YACOLT — Most people probably remember their high school or college graduation day and the feelings they felt that day very well — feelings of excitement, accomplishment and that “yes, I did it!” feeling that washes over them as their name is called and they’re handed that high school diploma.
Friends in their class probably cheered for them and shouted their name, and teachers and others who helped the graduate get to this point smiled and beamed with pride as they walked off the stage.
The atmosphere wasn’t any different as 67 inmates at Larch Corrections Center participated in a graduation ceremony on Oct. 13 after completing a 16-week program called Thinking for a Change, or T4C.
“I’ve been an adult now for going on 17 years, and I’ve been behind bars for about 13 of those,” Roger Taylor, an inmate at Larch who graduated from the T4C program that day and was chosen to speak on behalf of his class, told the crowded gymnasium at Larch that day. “I had no control over my own life. Everything I did in my life was merely a reaction to things as they happened to me. This class (T4C) has taught me how profound yet simple that answer really is when I asked how I can change my actions and my reactions.”
A total of six different groups of inmates, or classes, graduated from the T4C program that afternoon. Each class had chosen a class member, like Taylor, to speak on behalf of their class. One after another, these inmates chosen to speak stood in front of the crowd made up of their fellow inmates, staff members and visitors, and expressed what an impact the T4C class had on them. Each one of the six class representatives thanked their class facilitators over and over again, sometimes bringing a few of the facilitators to tears.
This particular T4C graduation, which was the largest T4C graduation, with 67 inmates graduating, at Larch since the program was first implemented in 2014, also included several special guests. Lisa Oliver-Estes, superintendent of Larch, was the first to welcome and congratulate the graduates the afternoon of Oct. 13.
“This is a wonderful day for you to celebrate this success,” Oliver-Estes told the inmates. “I want you guys to be able to make good choices and not come back here. There are people that are very proud of you and your accomplishments.”
Other guests present at the event who addressed the inmates included Scott Russell, deputy director of Prisons; Keri Waterland, assistant secretary, Offender Change Division; Karlton Daniel, president of Circle of Change; as well as the facilities correctional program manager. Each guest took a few minutes to speak to the inmates before the actual graduation ceremony took place.
“There’s nothing that can stop you from creating your own life and being who you want to be,” Waterland told the graduates.
The inmates received a powerful message from guest speaker Karlton Daniel, who spent more than 22 years in the prison system, starting out in the Washington State Penitentiary. After doing his time and going through many transformations, Daniel was released and started a reentry program of his own for offenders called Circle of Change. Daniel told the inmates they are able to learn a very specific set of skills through programs like T4C and that they should continue to use those skills when they are back in society.
“Who better to fix something broken than those who broke it?” Daniel said. “You will not be successful until your desire for success is as strong as your desire to breathe.”
What is the T4C program?
Thinking for a Change is one of the cognitive behavioral interventions offered to offenders in prisons and in communities. The research-based program aims to improve public safety by helping offenders change their thinking patterns and develop social and problem-solving skills.
The Washington State Department of Corrections decided to start offering this program at facilities in Washington in 2012. Larch was actually the state’s pilot for this program at camps (as Larch is a minimum security camp facility) and began offering the program to inmates in 2014. Since 2014, 182 offenders have graduated from the program at Larch.
T4C is a 16-week program that begins with a four-week orientation so that inmates know what to expect from the classes.
The program curriculum consists of 25 different classes that address social skills such as active listening, asking questions, giving feedback, knowing your feelings, understanding the feelings of others, apologizing, responding to anger and more; cognitive self-change such as recognizing risk, realizing that thinking controls behavior, paying attention to thinking and more; and problem solving such as how to stop and think, stating the problem, setting a goal and gathering information, making a plan and more.
“In T4C, the inmates learn things like apologizing, but it’s more than that because they have to actually explain their feelings, explain why they are sorry, you have to actually rewire your brain,” said Shawn Philiponis, a counselor at Larch. “Other things like responding to anger, some people just have a different thought process because of the ways they’ve went through life. Anybody can end up in prison, and they are going to get out one day. You have to think about what you want them to gain from their time here. I don’t want a guy living next to me in my neighborhood who sat in a cell 24/7. We want to give them as much education, skills and abilities that we can and help them make the right choices as much as we can.”
“I want to challenge those individuals to make a difference, not to be a statistic,” Piliponis said.
Of the six inmates who spoke on behalf of their classes at the Oct. 13 graduation, every one of them said the T4C program had a major positive impact on their life.
“In first grade, I had to make a life book of what I wanted my life to look like,” Clayton Adams, an inmate from Class 25, said. “I wanted to have a wife, two kids, a house and a Harley in the garage. I spent a lot of my (younger years) in prison. I got out after going through a program and thought ‘I’ll never go to prison again.’ Now here I am, same place, graduating from T4C. As grown men, we know all these tools, but a lot of us have lived such crazy and chaotic lives that we didn’t know to put these tools into action.”
“This class has really had an impact on me,” said Robert Shandrow, an inmate from Class 22. “It’s up to us to make a change.”