Presence - September 2008

by Khalil Osiris


Part III of an interview with Khalil Osiris, co-founder of the program and course, The Psychology of Incarceration (P.O.I.) and columnist and associate editor of RED! the breakthrough ‘zine Read the first and second columns.

Khalil, in our last conversation for the summer issue of RED!, we ended with your describing the 3rd Criminogenic Needs Domain, “Associations and Social Interaction.” Let’s talk about the 4th Needs Domain which is “Substance Abuse.” We know how dire and urgent this one is. How does “Substance Abuse” function as the 4th  Needs Domain? (Read more about the Criminogenic Needs Domains.)

Substance abuse as a domain deals with the challenges of alcohol and drug abuse and their place in treatment programs. This Criminogenic Needs Domain looks carefully at how drugs or alcohol have interfered with an incarcerated person’s life. The key thing here to understand about this domain is that it’s only one of the challenges people generally face when we talk about reentry. We look at the drugs or alcohol impact not only within the domain, but in the areas it affects in the rest of their lives. This is vital.    If this domain is not addressed, it will affect the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated person tremendously in other areas of their lives.

Absolutely, we look at treatment services, and make sure the individuals will receive education in these programming areas. We help that person try to get away from that abuse, and help him or her develop tools to empower the person to stop their substance abuse and behavior.

This dilemma this person associated with substance abuse has is not just triggered by his or her chemical imbalance. The dilemma – the addiction –is psychological. An example would be that one finds himself back, upon re-entry, in a community where there is a culture of drug sales. The individual sees the sellers with the nice cars, the nice lifestyle, the nice clothes, and the person prone to substance abuse, in his or her mind, might associate drug-selling as beneficial to that lifestyle – as beneficial to what he or she considers “success”. This is what the person sees and associates. When all the time it is a destructive psychological thing to possess. It is incredibly problematic, because that culture is destructive, manipulative, and often violent.

So, in this sense, the individual is latching onto negative thinking, the kind of negative thinking that is likely to take them back down? Even when he or she sees such glitz, such so-called prosperous action?

Exactly. Until that kind of thinking is engaged transformatively, then the person will always have that kind of negative association. His thinking has to fundamentally change, and he has to disassociate his actions and behavior totally from that experience. We’re dealing with a culture when we talk about drug use. That’s the key thing. There’s also a whole culture that deals with stealing drugs. The Psychology of Incarceration deals pointedly with the individual who is caught up in the lifestyle of selling drugs.

How does the next, 5th Criminogenic Needs Domain of “Community Functioning” fit in?

The first thing we have to know is that it looks at the incarcerated or formerly incarcerated person’s ability to function healthily in a community. Are they stable and do they have a residence? Is there a clear sense of nutrition, of eating?  How are their finances shaping up and how are they dealing with their finances? What they do in their spare time? Do they know of resources in their community that might help them get a job? Resources are absolutely needed. In P.O.I., we are exploring a person’s ability to maintain his residence and to be aware of the need to find resources that will help them in all facets of living. P.O.I. empowers them to take these steps. There is help in the community – there are true support mechanisms in place – and we don’t just show them where the help is, we engage them to take the individual steps to find it as well.

And the individual’s “Personal and Emotional Orientation” – as the 6th Criminogenic Needs Domain – has a big impact, too, on how the man or woman functions in a community upon his or her release?

Yes. It may have everything to do with re-entry, as a matter of fact. Here is how we handle this teaching in The Psychology of Incarceration. “Personal and Emotional Orientation” covers such a wide range of factors. It’s actually broken down into three categories: 1) the person’s thinking aspect – how are they solving problems? We look at the question, how does he or she handle crises? How about his or her interpersonal relationships? How is this person dealing with his feelings and emotions? Is the person’s thinking narrow and rigid? Or is the expansive – this would be a positive? We deal here with their thinking. Secondly, we deal with their behavior: Is this person associated with being impulsive, a risk-taker, aggressive, or angry – how do they handle frustration? Anger is a key aspect here.

What are a few examples of this behavior aspect?

For instance, we look at things that might occupy a person’s life in terms of addictive behavior, like gambling, shopping, other possible addictive issues. How erratic is the person? Is he or she acting out of aggression. Thirdly – in keeping with the three categories – the last one is Personal Characteristics. What is the person’s disposition or attitude? Is it sad and melancholy? What is his, say, sexual attitudes toward women? What makes up the individual’s own persona? Is he super macho? Is he homophobic? These characteristics can have consequences to future criminal behavior. We dissect them completely and help the individual get to the root of problems or issues that are determining such thinking and behavior – and then we address how to deal with them, again empowering the individual to take charge in all instances.

In terms of doing so – in terms of programming – we have to talk about the person’s mental health. That is, we discuss and come to terms with the cognitive and behavioral needs of this individual. You don’t want to suppress his or her thinking and emotions, because we never get a chance to see who he or she is. In The Psychology of Incarceration, we get to see these individual qualities open up. It’s amazing to witness them opening up, too. It comes to that. There is so much effective change in the person’s consciousness that can come as a result of engaging this process and receiving empowerment.

The last Criminogenic Needs Domain – “Attitude” – must be one you really enjoy witnessing, especially if it becomes positive, healthy, and pro-active in the short term?

Yes, and there is a strange tendency here. People think of attitude as person’s disposition. But in the Criminogenic Needs Domain, we focus on a person’s proximity to criminal behavior. Does the person have pro-social or anti-social behavior? What is his or her attitude toward the law? What do they think of the justice system? We closely help the person look at the values that inform his day to day choices.

So, this is another deep look at what a person values? The person’s approach toward what he or she values?

Yes! In P.O.I. programming, we’re looking for ways to help them develop and foster victim awareness sensibility and develop pro-social values. Now, understand that after doing this work for sometime now, where we go with programming for a certain individual has to do with our assessment. After the individuals share their stories with us, we can assess certain needs. They often totally vary from person to person. At the end of the day, we want to reduce recidivism and increase healthy community standards. This is the entire goal. So far, we are fortunate to have observed so many successes after we’ve helped identify and assess a person’s Criminogenic Needs Domain. It’s a very challenging process, but there is no way around it, if the individual desires to change the way he or she lives, works, and interacts with people – that is, the whole life-changing desire.

Jeff Hillard

Khalil Osiris