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Four walls and a commitment

New program helps local inmates restart lives

By ZOË HAGGARD - zhaggard@t-g.com
Posted 8/2/22

On any given Monday or Tuesday night, there’s a dozen or so women sitting in a circle, drinking coffee, sharing testimonials and telling stories of addiction and regret.

Between tears and …

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Four walls and a commitment

New program helps local inmates restart lives

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On any given Monday or Tuesday night, there’s a dozen or so women sitting in a circle, drinking coffee, sharing testimonials and telling stories of addiction and regret.
Between tears and laughter, the group sounds and acts like many support groups throughout the country.
But, there’s a slight difference as this group of women are incarcerated at the Bedford County Correctional Facility.
But even though they wear striped uniforms and are confined to four windowless, gray walls, completion, success, and freedom are the themes that dominate the class.
They’re in a program called MRT, or Moral Reconation Therapy. Reconation may be a new word for many. It’s a term used by corrections officers, meaning something that causes a person to question their own thinking.
And that kind of self-reflection has been greatly received for its success in the program.
Many of the women in the group who have served time at other county facilities have done the program before. But they say there’s something different about Bedford County Corrections in how they conduct the class.
They take their time. They talk. They banter. They push. They write. They draw. They grow. And, ultimately, they change.
And that’s due in large part to people like programs director Lt. Chris Cook, who leads the class, and trauma therapy volunteer Desiree Mullis.
One woman in the program summed it up, “I’m thankful that you think we’re worthy to do this program.”
It’s a powerful statement, Cook will say, since most of the women who started the program “hated the book.”
That’s because the course is not easy. It takes commitment.
“A lot of them before had come to me saying they want to quit. A lot of them have said they hate this book . . . having to deal with this stuff. And I just reinforce that they’re going through a process and that change is hard and that you wanted to do this for a reason,” Cook said.
When the program began as a pilot last April, Cook went around to each “pod,” which holds around 25 inmates, and asked those interested in the program to sign up. He then interviewed and selected those who expressed a true interest. Today, the program has 12 members and several new attendees.
The course workbook, titled “How to Escape Your Own Prison,” is divided into 16 steps. After an inmate passes 12 steps, which takes about four months, she gets to graduate.
Sitting in the circle with the inmates, Cook opens up the class by asking, “Is there anything anyone needs to bring to class?” They can share anything—from good, positive moves to guilty behaviors.
Then they dive into the steps. Ten of the women have completed the first 12, while the rest are on various other steps.
Step 1 is a testimonial. “Most of them have spent their entire adult lives justifying their behavior...The world revolves around them. This step 1 testimonial is the first time they say, ‘I’ve hurt everybody that ever cared about me’...It’s the most emotional step in the program,” Cook explained.
A lot of these testimonials are the same story: single-parent homes, drug-addicted family members, trauma at a young age. Even though Cook said he is a big believer in personal responsibility, “Most of these people got into situations because of the situation they were born into.”
Mullis, who hosts a trauma class and owns the nonprofit called Full Moon Healing Therapy, called it generational trauma.
Step 3 is where classmates make a commitment to the program.
However, step 8, according to Cook, is probably the most important step.
It’s the point where they learn how to take these unbearable problems and break them down into little, manageable steps where they can hold themselves accountable for accomplishing a step in that goal, Cook explained.
“From the day we started, until the day those ladies started step 8, relapse was a big deal,” he said. “They talked about it all the time...but after step 8, no one has mentioned relapse to me.”
Things fall into place
Mullis added that step 4—where the women have to detail 168 hours (one week) of their life—helps add perspective on how time much they allot to their family and children versus addiction.
“A person can only take so much,” Cook said. “A normal functioning person can deal with stress and anxiety . . . . But for an addict, that’s different. You never know what that trigger’s going to be. So, when we talk about this step, it seems like a minor thing to us, but for them it’s a huge deal.”
Once completed, they know they can deal with problems.
Cook has been with the correctional facility for 8 years, having started as a shift sergeant. He majored in industrial and organizational psychology (which studies behavior in the workplace.)
He was familiar with MRT, having heard about it in college. So when the state offered training in the program to every county, jail administrator Ronald Prince signed Cook up. From the training, Cook knew this is what he wanted other programs to be based on.
“It forces people to come to terms with who they really are. Not what they’ve done, not their addiction,” he said.
But the only way to do that is to create a trusting, vulnerable environment.
Cook, as a male corrections officer, had to build his trust among the female inmates. “I knew going in . . . would take a certain amount of time for them to learn to trust me. But it didn’t. It organically started happening.”
“It’s very crucial for them to have a male that can show them trust and safety,” Mullis added.
She explained, “Vulnerability, when you’re talking about trauma, is just a no-no. Because when you’re vulnerable, then you’re taken advantage of and led into tragic situations. So, when they have Cook, teaching them and leading them through MRT, they have a safe space in order for them to show that vulnerability. You’re breaking them down and building them back up with confidence.”
Ultimately, the goal of the program is to reinforce certain behaviors for the time that it takes for it to become a habit. For example, honesty, following rules, and trustworthiness.
For a father who has two daughters, Cook says he takes pride in giving such an opportunity to the women.
“It’s like a father watching his kids, that’s how I feel when they finally get it.”
Cook said he knew there was going to be a lot of trauma and a lot they would not be willing to share.
“But Desiree brings a piece to this program that would not be nearly as successful without what she’s bringing...She’s making them deal with the problem.”
Any first responder in this line of work will say nothing surprises them after a certain time. For Mullis, she’s been there. A recovering addict and survivor of domestic abuse, Mullis can say she’s been in the trenches before. “I’ve lived that life. I don’t have a psychology degree; I have a life degree.”
She’s a good example to show the women and she hopes to spread that.
“One of the things that I stress to the girls all the time is...the best thing you can do for me is be a success story and stand next to me,” she said.
“And once they’re out, the hope is that they can continue that and learn that they don’t always have to have a hardened exterior,” Cook added.
And they’re taking steps for helping these women become success stories after their discharge. They’ve teamed up with Tyson, which has provided five of the women employment while they’re serving their time. They’ve also partnered with Gateway Recovery Church to provide work clothing.
A graduation ceremony was held on July 30 for the nine women who have completed the 12 steps. See Saturday’s T-G for pictures.

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