Since the launch of Insight, Out, the lead voice of this series, Dante Owens, has been sharing his thoughts, feelings, and experiences of a man who came to prison as a teenager, having committed a crime that resulted in a life sentence. For the past 21 years he’s been on a journey of self-discovery of his authentic self.
This has led Dante to the realization that he can still contribute to the world even within a confined environment by creating programs that have the potential to impact the lives of his fellow residents at Sterling Correctional Facility (SCF) in Colorado who are also on a journey of self-discovery and healing while in prison.
One of these programs is “2nd Chance on the Inside,” a 7-week program. These programs are created and taught by residents as mentors and in a collaborative fashion. “2nd Chance” is specifically designed to guide students through a process that upon graduation, will lead them from more restrictive living conditions – from Maximum or Close – to general population (gen-pop), and prepare them to thrive, both mentality and emotionally, in order to continue their progress after graduation.
Each week, if the participant demonstrates that they understand this concept through participation in the class discussion and completion of the homework assignment, then they will be considered to have fulfilled their requirements for the week and move on to the next.
In this post Dante explains what the program entails and how they work inside the classroom, which is restricted only to students and teachers such as Dante. No C.O.s (correction officers) or SCF staff are allowed while class is in progress. This enables each student to share openly with the class, a critical element that supports progress and learning.
2nd Chance On the Inside
Week 1: What is a Man/Woman?
The objective for week one is to lead the individual to a deeper understanding of the psychological process which shape the way they see an interpret events that happen in their life and to understand that these processes can be changed. We start this process by asking them to define what they think a “man” is and then use this definition to demonstrate that it is a paradigm that is shaped by our environment influences and can be changed.
Week One is very important because each student’s definition of a man tells us a lot; who they look up to, how they see themselves and deal with relationships. What a man looks like or should look like is a real eye-opener. Most of the men never had a father so their influenced perception of what a man is often comes from outside the home, including good and bad role models.
Once we have all established individual definitions we dig into how this has impacted their life as a result. If they had good role models growing up, we then ask, “Why and how did you go wrong? Why did problems happen? Why did you make the choices you did?” This enables them to open up and share.
Many men that took the class often talk about how Week One and how it changed the way they see their life now and how they need to be a better man for their kids, wife, family, etc. To see that they are not living up to what they wish their own children to be or others that may be in their children’s lives.
Homework – Students take the next week to think about what was discussed and covered and return the following week with answers to these questions: Has your definition changed? How will you apply your new definition of being a man/woman to your life?
Week 2: Thought Process – 3 stages of challenging your thoughts.
The objective for week two is to help the individual to challenge their paradigms and through processes, seeing to identify triggers and emotions that are connected to these specific thoughts.
Week Two deals with their thought process and how each student deals with issues in their lives. It relates to Week One of how they define themselves as a man, how their thought process impacts their relationships, how they take care of their family and how they treat women. By talking about how they see the world and how they respond to it, they understand what they give back to the world as well. Using a Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) resource from NHS Foundation Trust we’ve created our own curriculum for Week 2 as the foundation to discuss the following topics:
Stage 1: Catching Thoughts. Catching negative thoughts can be difficult because it’s something students are not used to. Through this process students learn to recognize when those thoughts arise as a result of an event or experience.
Stage 2: Looking for Evidence. This challenges the student to examine the origins of those negative thoughts. To ask themselves, “Is it the right way to respond?” while acknowledging that at times, there is a small window to make the right choice.
Stage 3: Finding an Evidence-Based or Alternative Thought. We also recognize that it’s never okay to be violent. We review evidence-based CBT and psychology studies that show the process of creating alternative thoughts, changing responses, and going from negative to positive outcomes.
Homework: The CBT Worksheet we use is a central part of this week’s focus. This is customized to each class as it relates to the individual student’s experiences. Residents will prepare what they’ll share going into Week 3, including why they had a negative responses and what their alternative response would be by reexamining themselves.
Week 3: Relationships – The Good, Bad, Ugly.
This week students identify the differences in the major relationships in their lives, making a connection as to why they’re good or bad, and then demonstrating why and how they should invest in themselves and healthy relationships.
Homework: Choose and explain one relationship that you want to fix and what steps you are going to take. When are you going to start? If you have already started, what steps are you currently taking?
Dealing with all relationships in their lives also relates back to Week One. For example, if any of the men had difficult relationships with their mother, we discover how this has impacted their relationships with women overall. Do they have trust issues? If the relationship with their father was difficult or they saw their father mistreat their mother, did this affect how they treat women? Do they deal with issues in the same way as he did? Despite these experiences, do you believe you can be successful in building positive relationships?
Week 4: Reaction and Response. The choices we make determine the outcome. Compare good choices and bad choices and the results.
This week students look at the choices they’ve made to understand their responses in any given situation. We begin this process by each individual sharing stories that demonstrate how choices affect outcomes.
Homework: Identify a positive outcome you would like to see in your life and the choices you need to make to realize this outcome.
Since they’re all in Close, so we know they have made some bad choices. We talk about reaction and response. We talk to them about how by getting control of their life means learning how to control how they respond to a given situation, small or large. Knowing that they, and only they, have the power to react and respond in a way helps or hurts them and others.
Inside, if someone calls you out, that doesn’t mean you need to react by punching them in the face. We learn that’s what the instigator wants them to do or expect them to do. Anyone can change their future by saying, “Fuck you.” We ask, “Who is in control of your life – you or them?”
Week 5: Guest Speaker or Movie.
This can be a volunteer or a participant who has graduated from the class, sharing their experiences with the class. This enabled the students to gain inspiration through other’s stories, speakers, or videos.
Homework: Discuss with the speaker the subject of their presentation or discuss among the class what we learned from the video and how it applies to the overall objectives individual journeys.
This week we bring in people that have been in prison and are now out in the real world doing well. Some are from our graduating class and have moved out of Close. If speakers are not available we show movies to the class that align with everything we discuss in the program. Students are inspired by subjects such as Nipsey Hussle, Jay Z, and others that come from the same struggle to drive home a message: your dreams can come true if you fight for them the right way.
Week 6: Personal Responsibility/Acceptance.
This part of the program reinforces what we’ve learned with an overview of the class curriculum (week 1 – 5) and how change is a continuing process; that the journey doesn’t stop once the program is over.
Graduation Preparation: Choosing class speakers who participated the most with positive feedback. Speeches are short, 5 minutes, maximum. This gives others time to share.
Week 7: Graduation!
In this program there are nine core member teachers and up to 17 residents during each program session. Core member teachers include me, Dante Owens (#12113), Alfred Flores (#152130), Zachary Sullivan (#112967), Daniel Dias (#90028), Christopher Vermillion (#94699), Christopher Ishmael (#159479), Howard Ginter (#95390), Bill Hailey (#86418), and Eric Snyder (#133368). Week by week two core member teachers out of the eight rotate to lead that part of the program and work with the students on the homework.
Of the three programs we’ve held we’ve had a 90% success rate
of keeping residents from going back to Close unit.
If a graduate resident returns to Close, it’s for a non-violent offense.
SCF has enabled us to offer the program to those residents in Close as a way to get out of it and into a lower security level, possibly going all the way down to minimum if their progress continues. After they graduate and get out of Close they get a chance to show the community that they can live among them by making better choices.
Next we’ll get into Guided Path for Groups program for security levels 1, 2, and 3, how do we keep students’ progress going, and how we improve upon it. Guided Path gives residents improved communication skills, relationship building, decision making, and how to make attainable short-term goals as well as long-term goals. We’ll also be sharing insights from the adult students, what they’ve learned about themselves, how the program has impacted their life, their relationships, and their plans for the future.
Moving forward we’ll present our Mentorship Program and Youth Offender Services (YOS) program that enables adult SFC residents mentor and teach youth in detention, helping them to avoid the mistakes we’ve made and lead a more positive life.
About Insight, Out
Insight, Out is a blog series by Dante Owens, an inmate at the Sterling Correctional Facility, with editorial and publishing assistance by Kim Owens. Insight, Out conveys Dante’s personal stories and experiences of his life inside prison in an effort to share them with the world outside. This editorial journey will also provide insights into changes being made and restorative residents programs taking place, some of which are led by Dante, within the Colorado’s correctional system that strive for rehabilitation and reducing recidivism. Dante Owens’ writings and opinions are his own and do not reflect or represent that of anyone other than himself.