Editor’s note:  Dr. Lester Triché, the principal at the California Institution for Women (CIW) has spent more than 4,000 hours as facilitator of an inmate behavior change program called Choice Theory. Here is an explanation of the program and why it has worked so well at CIW.

By Lester Triche’
California Institution for Women

The Choice Theory Internal Empowerment Coaching Program (CT-IEC) is a non-controlling, behaviorally based psychology that teaches individuals about behaviors, sustainable relationships, self-trust and the choices they make that can lead to healthy, productive lives.

The program is called Internal  Empowerment because Choice Theory recognizes that until an individual chooses to self  valuate, they will not be able to bridge the gap between effective and ineffective behaviors that lead to personal change and successful relationships with others.

The CT-IEC Program works on several levels.

First, it provides a setting where there exists acceptance, hope and a genuine belief in an individual’s ability to make changes in their lives.

A main premise of Choice Theory is to recognize that the students past poor choices were their best attempts, at the time, to satisfy one or more of their basic needs (survival, love and belonging, power, freedom and fun).

This basic understanding immediately takes away the typical prison traps of blame, self-hatred and victim mentality.

Victimization is a choice that ends up being just another avoidance of getting down to the real issues of accepting responsibility for your own thinking and behaviors, and making appropriate changes in your life.

  • We take an innovative and self-generated approach toward reorganizing the behavior of individuals.
  • We educate individuals so they understand the basis for their past/present behaviors; becoming successful, productive, self-satisfied, contributing members of society.
  • We assist individuals in improving their relationships with their families, with their peers, with themselves, and with society in general.
  • We encourage individuals to review their behaviors in light of what they want out of life and whether those choices are moving them closer to, or further away, from achieving what they really want.
  • We ask individuals to identify the choices available to them from this moment forward.

The Choice Theory Internal Empowerment Coaching Program has expanded into specialty areas including Ad-Seg and the SCU, and in fact has also created a great level of excitement and enthusiasm at Centinela State Prison.  Centinela will have their first Choice Theory graduation this August and CIW is planning their seventh graduation this September.

One of the things the Choice Theory  Internal Empowerment Coaching Program has  always been concerned about since its inception in 2009 here at CIW, is the measureable success rate for those who go through the program.  We have measured recidivism among all women who have had any contact with the program.

A total of 175 women participated in some portion of the Choice Theory program from November 2007 through November  2012, and were able to remain successfully in the community at a much lower rate than average female parolees  – a rate of 2.9% compared to the average recidivism rate of 57% for females.

Another one of the ways the concept of “success” can be measured is how frequently these women are determined to be suitable for parole by the Board of Prison Hearings (BPH).

It is no easy task to go back and look at all lifers in CIW who went in front of the parole board, and then determine the overall suitability rate of those lifers.  The next step would be to compare all lifers who had some amount of Choice Theory training, and how they fared in front of the parole board.  We are working on figuring out how to access these numbers.

We know anecdotally that these women express themselves clearly and favorably in front of Parole Board Commissioners and are found suitable more frequently, but we want hard data.

One of these women wrote an article about how she prepared for her first parole suitability hearing and we published it in our education newsletter.  She carried a copy of that issue to the actual hearing.

The Board of Paroles Hearing commissioners  commented extensively on her clear and comprehensive article, and her obvious tools to prepare for her hearing, especially the Choice Theory program.  She was found suitable, one of the rare individuals found suitable at their initial hearing.

One of the most stunning aspects of the Choice Theory program, beyond the remarkable recidivism rate, is the internal revolution that has grown within our internal culture, a revolution unlike any other prison  uprising experienced by the participants.

Individuals come on their own time, they come eagerly and with commitment, sometimes even forfeiting dinner to make sure they get in and benefit from the full class.