RSVP program helps inmates with anger

June 10, 2008 12:52:51 PM PDT
An innovative program is helping inmates at the Westchester County Jail deal with their anger issues.Officials say 42 men with a history of violence are participating in the four-month Resolve to Stop Violence Project (RSVP) at the Valhala facility.

Inmates attend group sessions, where they discuss their feelings and how their actions affected others.

County executive Andrew Spano says the program is essential to ensuring former prisoners become productive members of society.

The following is the press release issued by Westchester County officials:

When you're six years old and your father beats you with a razor strap because you lost a fight with the neighborhood toughs, you quickly learn that violence is the way to be a man.

Unlearning that message - engrained through years of violence on the streets and in jail - is difficult to do, but it can be done. Today, Westchester County unveils an unconventional new anti-violence program in its jail system that has been tried only in San Francisco where it is getting miraculous results.

The Resolve to Stop the Violence Project (RSVP) is an intensive program that uses peer pressure and empathy to force violent men to confront what violence has done to their lives and the lives of their families and their victims. In San Francisco where it has been running for 10 years now, 87 percent of inmates who were in the program have not returned to violent crime, an unheard of statistic.

"Today you are going to see something really remarkable, something you don't normally see -- a program that expects inmates to do the hard work of reconstructing their lives," said County Executive Andy Spano. "We are hoping that the RSVP program will yield the same positive results here as in San Francisco because the bottom line is that I want to do everything I can to protect our residents and keep our communities safe. If these men unlearn their violent ways, they won't be hurting anyone else and they won't be returning to our jail. And that's what we want, for them, for our communities."

On May 19, Westchester County began the Resolve to Stop the Violence Program at the Westchester County Jail in Valhalla. Westchester has contracted with St. John's Riverside Hospital to develop and oversee the program.

Forty-four inmates - men with a history of violence - were assigned or volunteered to participate in an intensive four-month program that uses peer pressure and empathy to help these men understand their violent feelings and help them to change.

The men, a mix of pre-trial and sentenced prisoners, live together in one unit. A facilitator, usually an inmate who has been through the program or is in the final stages of the program, works with the men in small groups. Sessions are conducted throughout the day, everyday to help the men explore their violent episodes, their feelings about violence and how their violence affects others. The program is revolving so new inmates coming into the program learn from more experienced men who will soon leave the program.

There are essentially four steps. The first is self realization. Inmates who are veterans in the program confront newcomers about their violent behavior and help them to own up to it. They are then encouraged to recognize the destructive force of negative male role models they have been taught (men don't feel, men are tough, men inflict pain). The second phase is victim impact in which victims of violent crime describe in vivid detail how that crime has devastated their lives. A third phase involves artistic expression through drama written and performed by inmates. The final step is return to the community and continued support (inmates participate in a Post Release program). Expanding on the San Francisco program, Westchester has also added a substance abuse treatment component for those inmates who need it. It is working with St. John's Riverside and other community-based organizations on the post release aspect of the program.

Hamish Sinclair, founder of the ManAlive program who helped to create the program in San Francisco County Jail, was here for 8 weeks training staff from St. John's Riverside and helping to set up the program. He will return in a month for another 8 weeks to see how the program has progressed.

Spano said he hopes that the anti-violence message will carry over into the community not only through the men in the program, but through others they will influence. This will ultimately make the community safer by reducing crime and violence outside prison walls.

Corrections Commissioner Rocco Pozzi said that the RSVP program is in keeping with Westchester Correction Department's philosophy of giving inmates the tools to survive in the community so they will not have to return to jail. The county jail already has many educational and vocational programs as well as substance abuse programs to help inmates with this transition.