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Ohio State study links changes in prisoners’ language to odds of reincarceration

An inmate pages through a book in a government class. Credit: Courtesy of TNHS

An inmate pages through a book in a government class. Credit: Courtesy of TNS

More than 65 percent of released inmates return to prison within three years of release, according to the National Institute of Justice.

But researchers at Ohio State say some prisoners might have a reduced risk of reincarceration if their messages towards peers evolve during group treatment, according to a study recently published in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment.  

“Peer help is of value to the person who gives the help,” said Keith Warren, co-author of the study and associate professor at OSU’s College of Social Work. “This study says that the activity of offering verbal support to peers can change the way in which people think, and that this can influence outcomes.”

Therapeutic communities — group-based programs set up to help those with problems such as drug addiction — now have quantitative evidence to support the notion that “verbally helping others can change the way in which ideas are associated in your mind,” Warren said.

Nathan Doogan, co-author of the study and a postdoctoral researcher at OSU’s College of Public Health, examined 267,000 written notes gathered from 2,342 men in minimum-security Ohio facilities during their time in therapeutic communities.

The researchers categorized the messages, which participants read aloud during a group meeting, as either “push-ups” or “pull-ups.”

Push-ups are affirmations, such as telling someone he did something good. Pull-ups are corrections, such as telling someone he did something bad, Warren said. Pull-ups typically break rules in the therapeutic community.

Doogan and Warren analyzed how the prisoners’ push-up or pull-up messages to other inmates from month two or three compared to messages during month four or six of rehab.

Results showed that the more a person’s linguistic choices changed, the less likely he would go back to prison.

“We don’t really know the content of the change, we just know that it was cognitive,” Warren said. “And it involved a change in the connection of words, which presumably means a change in the connection between underlying ideas.”

In other words, it is not about what the prisoners wrote, but rather if what they wrote changed throughout the program.

Researchers noted this change when participants “gained,” or added terms to their language, and when participants “lost” previously used terms.

For example, if someone links the concept of his wife with the concept of love, speaking about one would likely lead to mentioning the other. Similarly, if a horrible event disconnected those concepts, there would be a change in that person’s language, Doogan explained.

The findings suggest that more of either “gains” or “losses” are associated with less inmates returning to prison following release from the program, Doogan said.

“People who changed the most connections between the words in the push-ups and pull-ups they sent had better outcomes,” Warren said.

When these prisoners express themselves differently, rehabilitation is most likely working.

“Learning is a change in connections between ideas,” Warren said in a news release about the study. “In a therapeutic community, you would hope that they are abandoning some old connections and developing some new ones.”

A change in language not only lowers the chance committing a crime again, but also signifies that there is a deeper change within the person.

“It seems to mean that a real open connection with the rest of the community that allows others to actually change something about you is important to successful rehabilitation and reintegration with society,” Doogan said.

While well-adapted people can tailor their ability to connect with others, a large portion of therapeutic communities which are made up of addicts do not have this malleability because drugs “can overpower the natural desire to connect with people,” Doogan said.

Future therapeutic communities can use this data to implement new and efficient ways to measure the progress of residents, and decrease the number of participants returning to prison, the researchers said.

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