WALLA WALLA, Wash. -- Men sworn to kill each other are now trying to rehabilitate each other at the state penitentiary.
The Department of Corrections is taking a new approach to counseling offenders held in the Intensive Management Unit (IMU) in the Walla Walla prison.
Offenders who start riots or attack corrections officers are sent to what’s less-affectionately known as “the hole.”
They spend 23 hours in a cell by themselves. The offenders get out one hour a day to shower and spend time in an indoor exercise yard, which is about the size of a large walk-in closet.
“That life was horrible,” said Donald Button, who will be in custody until 2020 on bank robbery and assault charges.
Button is one of 15 IMU’s who volunteered to take part in a new pilot program called “Motivating Offender Change” (MOC).
For three hours a week the offenders receive anger management counseling and learn social skills like how to balance a check book.
What makes this approach different is who is in the counseling sessions with the offenders.
“Bloods, Crips, we have Aryans. Everybody’s in the same group,” said program coordinator Wayne Royse.
Donald Button was the leader of a white supremacist gang before he enrolled in the program.
That made him a marked man within his former gang.
“My main goal was to get him,” said Brandon Burnett, who was in the same gang before he quit to join the program.
Burnett said he had an order to kill Button if he saw him within the penitentiary.
“I would simply get a piece ready and I would stab him,” Burnett said. “And if I didn’t get him somebody would get me for not getting him.”
After going through the counseling sessions, Burnett now considers Button his “best friend” in the penitentiary.
The offenders say the MOC program is like no other counseling sessions they’ve been part of.
Instead of being lectured by a psychiatrist, or sitting in isolation, they’re able to talk about their problems with people they can relate to, regardless of their pasts.
“It gets us in the habits to actually use these skills instead of just having to read it and having it go in one ear and out the other,” said Salvador Garza, a former gang member who has spent four of his five years in prison living in “the hole.”
The program started last October so the DOC said it’s too soon to know if it’s making a difference, but Royce said he has noticed a difference.
“A huge reduction in infractions, we don’t have a lot of use of forces in the unit anymore,” said Royce, “The overall tone has really dialed down.”
The DOC sees the program as a budget-saver.
Graduates of the program may be able to transition back into the cheaper-to-run general population units.
The DOC hopes giving them life skills and anger management training that sinks in, could help keep them from re-offending.
“So they don’t just get turned loose in the community,” said Royse. “Some-90 percent will be released back into our communities. They’re going to be our neighbors.”