The evolution of how prisoners in substance-abuse programs communicate is a good indicator of whether they’ll return to crime, new research has found. The relationships between prisoners enrolled in therapeutic communities, groups that focus on rehabilitation from drug and alcohol addiction, are key to those programs And the theory behind these efforts rests on the idea that peer interaction will support learning that displaces ingrained (and unhealthy) ways of thinking that stand in the way of people leaving addiction behind.
This study, the first to test that theory, analyzed tens of thousands of written communications collected at four minimum-security facilities in Ohio with programs designed as an alternative to traditional prison time. The more a participant’s language choices changed during rehab, the less likely he was to return to prison, they found. The study was published in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment.
The messages exchanged between program participants come in two forms. The first, called “pushups,” are congratulatory notes to a peer – something like, “Good job talking about your triggers in group today, man.” The second, called “pull-ups,” are meant to steer a fellow prisoner toward better choices – something like, “Hey brother, next time try talking to me instead of getting into a fight.”
Researchers examined how these communications changed for each of 2,342 men included in their study. The more their word combinations shifted, the greater the chance the men didn’t return to prison. In cases where the inmates did return, those who showed the least change in how they thought and wrote tended to return to prison most quickly.
Understanding – and being able to measure – changes linked to reduced rates of repeat incarceration could eventually help program directors refine how they approach different participants, the researchers said.
The study was supported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.