Participant Observation of a Therapeutic Community Model for Offenders in Drug Treatment

By Mello, Catia Olivier; Pechansky, Flavio et al. | Journal of Drug Issues, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

Participant Observation of a Therapeutic Community Model for Offenders in Drug Treatment


Mello, Catia Olivier, Pechansky, Flavio, Inciardi, James A, Surratt, Hilary L, Journal of Drug Issues


This paper reports the participant observation of a Brazilian psychologist and a Brazilian psychiatrist during a 1-month period in two therapeutic communities (TCs) for drug-using offenders. A description of the activities undertaken by the prisoners who are serving their sentences at the Multi-Purpose Criminal Justice Facility in Wilmington, Del., is complemented with a theoretical understanding of the process. Clinical and developmental psychological approaches are used to explain the functioning of TCs when applied to a correctional environment. The theory of scripts and the use of metacommunication as a therapeutic tool are used in the explanation of these therapeutic procedures.

Description of the Observation Routine

The Brazilian authors of this paper followed a routine of participant observation for 2 weeks at the KEY program and I week at the CREST program, both therapeutic communities (TCs) for incarcerated offenders. During this period they were able to observe and participate in all program activities. Notes were taken daily, and staff members and residents of each program were formally interviewed. The residents' impressions about their treatment program were of great importance to this evaluation. It is important to note that the participant observers were trained in southern Brazil and it is clear that some opinions described here disclose their own biases and prejudices relating to specific characteristics of treatment programs, and also reflect the contrast between the culture to which they belong and American culture. The impressions of the participant observers were then systematically discussed with the other two co-authors of this paper in a series of meetings and seminars between their respective research groups and teams.

Part One, the Key Program: A Total Environment

The KEY TC is based at the Multi-Purpose Criminal Justice Facility, referred to as "Gander Hill Prison" in the city of Wilmington, Del. An individual who decides to participate in this intensive drug treatment program must go through a selection process that begins with the submission of a written request to the staff. If this request is accepted, the new resident will be relocated to the area belonging to the KEY program, which is separated from the rest of the prison and the general population inmates as well. The KEY program is developed in a total environment, and the members of the TC (residents and staff) are organized in a family-like structure. Everyone has his own tasks, rights, and duties as in any other family. The residents call each other brother and the whole group is referred to as the family. At the time we were there, the family consisted of 111 members.

Our first impression of the KEY was that of a safe therapeutic environment, oriented for males not only because it was set in a male prison, but because it seemed to have been designed and implemented by males as well. Communication between the residents was typically structured. There was no place for parallel conversation or chatting when activities were being carried out by the group. The exchange of ideas with a colleague about most topics was only allowed during specific periods of the day. If a resident wanted to talk to the family, he would do it by calling the attention of the community, standing upright and saying, "Attention, family!" After that, all activity would cease and full attention would be given to the resident. As soon as he had finished his talk, he would also voice loud and clear, "Thank you, family!" and everyone would return to their previous tasks, or they would follow the order that had been given by their family member. Similarly, for visitors to the KEY, or even for a staff member, announcements would be done by the resident in charge of reception in the same manner.

Another frequent method of communication involved two residents calling a third resident to attention. This is known as "being called to the floor," with the intention of "being called to reality. …

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