Soft skills are essential to social integration. These are skills such as communication, empathy, organization, and cognitive reasoning that enable people to interact more positively with each other. They’re non-academic skills that also help people become more accountable for their actions, and to pause and think before acting irrationally.
While much focus is put on prison inmates learning academic skills as part of their rehabilitation, many prison facilities are realizing that soft skills training is important for personal success on either side of the bars.
Hubbard County Jail in Minnesota is one of the facilities experiencing a paradigm shift thanks to soft skills training. Alcoholics Anonymous, Bible studies, the FATHER Project, Al-Anon, art classes, and FearBusters are just some of the programs and classes taught at Hubbard County Jail, and programs coordinator Christina Day, who added more soft skills classes to the existing curriculum when she assumed her role in 2013, couldn’t be happier with the results.
Authorities realized the urgent need for soft skills programming several years ago when the facility housed a group of women on behalf of the Department of Corrections for 11 months. Day posed the question “why are you here?” to the women, and learned that most of them started their lives of crime under their parents’ instruction – getting high, drunk, selling drugs, and learning how to hustle.
“So the very people that are supposed to be teaching them right from wrong and helping them choose the right way are the ones showing the wrong one,” Day said. “They don’t know a different way. So now this is our way of showing them a different way.”
In addition to being taught the wrong steps in life, many of the inmates at Hubbard have experienced abuse, violence, and neglect. The soft skills programming at the jail goes beyond teaching life skills. The staff and volunteers also strive to treat inmates with kindness and respect to demonstrate that they are worthy of being treated well.
The programming at Hubbard is, as Day describes, “positive, forward-thinking and motivating.” The inmates that engage in the programs tend to behave better, because if they lose their privileges they have to miss class. In addition to changing individual lives for the better and reducing the chances of reoffending, the entire jail has benefited from the programming, with fewer lockdowns, fights and behavioral outbursts.
It’s not just the inmates that are changed by the programs either. Day reports feeling “very passionate about her job,” and, along with her team, encourages an atmosphere empowerment and positively.
A focus on soft skills is vital in a prison system rife with abuses of power and over representation of marginalized groups. As was learned in the ill-fated Prison Stanford Experiment, abuses of privilege and power, dehumanization of inmates, and encouraging an atmosphere of militancy and control by fear is a recipe for disaster. Inmates in those conditions are more likely to lash out or band together to defy authority than they are to humbly reform. Initiatives such as the life skills training in Hubbard County Jail that result in bringing out everyone’s better nature are far more effective for rehabilitation in the short and long term — be it behind bars, or out in the free world.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to The Huffington Post, New York Daily News, and Prison Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and Prisonerresource.com.