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"Getting Ready Program": Remaking Prison Life to Prepare Inmates for Reentry

Nancy Ritter, National Institute of Justice; Dora Schriro, Arizona Department of Corrections

Interview with Dora Schriro, Arizona Department of Corrections 

Part 1 of 4: The Getting Ready Program — An Overview

Nancy Ritter: Let's just start from an overview of Getting Ready, and then we can drill down more to the components of the program, and particularly I think the thing that intrigued me and the reason I wanted to do this was the Parallel Universe from your delivery at the NIJ conference.

Dora Schriro: I think to talk about Getting Ready is, is to talk about a system-wide reform.

I've been fortunate to have been in the field of corrections for a very long time, and, and there are some things that never seem to change. The good inmate — quote/unquote, good — was all too often a really lousy ex-offender. Because the good inmate is that man or woman who sat on their bunk, kept their nose down, stayed out of trouble, took any order that was given to him or her by anybody at any time for any reason, just low profile, did their time.

And then with that set of skills, when you go back to the street and all you know how to do is sit on your bunk all day and take orders from anybody, it becomes pretty clear that you are exceptionally ill-equipped to be either civil or productive because the minute you meet up with anybody that you knew from the streets before or met out on the streets now, as quick as they said, "hey, let's go somewhere and go do this" or "let's go get high" or "let's go knock over the package store," whatever it is they're saying, well, you just take their direction the way you took direction inside.

It is a system that takes adult men and women, clearly imperfect in their decision-making, but takes away from them any opportunity to make decisions. And so they continue to avoid any responsibility, any accountability for their prior bad acts or their current conduct.

Our reform is bottoms-up and system-wide. It succeeds because what we do in our bottom-up, system-wide reform is to identify the many responsibilities that should be and are today shifted from staff to inmates.

As an example, officers and others don't wake up the population. They don't tell them when to get up, and they don't tell them when to go to sleep.

And so in our environment, we don't just preach about what you ought to be doing when you get back to the real world. We bring the real world, a Parallel Universe, into prison so that the population apply those skills throughout their incarceration, not just the couple hours a day that they're in one or another program service, but every minute of every day.

Ritter: And how do you indoctrinate them?

Schriro: Well, it's at the point now where the inmates are our best emissaries. We don't rely solely on inmates, but the inmates are so excited about the opportunity to excel that they, both formally and informally, provide an overview.

In our intake process, which is one of the four facets of the Five-by-Five, there are formal orientations, and those conversations continue through the development of the individualized corrections plans.

So, let me explain a little bit about how it works. The whole of our initiative is called Getting Ready because it focuses on the 97 percent of any state's correctional system that is sentenced to a term of years and then goes home at some point in time. But it is equally applicable to those who are there for life, either serving life or sentenced to death.

But the population — from the moment they walk in, there's an assessment. It's a series of objective evaluations to ascertain what their risk is at this point in time, as well as what their needs are. And that process is repeated at least annually throughout the incarceration. All of the information that is distilled from those normed evaluations is then translated into an individualized corrections plan.

Getting Ready is fundamentally a very practical and very pragmatic endeavor because we struggle with scarce resources, as does every other system I've ever encountered.

We identify not only what an inmate needs to address, these criminogenic factors, before they're released to the street, but we are clear through our assessments what's the correct dosage, that is, what's the frequency and the intensity of the service that needs to be delivered. And then given the scarce resources and the prioritization of which skills are necessary to acquire before you can move on to the next set of skills, then these opportunities are staged through the incarceration. So we don't necessarily commit that everyone is going to get everything they need within the first couple weeks or year that they're incarcerated, but that they will be afforded these opportunities well before they're released back to the street.

So in my mind it's kind of like everyone goes to the same supermarket and everyone gets a cart, but as you go down the aisles, you take those things off the shelf that meet the needs of your family. Well, so it is. We have these shelves that are stocked with evidence-based endeavors, but you can't just open up any package and sample it as you go. We will make sure that there is adequate stock for you to be able to take those things that are indicated as being necessary for your growth and development.

One of the things that I think is refreshing and in addition to Getting Ready, is we focus, of course, on what needs to get done during the workday, you know, the school, the job training, the treatment, as well as traditional work opportunities, whether they're in prison or out on the street. But we spend as much time and attention on leisure hours.

What all of the recidivism studies tell us is even if you get a job or acquire some other skills, there's still all this free time in your life. And so learning how to make good decisions and use your leisure time wisely is every bit as important to your long-term success as what you do during the workday.

And so, inmates are also very actively involved in structuring the leisure time. And so, if you're waiting to get into drug treatment or you've completed drug treatment but you still have these addiction issues, what you do in leisure time, not as part of the workday but as leisure time, is you sign up for an AA program or you participate in the gym where you improve wellness, which helps to fortify your notions about staying sober and, and being straight. So there's substantive conversation about how you put together the whole of your day, not just traditional treatment programs. And it's also why we say that this is a 24/7 operation because it's what you do and how you do it every minute of every day.

The Getting Ready Program: Working With Inmates, Staff and the Community

Dora Schriro: Both staff and population are empowered to do new things and in new ways. Officers and other employees are not only disciplinarians. Inmates have an opportunity to be recognized for doing the right things for the right reasons and to improve the conditions of their confinement. So whether you're minimum security or maximum security, whether you're male or you're female, wherever you are in the system, you are empowered to be in charge of your life, commensurate with your custody, of course, and that everyone has the opportunity through sustained good behavior and sustained program involvement, both during leisure time as well as the workday, to move through the phases.

So in traditional systems, you only go one way, and that's down. It is as good as you're going to get when you walk in the front door. Here are your three uniforms. Here are your pair of sneakers and your shower shoes, and here's your two towels and your one pillowcase. Make the most of it 'cause it's not going to get any better.

Well, in our system there's that initial issue, but then there are these additional opportunities that you can earn.

And the other thing that's very neat about this, first of all, the family, as worn out and weary as they might be about the inmates — they do want them to succeed by and large. And so they have a mechanism as well to continue to motivate or encourage their loved one who's inside. And some of these earned incentives, again, are not unique to corrections, but that they are bundled in a low-cost, no-cost way that are meaningful for families.

So we went to the population. We went to them through a series of inmate forums, which again is a part of this sea change difference in how we communicate with one another. But we turned to the population and we said, "If you could, what things do you miss the most? What things would you want to have back in your life?"

Nancy Ritter: So did you do this, Dora, when you originally started designing this program, or — ?

Schriro: We had done that almost from the beginning. So from the beginning, it's really been about accountability and responsibility, what it is that a correctional system is responsible for. What is our accountability to our authorizing environment, to the taxpayers who fund us? And for the population who are doing time, how are they doing that time and for whom are they doing the time? And they darn well better be doing it to fix what was broken, to make amends and to get ready to go back to the street and conduct themselves substantially better than they had before.

Our view is that crime victims are a very special segment of the public. They are the segment of the Arizona community or any state's community that have been most directly and clearly negatively impacted by the conduct of the prisoner population. They're a key constituency, and we have always collaborated with them.

And the thing that I find most touching, one of the things that I take away, the many lessons that they have shared with me, is as confused as they are about why their family was picked for this crime — why me, why my daughter or why my husband — that they are all singularly selfless in the desire that nobody else experience the heartbreak that they have been through. And so the victims community, by and large, is very, very supportive of our endeavors.

We create an environment with a high set of expectations for ourselves as corrections professionals and for the population as imperfect folks getting ready to go back to the street. But you're not mandated, per se, to do anything.

Ritter: Just like life.

Schriro: Just like life. You can opt out, but man, there's a price to be paid when you do.

The Parallel Universe informs everything we do, because it's not just evidence-based programming during the day. But it's what you do in your leisure time, and it's how you go about it, and it's what happens when you do it. In most systems, they rely, if not exclusively, then predominantly, on the time to motivate the population to not do bad things, which is very different from aggressively seeking out and doing good things.

Ritter: Good things, right.

Schriro: One of the things that I think is so useful, so powerful about Getting Ready and the way in which Parallel Universe fuels it is that there isn't anything that we expect of the population that their mom or dad hasn't asked of them or their spouse or their children. We are merely saying to them, "You're a grown-up. Grow up."

Ritter: You're mirroring what society and their family members hopefully have said.

Schriro: Exactly. I've learned so much by looking at community corrections, parole in particular, and all the reasons why there are so many technical revocations. If we're always telling people where to go and when to go there in prison, 'cause that's all that a conventional system does, and then you go out to the street and all of a sudden you expect them to show up on this date, this time to their parole officer — now, I'm not making excuses for them, but why did anybody think that they were going to do that when they haven't been doing it for the last one, two, five, 20, whatever it is, years?

So imposing on them real-world expectations throughout their incarceration, they may not like it, but I've never heard any of them say it's not fair. Its fundamental legitimacy is, I think, what has enabled us to have it accepted on such a widespread basis. We're not asking anything of them that we don't do ourselves or others haven't expected of them in the past.

Ritter: So when you say, Dora, that they may not like it, so, have you seen in the — what has it been, four years that you've been — ?

Schriro: It's, it's five now.

Ritter: Five. Is the resistance less as time goes on? Are you — ? You're obviously getting smarter.

Schriro: There is substantially less resistance. I would say minimal. And that would apply both to the population and to the staff. It's because they told us that these are the things that they wanted, and we had this conversation with them.

So one thing that they wanted is not at all unique to corrections, and those are family food visits, except most correctional systems have tended to move away from them, concerned about the opportunity to introduce contraband, that they're extra staff-intensive. But you had to work so hard to get that particular event, and it was so meaningful to the family that the family became our best policing authority. And so we've had a number of food visits at a number of facilities. Again, not all custody levels get the food visit, for example. And we've not had an untoward incident.

Now, the population also had something which was a little bit more unusual, but not extraordinary. By asking what do you miss most from the street, at one forum they said, "We'd like to have dinner and a movie." Well, what does that mean exactly? Well, it could be just the regular chow line, but if we could just eat it in a less regimented setting and be able to then stay there and watch a show.

So the, the things that they were asking for were not very difficult to do. And they were very normal. And for me, I thought it was a great indication about that they wanted to not get comfortable being in prison, but they want to try to normalize their lives.

Part 3: The Getting Ready Program: Creating a "Parallel Universe"

Dora Schriro: If you're a probationer or a parolee and you commit a new crime out on the street, what do they call it? They call it by its real name. It's this particular felony or that particular felony. In a prison system, all too often we've got "rule violations" and we've got "major violations" and "minor violations." But all for some reason that I don't understand, we don't call felonies "felonies." Well, isn't that silly if prison is supposed to be preparation for being back out on the street? So we revamped our disciplinary policy to look less like a rulebook and more like the criminal code and to respond to it in that way.

The best thing about Parallel Universe is it's fundamentally one question. So the question is, whatever the problem is, how would we tackle this problem if we were in the real world?

I'll give you another example about how asking that one great question gets you really good answers. The inmate health care is of great concern. Our state, like many others, has a provision for charging inmates a co-pay. We've got runaway health care costs. How do we control them? So the Parallel Universe question, well, how do we do this in the real world? I'll give you another example about how asking that one great question gets you really good answers. The inmate health care is of great concern. Our state, like many others, has a provision for charging inmates a co-pay. We've got runaway health care costs. How do we control them? So the Parallel Universe question, well, how do we do this in the real world?

So part of what we did is we looked at the co-pay, and what we ultimately did — and this was in consultation with both staff and the population — is we said, much like the way many health care plans are in the community, if I am adhering to healthy habits — that is, I am not a smoker and I'm working out and if I'm under a doctor's care, that I'm compliant with whatever the medical directions are — then I'm going to have a lower co-pay because I'm doing everything I can for myself. If I am a smoker or otherwise not following healthy habits, I'm at higher risk, well, how is it done in the real world? You have a higher co-pay or you have a higher insurance premium. So you got a higher co-pay there. We created an incentive system like the real world where healthy habits derive personal benefit, but they also derive fiscal benefit for both the prisoner and the system. And we have much better processes as a result.

One of the other anomalies about how traditional prisons are not like your world and mine, there are some jobs in prison that are really menial in terms of the level of skills and the kind of work. But it's important to the system, and so they tend to pay higher wages for those jobs. And so what we did is we went to the Department of Labor where they have what's called the Dictionary of Occupational Titles, where certain jobs fall into categories and certain classes of work have different levels of skill and command different salaries. So again, within the existing appropriation for inmate pay, just reallocated the value of work so that it would reflect what they could expect to receive proportionately when they went out to the street.

Some of the other things that we did, again very much like the real world, we've never mandated any inmate to go to school or get a GED. But what we did was we said, well, how do you allocate job training and how do you decide who gets jobs in prison? Well, in conventional systems, you know whoever the officer or other employee is who controls that work crew, it has nothing to do with what your institutional conduct is like or if you ever got a GED or any other darn thing.

So we've got these very basic rules again. No, you don't have to get a GED, but until you get a GED — and that's assuming you're academically able, which is virtually everyone in the population — you can only be employed in entry-level jobs and you can only earn entry-level wages. But when you earn a GED, and only then, this whole larger group of other employment opportunities open up to you. And only after you earn the GED can you go into job training.

In many ways, I think it creates cost savings. When an individual in prison or out on the street, when you get a high school diploma, it's one of those transforming moments in your life. This is a credential that is valued by everybody. Today it's three-quarters of the inmate population now have a GED certificate. It not only creates a sense of self-esteem, which makes it a much easier population to interact with and to manage day to day, but it enables them to be more insight-oriented, less action-oriented. And it contributes — and, you know, again, the research literature — it really contributes to reductions in violence in the prison, which is that early conversation about how this, as I believe to be the best reentry initiative out there, is also the best day-to-day prison management strategy.

That we have had such appreciable reductions in institutional violence is the accumulation of the Seven-by-Three-by-Three, that what we do and what we expect is not just being good in the classroom, but being good every minute of every day, that we focus on skill building in the workday and leisure time, and that we recognize your efforts for the three-tiered series of incentives.

So everything builds on itself. Staff are safer as a result of these sustained improvements over time. It's also quite clear that prisoners are so much better at problem solving. What we have seen is that there's a substantial reduction in inmate grievances because they're so much better to express themselves and we can do more things in terms of informal problem solving.

There has been an appreciable reduction in prisoner litigation about conditions of confinement. So at a time when our system, like all others, is overcrowded, but you have this now uptick in the federal courts getting more involved with a number of systems, and here we are, down 75 percent. So that's an appreciable savings as well.

Part 4 of 4: The Getting Ready Program: Real Stories, Real Impact

Dora Schriro: We've been partnering with an Arizona-based business for some years, and the lion's share of their workforce are inmates in the department. This organization had been pretty quiet about who most of their workforce was, and at some point with quite a bit of courage, they decided that they were going to — I teased them, I called it "coming out of the closet." And they did that, in part, by seeking a business innovation award, which they won handily and deservedly.

And I said to the CEO — he was saying that "I wish the women could have been there." And I said, "Well, what about if you bring the award out to the prison?" We assembled some 300 inmates from various housing units, brought them to this common yard. The sound coming from the yard that day, that there was this light conversation, that there was laughter, even surprised me. The women who were employed there — many of them came up to talk with me, to talk with the other staff. They were very generous with their praise of all of the officers who had helped them when they needed to do an out count or some other thing to make it all work. They were very generous and very specific and insightful about the ways that officers had helped to make this happen. And that was phenomenal.

For the inmate workers, the stories were how they had a new sense of themselves as a result of the accumulation of everything that they had accomplished, that they knew that they didn't get to that work assignment by accident, that they had to be violation-free, that they had to have had their GED, that they had to have done everything else in their plan. It was more than staying out of trouble that got them to this place. And that now, because they had done all those things and they were in a premium pay job, that when their adult child was having some difficulty out on the street, even in their limited circumstances, they could help them financially. That they could get closer to being a whole person. That they could be a parent even behind bars. That they could be a contributing member of the community by making donations to the various charities.

Again, this is not about being familiar. This is about being professional. I think staff were really surprised to learn how much the population valued their opinion and how empowering it is for staff when inmates come up to you and they've picked you out in particular because they know that you're a tough case and they want you to know that they got their GED or that they got to phase three.

I'm going to tell you a story real fast. There's a corrections officer out at Lewis Prison, men's prison. She was old-school. She was by the book. She always had her radio turned on because she never knew when she was going to have to call for help. She was ever-vigilant, always on alert. Over time, she couldn't help but observe that she'd be supervising at a GED graduation and here were black and white inmates congratulating each other, shaking each other's hand. Groups that never interacted were together.

But there was one inmate who was holding out and hadn't gone for his GED, and she watched peer pressure of the positive kind working its way where an inmate was going to go do the right thing because his peers told him to do it. She was walking down the yard one day, and she says she'll never forget where she was because he came up to her, sought her out of all things and told her that he had gotten to phase three. And her first reaction was to say, "No, you're not. You've been a screw-up your whole life." And he said, "No, no, no. I'm telling you the truth. I made phase three." The, the whole of it just hit her. He didn't want just an easy "Atta boy" — he wanted her to know that he had come this distance. Well, she's just crossed over.

Nancy Ritter: Do you think that made it, makes her a better professional also?

Schriro: She's a far more satisfied individual. That the work is satisfying. It's rewarding beyond the salary.

And, this is another way to take the temperature of the organizational climate. Inmate art is ordinarily pretty unique and it's pretty violent. Now, again, we've created an environment where we've invited them, again at no cost, to help us with decorating, particularly if you start with visiting rooms, places where the public comes. And they, with no prompting, have all sorts of pictures.

So at Perryville, for example, they have the main administration building as the head of the fleet, and then each of the housing units is its own named boat. And on board each of these boats are staff and inmates. They saw themselves as a part of this team and painted pictures in that way. They have painted pictures about every facet of Getting Ready.

Here's another very cool story. They were at one of the housing units just getting to do their murals. A number of remarkable things. First, that the head of the paint crew, this older inmate, picked his team based on their ability to paint and their ability to work well with each other. And it was totally diverse. It was Noah's ark. There was one and two of everybody, age and race and ethnicity. And this is not the way that things are done in conventional systems. And they had laid out what they wanted to do as a design, and they were about it. What they were trying to do was to depict the metamorphosis of an inmate coming into prison and then going through Getting Ready and then walking out, this grown-up with a suit and an attaché and a family waiting for him.

So the deputy warden said, you know, "What do you think about putting some boulders, you know, big rocks in the middle of this road, you know, all these challenges that you face? And we'll call this one relapse and we'll call this one revocation." A couple of days later, the deputy warden came back and no boulders. He said, "But I'm curious. Why didn't you do that?" And they said, "This is where our families come, and this is such a positive experience for us. There are struggles, of course, but we don't want any negativity in this room."

Date Created: August 14, 2019