Ex-inmates apply open source to rehabilitation

Almost 70% of released inmates end up returning to prison. A new project uses gaming and cooperative development techniques to train ex-inmates for personal and family life.

Almost 70% of released inmates end up returning to prison. A new project uses gaming and cooperative development techniques to train ex-inmates for personal and family life.

Ric Moore and Dennis Gaddy met in prison, and started to discuss how Open Source software and methods could help other inmates to avoid further mistakes and get better chance to start over after their term. In this interview, Ric explains how they are doing it through the NuOAR program and why.

Ric, what is the organization you and Dennis work for?

Community Success Initiative (CSI), which Dennis founded in 2005, while under the umbrella of Good Work, Inc. in Durham. Dennis taught a "Principles of Leadership" program in the prison we were in and started CSI formally after his release. Dennis supports my development of the "New Offender Acknowledgment of Responsibility" program (NuOAR), while I do the IT stuff for CSI.

In which field do you work?

Across the U.S.A., we're releasing almost a half million inmates per year nationally for the next 10 years. I was lucky, I had family and supportive friends to help me when I got out. Many leave through the gate with a small gate check and nowhere to go. The result is highly predictable. President Bush signed on the "Second Chance Act" which finally acknowledges the plight and provides grant monies towards such efforts. It remains to be seen where the money goes and how it is spent. It also remains for us, the ex-cons and the communities, to keep an eye on it as well.

CSI helps inmates when they do get out, as many find no one at the exit gate to take them home, or help them find a place to live. We're just getting started, with a lot of assistance from several hundred community/county/state projects and offices. The CSI program already has about 1,400 individual members and participating organizations around the greater Raleigh/Durham area in North Carolina. We've had attendees from as far away as New York.

Why are North Carolina agencies assisting CSI?

Because North Carolina is leading the nation looking for new ways to reduce an issue that not one of our Presidential Candidates addresses: the percentage of inmates that re-offend and return to prison, that is almost 70% statistically. This is intolerable, both for the recidivist inmates and for their potential victims. It's the victims, not the state, that bears the hidden tax of being victimized.

CSI is a portal for inmates leaving the system and in need of being coordinated to the myriad of Agencies and Groups that exist to aid them. Dennis coordinates everything and has earned a working relationship with NCDOC. What I'm working on with NuOAR is to have the inmates heads on straight and ready for that moment, before they leave prison. We'll demonstrate NuOAR to them, when we have a final proof of concept to show. "No More Victims" is our motto, as well as our goal. So, I'm sure we'll get a shot at trying it out somewhere.

What exactly is NuOAR, and how do you intend to use it to solve this problem?

NuOAR is a computerized learning system that we are developing. It is inspired by the SOAR (Sex-Offender Acknowledgment of Responsibility) program conducted at Harnett Correctional, in Lillington, NC, whose success rate is around 97% over 10 years. SOAR is very dynamic, up close and very personal. "Anger Management", "Stress Techniques", "Family Roles", "Assertiveness Training", "Relating Dating & Mating", and other "modules" are presented in little bites at a time, switching modules from one to another until the overall scheme of integration of all the modules makes a cohesive whole. It takes some time and understanding to relate and personally accept what is being presented. Then, using peer-groups in real-world settings, to meet to discuss and relate to what is being presented through introspection and, like a 12 Step program, air to the group personal acknowledgments of responsibility.

How is the NuOAR learning system structured?

We hope to create a 3D, completely immersible, computer assisted learning system with simulations of various crime areas and settings, from ghettos to homes. Our concept is to have role-plays video-recorded that cover the 100+ "Elements of Criminal Thinking" and have them pop up either by situation, or proximity to a location, within the 3D environment. We're using Sun's Wonderland program as our base now.

Can you give us an example?

Say the "Element of Criminal Thinking" is "Isolation". The situation is being alone at home, and not going out because of depression or unreasonable fears. The "Home" 3D environment is called up. The pop-up videos demonstrate "Teamwork" working with and valuing others, or "Proper Assertiveness Techniques" or "Stress Reduction Techniques" or "Leadership Training". "Family Roles" would be indicated particularly or "Relating, Dating and Marriage Communication Skills". All of these can be picked by selection from a drop down menu, or by walking towards an area, or pre-selected by a councilor as a rehab course path of instruction, or just at random. During other sessions the inmate is tested for personal attributes and advancement of these skills.

Why is NuOAR computer-based?

Because of practical reasons: personally, I was lucky to get into a rehabilitation program which could only graduate 72 inmates a year: 5 eight hour days a week, with nights and a weekend full of homework, with four full time councilors. With this approach, instead we need only create things once and copy it 2.7 million times, which is about how many people are incarcerated in the U.S, just for starts! We'll get around to everyone on Probation/Parole later, (5-6 million) followed just a little later by everyone else (many millions!) that haven't been caught or are about to offend (at-risk), which could be anybody. Trust me on that one. They had a little sign at the door to the classroom that read "Your best thinking got you here." That hurt a lot. And it only took one error in judgment to get there.

This makes sense, but why a 3D game instead of something much simpler, like multiple-choice web questionnaires or online slideshows?

Many adult, as well as juvenile inmates, have problems with reading and writing and are unwilling to attend in a classical schoolroom setting, where there are too many painful memories of failure by it. Many people learn better through hearing or experience. So, NuOAR will deliver it's content in that fashion, to those that aren't getting reached. Most guys in prison are intelligent and articulate, they just don't do book learning well.

What's Open Source about all this?

First off, the software, of course! Using Linux, there is no cost to the taxpayer. The most important Open Source part of this, however, the one that truly counts, is the development method of the non-software parts of the system, the videos.

What do you mean?

We hope that actual offenders will become allowed to write many of the scripts based on the "Elements of Criminal Thinking" in an O. Henry style with twists of humor and pathos, and re-enact themselves while being video recorded. After all, we're the experts on what we did and why. So, in that fashion it will be truly "Open Source", with anyone and everyone tossing something into the pot to make a stew. We have 1,400 individuals and organizations that are doing the "Good Work", offering what skills and resources they may possess to CSI in the Raleigh/Durham area to join what the clients need. On a spiritual level, it's just like church. I'm just doing what I find some joy in, and Dennis is my best friend and mentor who leads this flock. Everyone pitches in. Dennis is the spark plug that enables me, as well as many others.

OK, so it's not just about reducing costs, right?

Exactly. Even more important than costs is the fact that without a buy-in from the inmates, everything is suspect, little is trusted and monies are wasted. They have their reasons, trust me again also on that point. So, using peers and allowing them to make their own presentations and guide what is presented in the 3D environment to the point of even programming it, that will be the key towards greater and greater investment and involvement by those behind the razor wire. That is where our success will come from. From them and all who care.

We think we know how, as we've been there, and have the feel for what will and will not work. It's just like when a piece of software gets better because all its own users help develop it. SOAR Inmates wrote most of the text in their text books. If the Academics could have done this, they would have done it 30 years ago. Besides, having inmates openly share everything they develop is part of their "therapy", that is of learning not to take, overtly or covertly, but to give of themselves freely. And, just maybe, by that act spare a potential victim, again who bears the true cost of recidivism.

What is the reason for insistence on Open-Source licensing?

So that no one political, commercial, spiritual, educational, or any other "group" can dictate the evolution of the program or see it as just another scheme to make sums of money. Everyone will have the opportunity to step forth freely with videos, graphics, musical and programming skills, with a willingness to assist another back to a better life. We've already been given many original music scores, programming help from some heavy coders, and even the rights to use commercial video bits from a popular movie!

Does NuOAR end with playing the 3D game?

No! Once it becomes demonstrated that the individual grasps certain concepts well, then they attend "Real World" group therapy sessions as informed and valuable assets to the groups. If we're successful, there will be a lot of jobs for all of those Sociology grads looking for a "Good Work" to perform! We want to discover and focus on the strengths of the individual, not dwell of the failures.

How does it work in practice?

Information collected by NuOAR is made available to the prison councilors. Their recommendations go to the DOC Programs Departments, in order to place the inmate into Real-World educational and remedial programs that will be of actual benefit, uniquely tailored to their individual needs. A person that scores high with "Spatial Relationships", for example, would become a good hands-on worker, like a mechanic or any other occupation that requires good eye-hand coordination. Another that performs well with the relations of numbers, would be directed towards learning spreadsheets, warehousing or bookkeeping.

All this gives back self-pride to each participants growth, a step which is necessary first to acknowledge what he or she did wrong, then to get to the "responsible" part as well. It'll be far more easier for an inmate to deliver an "Element of Criminal Thinking" via video to another, for the immediate acceptance angle, which is that of a "peer". It also reduces the fear factor as well.

Will you also teach how to use Linux and Free Software?

My other hope is indeed to introduce Linux as a course of study to inmates. Instead of mind numbing punishment by sheer boredom, they can acquire knowledge that can be shared and be of benefit to others. If you have something valid to do and learn, then prison becomes more of a retreat for readjustment, and a place of "higher learning". For some, with nightmarish abusive home and/or community backgrounds, it may very well be the first time that this has happened.

At which development stage are you now?

All we have at this point is the concept, the software to start our development on and study materials to draw on, the will, the investment of time and an absolute certainty that this is what we WILL do, in order to pay it forward.

We've been waiting a long time for Linux to make an entry into the 3D environment world, but most of the major players such as Second Life and Multi-verse offer either a server or a client for Linux, but not both as Open Source. So far the only viable combination of server AND client available for Linux is JavaNet's "Project Wonderland" which I've installed and shows much promise. As it runs on Java, it is highly portable. I am also in the first stages of learning applications like Blender from scratch, but I know I can do this. I have the time.

Of course, everybody is welcome to contribute! You can join the project or know the latest news through our home page.

Is anybody else doing something similar?

I've heard of a group in Tennessee that is bringing computers loaded with Linux and Planet CCRMA to prisons there, creating no-cost complete audio mixing systems to teach inmates how to compose and mix professionally. All Open Source, all completely free to the taxpayer. I hope I can find more about them so that we can share, do some team-building and brainstorm. I would also like to learn of any other group that is involved with using computers and Linux in our prison systems, or that would like to. I need all the help I can get. My dream is that NuOAR becomes large enough that we'll have people in every state involved in setting up and maintaining the servers as private contractors within each state. With all the prisons we have in the U.S., someone could make a good living doing this and stay very busy!

A final word and salute to LinuxWorld Readers?

Thank you for taking the time to help us express our mission and a BIG thanks to the Open Source Community, as well as my online friends, that have helped me play catch-up after a 5 year hiatus from using Linux. A bunch has changed during that time! We wouldn't be at this point without everyone's contributions. It's a "Gift Debt" that I cannot repay directly, so I, Dennis, and everyone in CSI's "Ex-Con Roundtable" pay it forward instead, with our many thanks.

Learn more about this topic


This story, "Ex-inmates apply open source to rehabilitation" was originally published by LinuxWorld-(US).

Join the Network World communities on Facebook and LinkedIn to comment on topics that are top of mind.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

SD-WAN buyers guide: Key questions to ask vendors (and yourself)