Every year, the Ash Institute — part of Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government — holds a competition to identify government initiatives that improve the lives of our citizens. I was asked by the Ash Institute to prepare a report on the Getting Ready program in Arizona; my report was one of the factors that the committee of judges considered in giving Getting Ready a 2008 Innovations in American Government award.
My report was based on a tour of four of the Arizona Department of Corrections prison complexes; during this visit, I talked with 70 staff members, representing all levels of the organization, and 55 inmates. I also talked with then-Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano, now secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and with members of several nonprofit groups, such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Girl Scouts Behind Bars and the ADC Labor Relations Council, which consists of civilian and uniformed corrections personnel. I also reviewed numerous documents, including:
- ADC policies on inmate discipline, mail, phone calls, visitation, property and recreation.
- Technical manuals on inmate classification and individual corrections plans.
- Policies on Getting Ready's earned incentive program and work activities.
- ADC's 2007 five-year strategic plan.
- Data published by the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics.
To determine objective performance measures, I compared data from 2003 (a year prior to the development of Getting Ready) to data from 2007. It is important to note that, from 2003 to 2007, ADC's prison population grew 27 percent.
Some metrics are reported as raw numbers and other metrics as rates or percentages.
Sexual assaults (confirmed):
- 2003: 20
- 2007: 7
- 2003: 6
- 2007: 8
Major rule violations:
- (down 12.5 percent)
- 2003: 522 (per 1,000)
- 2007: 457 (per 1,000)
Inmate-on-staff assaults: down 51 percent
Inmate-on-inmate assaults: down 37.5 percent
Inmate grievances: down 17 percent
Medical grievances: down 19.8 percent
Inmate lawsuits: down 41.5 percent
Positive random drug tests:
- 2003: 6.2 percent
- 2007: 3.3 percent
- 2003: 791
- 2007: 3,306
Staff members and inmates — including those who were initially skeptical when Dora Schriro first announced her approach to re-engineering ADC management strategies — described dramatic changes in the culture, safety and attitudes of both inmates and staff. Although a few correctional officers said that they preferred the system before Getting Ready, they were in the minority. Most of the staff told me that, pre-Getting Ready, ADC was typical of many correctional systems that have extremely rigid and harsh procedures that institutionalize an "us-versus-them" mentality, in which inmates must rigidly follow rules, many of which are infractions that would not rise to the level of a misdemeanor in state or federal criminal codes and that can be arbitrarily interpreted. This approach gave correctional officers the discretion to choose when they wanted to enforce rules and when they wanted to ignore them. Getting Ready redesigned the misconduct policy so that it is more like the Arizona criminal codes, just one element of the program's "Parallel Universe" concept that emphasizes similarities, rather than distinctions, between prison life and the free community.
Inmates described the pre-Getting Ready environment as one in which there was nothing to look forward to, little opportunity for self-improvement and no consideration for their needs or views. Getting Ready dramatically changed this paradigm. Inmates stated that there was more communication with staff, and some described a job fair at which 15 inmates who were being released found a job, a practice that never occurred before Getting Ready.
I spoke with inmates who worked at a telemarketing firm that was located within the prison compound, just one Getting Ready job opportunity for inmates who had earned their GED. Many of them told me that this work opportunity had "changed their life." Another inmate told me that, before Getting Ready, there was no way to solve problems; there was little or no staff guidance. "You just did your time," she said. Now, she continued, time is spent constructively and inmates have a greater sense of pride. One very articulate inmate told me that, before Getting Ready, she thought of herself as lying in a glass coffin, watching the world go by, decaying and wasting away; now, she said she feels that she has self-worth and she sees opportunity not only within the prison environment but when she returns to the free community.
The Getting Ready program was designed with specific, clearly stated goals:
- Improve the safety and security of staff and inmates.
- Increase public safety in the community by reducing recidivism.
- Enhance civility between and among staff and inmates.
- Promote greater inmate participation in productive work, schooling and treatment.
- Increase inmate concern for victims and acts of civic responsibility.
The objective and subjective ("softer") outcomes that I was able to measure clearly indicated that Getting Ready had dramatically improved the prison environment for inmates and staff alike. But the important policy question remained: Does Getting Ready improve community safety?
Recidivism can be measured many different ways. Most correctional agencies compute the percentage of prisoners released in a fiscal year who return to prison — for technical violation of community supervision or committing a new crime — within a particular period of time. The average one-year return rate for ADC in 2002 and 2003 was 30 percent; that is, during the two years before Getting Ready was implemented, 30 percent returned to prison within one year of their release. The average for the four following years was 27.25 percent, a difference of 2.75 percent.
Although this may seem like a small impact, the Getting Ready program was still rolling out when I performed my review for Harvard, and even if this figure represents the recidivism impact over a longer time period, it could be considered significant. Because implementing Getting Ready required little additional funding — and considering the fact that prison costs $30,000 or more per inmate per year — even small reductions in prisoner returns produce significant taxpayer savings.
Considered on a nationwide basis, such a program could have a large impact.
An Innovative Program
It was not possible for me to judge all aspects of Getting Ready during my two-day site visit and review of written data; for example, I did not visit segregation cells where the most aggressive and difficult-to-manage inmates are held. I visited only four of ADC's 10 complexes; however, these four managed inmates at all security levels, and I had no reason to suspect that there would be significant differences.
Make no mistake about it: ADC still operates prisons. There are fences, razor wire, correctional officers and guns on the perimeter. Inmates wear orange jump suits. Correctional officers wear brown and beige uniforms with gold star badges. ADC conducts counts four times a day to ensure that inmates are where they should be. But, in my assessment, Getting Ready is a successful program innovation. Its innovation lies in the integration of many individual components that are used in other modern progressive penal systems, such as offering classes in victim awareness, involving both line staff and inmates in strategic planning, conducting needs and risk assessments, instituting an earned incentive program, and keeping inmates productively occupied. Getting Ready is a model program that proves that changes can be made with little or no additional resources and that they can be made in a relatively short period of time.
About the Author
Gerald Gaes, Ph.D., received his doctorate in social psychology from the State University of New York at Albany in 1980. He worked for the Federal Bureau of Prisons for 20 years, including as the director of the Office of Research. He served as a visiting scientist at NIJ for five years; he also served a two-year detail at the United States Sentencing Commission. Gaes is first author of Measuring Prison Performance: Government Privatization and Accountability; he has published extensively in professional journals, including Crime and Delinquency, Criminal Justice Review, Criminology and Public Policy, Justice Quarterly, and Punishment & Society. In July 2000, Gaes received the U.S. Department of Justice Attorney General's Distinguished Service Award for the correctional research that he conducted during his BOP career.
About This Article
This article appeared in NIJ Journal Issue 263, June 2009, as a sidebar to the article Getting Ready: How Arizona Has Created a 'Parallel Universe' for Inmates by Dora Schriro.