By Dana Simas / Public Information Officer
A positive wave of change has taken over the female inmates at California Institution for Women (CIW) in Corona.
For the past several years Parole Service Associate (A) Kyri Owens and Principal Les Johnson have worked tirelessly to introduce a way for inmates to think and to make choices both in prison and after their release. The pair has dedicated hundreds of hours as they volunteer to teach the Choice Theory® method.
The Choice Theory® Program began as a pilot program at CIW, introduced by Loyola Marymount University (LMU) and the William Glasser Institute to teach female offenders about self-evaluation, tolerance, and relationships.
Many of the participants state that Choice Theory® changed their lives by teaching them about choices that they did not know were available to them in their previous environment. It consists of five phases and more than 100 hours of classroom instruction.
“Choice Theory has completely changed my life,” said inmate Nicole, who asked to have her last name withheld. “I just want to figure out how to be happy and this has changed the whole process for how I make decisions.”
In 2007, students from LMU began teaching a class of 27 inmates the new method for evaluating their decisions; the change in inmates’ behavior was almost immediate. The first inmate students were so excited about the positive changes they began to see in their lives that many began taking the information and informally teaching it to other inmates at the institution.
As the desire for the program grew, Owens and Johnson decided they needed to expand it within the institution. They attempted to start an inmate self-help group for Choice Theory® but ultimately decided there was a need for trained staff members so the courses would be taught correctly.
In 2009, Bradley Smith, a board-certified addiction counselor at LMU, and Carleen Glasser, wife of Choice Theory® founder Dr. William Glasser, provided a scholarship to three CIW staff members to go through basic intensive training in the Choice Theory® method.
Johnson and Owens attended the training and soon started facilitating the courses at the institution. In 2009, CIW lost almost 50 percent of its education staff, without the required help to teach the courses Johnson decided to recruit 30 inmate tutors to help satisfy the growing demand for the program.
The classes are taught Tuesday and Thursday evenings, as well as all day every other Saturday year-round. The hours dedicated by Johnson and Owens to teaching these courses are all voluntary. Each class in the six-week course has approximately 40 students. Since the program started there have been no fewer than 100 inmates on the program’s waiting list.
More than 500 female inmates have completed at least one of the five phases since its inception in November 2007. Of the first 27 inmates to take the course in 2007, 12 have paroled and none has returned to prison.
There have been 175 Choice Theory® participants who have paroled since 2007, only five have returned to prison – a recidivism rate of less than 3 percent. Inmates can use the certificates to gain employment in social work and group homes after release.
“Nobody wakes up and decides to go to prison,” said inmate Jane, who also asked to have her last name withheld. “We end up here through bad choices, and this program shows me I have the ability to change those choices.”
The Choice Theory® program at CIW has garnered attention in Arizona and Washington, D.C., as well as internationally from groups in Japan and Iran.
The hard work and dedication of Johnson and Owens also has been recognized. In 2011, both were given the Community Service Award by the Association of Black Psychologists in Washington, D.C. Only four people in the nation receive the prestigious award.
Johnson and Owens plan to continue the program and, given the low recidivism rate among its participants, have been working diligently to get Choice Theory® recognized as an evidence-based rehabilitative program.