Playing the Game: Behind the Fences at the Idaho Women's Correctional Center's Therapeutic Community 

Therapeutic Community for female prisoners changes perspectives, raises controversy

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The two-time DUI offender was riding out a five-year sentence with one year fixed when she was offered the chance to enter the therapeutic program and shave two years off of her sentence. She said the courts offered the program as a choice, but in the end, she felt compelled to join if she wanted to see more days of freedom. She went through a month-long probationary period in the program when inmates are schooled in the ways and culture of the community before they become active participants in the game and other ritualistic forms of peer accountability.

Then it came time for her to sit in the "hot seat," or play the game as the accused. And the first trumped-up charges flew her way, she said.

The accusation: inappropriate communication for what she said was simply praying out loud. The only words Cacciaguidi was allowed to say in her defense: "Thanks, I'll get on top of that." The learning experience: wearing elf ears before the community.

Where the accusation came from was just as unsettling as the false allegations, Cacciaguidi said. The woman calling the charges was the same woman Cacciaguidi had just refused to share her hair conditioner with.

For Cacciaguidi, the game wasn't a practice in peer accountability but a sort of witch trial in which criminals play out their petty beefs and conflicts with one another through lies, false allegations and humiliation.

"It's like the secret police," Cacciaguidi said of the program. "Basically [inmates] sit around and spy on each other and tattle on each other. That's what the 'pull-up' system is--an indictment."

Cacciaguidi filed suit against IDOC and its officials, claiming infringement on her constitutional rights and a falsification of prison records. She said the tactics of the therapeutic program, particularly the game, denied her due process and subjected her to cruel and unusual punishment through humiliation and mental harm. And now she says she's got a new record to shake--prison documents that paint her as a less-than-model inmate thanks to the alleged trumped-up charges that emerged as part of the game.

"They're painting a totally new institutional history on me," Cacciaguidi said. "I was told that's it's an honesty-based program, and I couldn't understand why people were being so dishonest."

Cacciaguidi hasn't received a response to her claim that alleges cruel and unusual punishment and her suit requesting a retraction of the falsified prison record. IDOC officials refused to comment on the case.

The inmates hand-picked by IDOC for interview by Boise Weekly described their experience in the TC as a life-changing path, one wrought with epiphanies, self-reflection and insight. But Cacciaguidi said that if all prisoners were free to speak, we'd hear a much different story. We'd hear about forced cultish conformity, humiliation and psychological suffering. We'd hear about a pointless waste of taxpayer money and high recidivism rates. But those stories won't be told, Cacciaguidi said.

"They're afraid," Cacciaguidi said of dissenting inmates. "They don't want to speak up because they want to be paroled. They want to go home to their kids and family."

Several inmates have filed complaints against IDOC's therapeutic community with the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho. But ACLU counsel Lea Cooper said there's little they can do on a prisoner's behalf. Cooper said that if prisoners were forced into the therapeutic program, they would have a claim on constitutional infringement for cruel and unusual punishment. But since the program is a requirement for parole and therefore not mandatory, it's technically voluntary.

"This is how they get away with it not being a constitutional issue, which is why we can't get involved," Cooper said. "We're really frustrated telling all of these women, 'Gosh, this sounds really gruesome, but there's nothing we can do.'"

Cooper said that the shame-based group therapy works off of the philosophy that rehabilitation begins with breaking an individual down, so that the group can then build them up.

"I don't get the point. I would want to know as a taxpayer why we're paying people to get dressed up like Donald Duck and be shamed."

Today, the program looks a little different than the community Cacciaguidi knew. Participants play the game a little bit differently and officials retired the 2007 version of the contested "hot seat." A kind of due process replaced the "encounters" that left prisoners exposed to allegations, criticisms and accusations without defense or recourse. Now a denial, argument or explanation can precede the customary, "Thanks. I'll get on top of that."

Dr. George de Leon, a New York University psychologist and therapeutic communities expert, said that the evolution of therapeutic communities produced some critiques--both real and imagined--mostly for the harsh treatment at early facilities. But he said that those critiques have mostly disappeared, and today's research describes an approach that uses the community to reduce recidivism and aid in addiction recovery.

"The research shows that the prison-based communities do very well with these clients," de Leon said. "Individuals who do best are those considered to have the most serious addictions as well as lifestyle issues that could be moral and value based."

But even the model prisoners IDOC officials selected for interview said that the therapeutic program isn't for everyone.

Kristina Hand of Boise used to steal cars and bikes to get high on meth. Now she's a part of the therapeutic community sisterhood. Hand is riding out her third attempt in four years to complete the program as a requirement for parole. She said she just wasn't ready the first or second time around to confront her destructive thinking and behaviors. But things have changed since she walked into the sisterhood for a third time.

"It's changed enormously in those years. It used to be way strict," she said.

The game has changed a lot, too, she said.

"You used to not get the chance to say, 'I didn't do it.' Now you can respond."

And just as the therapeutic community in the southern desert of Boise has evolved, Hand has evolved, too. The program changed her mind, her way of thinking, her way of dealing with the world, she said.

"It's made me realize a lot of things--like I can't get what I want when I want it. ... I learned respect and accountability--respect for others as well as myself," Hand said.

A wall of letters greets the sisters as they take their seats at an evening meeting. The emails and the notes written in pink cursive address the inmates with, "Dear Family" and "Hey Sisters!" The authors write of their lives after the TC. Some graduates are looking for jobs. One lives with family. They all have the same message: Keep your chin up, things will get better, you can do anything. And I miss you.

Jennifer Englesby walked past the wall one last time. Five days before Christmas, she left the community and entered a Boise halfway house. Her Christmas came with dreams, bigger than the ones she had as an addict. She sees life as a student at the College of Western Idaho in her future. She wants to focus on building a relationship with her 12-year-old daughter. She forged tight ties with some of her TC sisters--bonds she says she'll miss. But Englesby said she's ready to do things right this time. And she doesn't plan to come back.

"The program is powerful," she said. "It gave me a foundation for life."

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Idaho Women's Correctional Center Therapeutic Community
Idaho Women's Correctional Center Therapeutic Community Idaho Women's Correctional Center Therapeutic Community Idaho Women's Correctional Center Therapeutic Community Idaho Women's Correctional Center Therapeutic Community Idaho Women's Correctional Center Therapeutic Community Idaho Women's Correctional Center Therapeutic Community Idaho Women's Correctional Center Therapeutic Community Idaho Women's Correctional Center Therapeutic Community

Idaho Women's Correctional Center Therapeutic Community

By Laurie Pearman

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