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Wisconsin programs seek to turn criminals to positive lives

November 17, 2018

Rock County Jail inmate Austin Temple sits on the edge of his bed inside the dormitory for those enrolled in the Rock County Education and Criminal Addiction Program on Monday, November 5, 2018, in Janesville, Wis. (Anthony Wahl/The Janesville Gazette via AP)

JANESVILLE, Wis. (AP) — Austin Temple is at the cabin up north that his grandfather built, sitting in front of a fire.

He can smell the smoke from the logs in the fireplace that he and his father built.

He feels the fire’s warmth. He looks out the window and sees snow falling.

His 2-year-old son is in his lap. He’s reading to him.

Temple hopes someday he can be in this happy place.

In the meantime, he uses this visualization when he needs a timeout from the stresses of being an inmate at the Rock County Jail.

“So far it’s been working for me, and it’s something I want to improve on and use when I get out,” he told The Janesville Gazette .

The visualization technique is something he learned in anger management classes at the jail.

Judges often order anger management training when they sentence offenders. If the judges don’t, probation agents often require it for their clients.

Tens of thousands of inmates and offenders under supervision of probation and parole agents — 55 percent of them statewide this year — have been identified as needing anger management, state officials said.

Temple isn’t being treated by the state, but rather a local program, the jail’s Rock County Education and Criminal Addiction Program, known as RECAP. But he has been through state rehabilitation programs.

Temple has spent most of his adult life behind bars, but he never got assigned to anger management. He thinks of himself as easygoing, and he has no history of violence since a fight in ninth grade.

But in RECAP, everybody takes anger management. Temple’s eyes light up just at the mention of it. He has never been in a program that has meant so much to him.

The once-a-week, 12-week program, taught by sheriff’s office Sgt. Jay Williams, teaches that people often use incorrect thinking that leads to anger.

“Some say, ‘Oh, yeah, I have been angry all my life,’” Williams said of his students.

The program encourages inmates to seek the roots of their anger, such as humiliation and rejection, and the excuses they tell themselves while avoiding the real problem.

Blaming others is a common problem.

“I was blaming, basically, everybody but myself,” Temple said.

The inmates also learn tools, such as taking a timeout to relax and breathe deeply. They learn to think of something positive. Like that cabin in the woods.

Temple found out that he expressed anger differently from the classic outbursts. He didn’t confront people directly. He was passive-aggressive.

“One thing I learned is, at the end of the day, regardless of how you express your anger, you just want to be heard,” he said.

And that was helpful in understanding other people’s anger.

He and his son’s mother have not gotten along for years. Now, he understands they both wield anger against each other.

“I’m blaming her. She’s blaming me, and there’s never open communication between us,” he said.

Williams’ course requires the inmates to keep diaries about how they deal with anger. They role-play some of those situations and practice alternatives to blowing their tops.

Practicing ways to deal with those situations has given him confidence he can apply what he has learned, but he knows it will be difficult getting his son’s mother to believe he is sincere — she has seen him enthusiastic about changing his life before, only to fail.

Still, he is hopeful.

Temple has one success under his belt. It started with a fellow inmate who didn’t like him. The other man saw Temple as being privileged and not understanding life on the streets.

“He felt I thought I was better than him,” Temple said.

That led to an in-your-face confrontation that stopped just short of violence.

Williams was going to kick the other man out of the program, but Temple asked for a chance to work things out, using the anger-management skills both had been taught.

Williams put them in a small room at the jail. They talked for about 20 minutes and realized they had things in common, Temple said.

Their relationship turned positive, Temple said. They even used their conflict as an example in anger-management class.

“I felt so much better. It was like a weight lifted off my chest,” he said. “It gave me hope I could do the same thing with my child’s mother.”

The other man successfully graduated from RECAP. Temple plans to do the same Dec. 12.

Temple is in jail for violating his extended supervision. Addiction to heroin and its medicinal cousins got him into prison, and backsliding into opioid use got him sent back to jail.

The 30-year-old started with marijuana at a young age, he said, and that led to more serious drug abuse.

His parents sent him to a rehabilitation program in Montana. He fled and hitchhiked back to Wisconsin.

His most serious crime came in 2007. He was charged with first-degree reckless homicide for supplying cocaine and heroin that killed an 18-year-old friend. He was sentenced in 2008 to four years in prison.

He has tried to kick the addiction over the years, and he has won that battle a few times, only to slide back into using.

He spent a year in solitary confinement in prison after being caught in prison with drugs. The experience left him with anxiety and vivid nightmares.

Therapy helped him admit he has mental health problems.

Trying to make it in the outside world has been tough. He learned welding in prison, and several times he was told he was a good candidate for a job, only to be turned down at the last minute when higher-ups took a look at his criminal record and said “no.”

He had a good job for a while, but the income led to losing BadgerCare, so he lost the counseling and Suboxone treatments he was getting.

That led him to buying Suboxone on the street.

And that led him back behind bars.

He was honest with his probation officer about the illicit drug use, he said, and the probation officer put him in jail. But instead of going back to prison, he was placed in RECAP as an alternative sanction. He has been there since July.

In state anger programs, the focus is on thinking that drives aggressive behavior and creates victims, said Autumn Lacy, assistant administrator for the Division of Community Corrections.

The goal is to restructure thinking to change behavior, she said.

Inmates learn things such as how to ask for help and appropriate ways of making a complaint, Lacy said.

“We have them practice in a group setting so we can see how skillful they are. Then we ask them to go back to their lives — the community or their units in prison — and practice with people around them,” Lacy said.

Probation and parole agents know the drill and try to reinforce the skills when they meet with offenders, Lacy said.

People who believe in this approach can change themselves, Lacy said, but not everyone does.

It’s hard to tell if everyone in the prison system who needs anger management gets it.

“We do a lot of triaging,” said corrections spokesman Tristan Cook, adding that offenders are assigned to programming based on their greatest needs and risks.

“It’s tough to say on an overall level that we have enough or don’t have enough,” he added. “I think we do a very successful job.”

Tracy Douglas, a licensed professional counselor at Associates in Psychotherapy in Janesville, doesn’t work with criminal offenders, but she often sees problems with anger in her practice.

There is always a valid reason for being angry, she said, but the question is what to do with that feeling.

“Especially with men, in our society today, we have not allowed men the emotional range that is full and healthy for them,” Douglas said.

Anger is a socially acceptable way for men to express emotions, Douglas said, but often anger masks the real emotion, such as fear or sadness.

Other times, anger is the primary emotion, usually outrage at something done to a person or that the person did to himself.

“It can really ruin marriages. It can ruin families. It can erupt in violence and aggression,” Douglas said.

People often feel shame over their anger, “but it’s important not to beat yourself up over it and drive yourself further down,” Douglas said.

Be compassionate with yourself, she said, as you work toward improvement.

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Information from: The Janesville Gazette, http://www.gazetteextra.com

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