IMSI staff help inmates leave gangs

The six IMSI staff members who run Step Down
IMSI Step Down staff

A process developed by staff at Idaho Maximum Security Institution is proving to be effective at helping Idaho’s most dangerous inmates give up gang life and live peacefully with other inmates, some of them their former rivals who they were sworn to attack on sight.

The process is called Step Down. Over the course of 24 weeks Step Down prepares inmates for the often difficult transition from IMSI’s highest level of custody, administrative segregation (ad seg), back to the general prison population. Since July 1, 2010, 34 ad seg inmates have gone through Step Down and not one has returned.

“That’s amazing especially because these are the hardest inmates in the system,” says the Idaho Department of Correction’s Chief of Operations Kevin Kempf. “Step Down is a success because it involves high caliber correctional professionals using research-based tactics to target offenders who have been identified as good candidates for change.”

Because of the risk they pose to other inmates and staff, ad seg inmates have virtually no control over any aspect of their lives. They spend the vast majority of their time alone in their cells. During the few hours a week when they are brought out for a shower or court-mandated recreation time, their hands and sometimes even their feet are restrained.

It’s relatively easy for prison administrators to determine which offenders should be administratively segregated from the rest of the inmate population. The hard part is determining when an inmate is ready to be re-integrated.

The process used to be largely left to subjectivity and a little bit of luck. “Without any preparation, we just opened the cell door and now you’re around a couple of thousand other inmates, you’re living with a guy in a cell, and good luck,” says IMSI Warden Randy Blades. “Well, that doesn’t serve anybody very well.”

So about three years ago, IMSI staff set out to change the subjectivity to objectivity and eliminate the guesswork by applying correctional best practices to the process. Now in order to transition out of ad seg, an offender must fill out an application and win the approval of their case management team, the IMSI staff who oversee Step Down, and ultimately IMSI’s warden.

When an offender’s application is approved, he is moved to IMSI’s J-block where he shares a cell with another Step Down inmate on the tier above Death Row. Offenders under the sentence of death are typically quiet and corrigible, and the atmosphere in J-block helps Step Down participants complete their many reading and writing assignments while maintaining a record of excellent behavior.

“It’s not easy to get through,” says Larissa Pfeifer, a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist who helped develop Step Down. “The minor rule violations that would not normally be a big deal are a big deal when you’re in the Step Down process.”

During the first 16 weeks, all ad seg restrictions remain in place, even in the classroom. Inmates receive instruction while seated in individual treatment modules — enclosures that are a little bigger than a phone booth, made of metal bars and lined with see-through plastic. During the last eight weeks  the restrictions start to ease. Offenders are allowed to spend time in a dayroom unrestrained. They can play board games with other offenders, use the phone more often and choose from a wider selection of products through the prison commissary.

You might think that after living in ad seg for months or even years, inmates would jump at the chance to apply for Step Down. But Alfredo Barrera, Jr., IDOC #88314, says it was the hardest decision he ever faced. It’s not just the coursework and strict rules. Participants must also renounce membership in their gang, for which they risk retaliation forever, and make peace with their gang’s sworn enemies.

At a meeting of Step Down graduates at IMSI on February 9, Barrera noted that he was sitting next to a fellow graduate who had once been a member of a rival gang. “I don’t say this with any disrespect but you wouldn’t have caught us in the same room, this far away without us trying to do something to each other, and now we’re just trying to do what we gotta do to get back in the community to live a normal life,” Barrera said.

By helping Idaho’s most dangerous inmates take their first steps toward living normal lives, Step Down is helping fulfill IDOC’s mission of safety, accountability, partnerships and opportunities for offender change. IMSI Deputy Warden Ken Bennett calls it the altruistic side of corrections.

“But it’s not a gentle, motherly, nurturing thing…(I)f a person is a knucklehead sometimes it takes a little bit of a two-by-four to get their attention, “Bennett says. 

And IMSI’s professional staff know just how to do that.

 

 

 

Story published: 03/12/2012
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