretend and profess that they’ll live a drug-free life, when studies have shown that the actual relapse rate for heroin, to take an example, is 91 per cent

How can prison programs be improved?

I think the first thing to do is to realize and accept the inherent limits of what can be “taught.” Concepts like “remorse” and “abstaining from drugs” can’t be forced upon people. Humans are well evolved to resist ham-fisted brainwashing, as one would expect considering our species’ propensity to enslave and oppress each other.

I think the key to successful prison programs is voluntary participation. They must also be interesting, offer curriculum that is inherently useful, and perhaps offer certifications or college credit. As the success of religion proves, the same self-help and self-improvement programs that free people enjoy can be expected to appeal to prisoners. 

Drug prohibition may not be an accomplishable or even worthwhile goal – and teaching otherwise while drug laws are being successfully repealed poses a threat to democratic progress.

That means successful programs can’t be punitive, focusing on “teaching remorse,” and emphasizing the crime committed. With drug dealing specifically, the public needs to realize that those arrested were not necessarily ignorant or mistaken in selling drugs, but instead making rational economic choices given the free market’s inelastic (insatiable) demand for drugs. Drug prohibition may not be an accomplishable or even worthwhile goal – and teaching otherwise while drug laws are being successfully repealed poses a threat to democratic progress.

As long as prison programs are used as a requirement for parole, they will remain nothing more than hoops to be resentfully jumped through. In Pennsylvania, where there is no right to parole and huge differences between minimum and maximum sentences, therapeutic programs impose capricious requirements, dictate incarceration length, and cost taxpayers huge amounts of money for little measurable benefit. 

People wishing to help improve prison programs and increase reform opportunities need to make it known that current programs – with their emphasis on pointless temporary discipline and guilt – simply don’t work. Opportunities for college degrees or college credit are virtually non-existent and certainly not advertised at the prison where I am housed. Prisoners need meaningful educational opportunities and should have access to actual computers and the ability to purchase laptops. The few degree programs I have found are all religious in nature, but everyone can’t become a priest. There needs to be real career training available to prevent people from becoming institutionalized. A true prison-to-career path, with the ability to parole to employment, or even parole to a campus, could finally lead people out of “the system.”

Trenton Tompkins is an inmate at SCI Fayette and a voracious reader. After prison, he plans to travel the world, finding love and adventure.

Tags:   abolition drug users drug wars prisons

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