By Stephen Betts
WARREN — An eight-week pilot program aimed at reducing recidivism by domestic violence offenders upon their release from the Maine State Prison is being viewed with optimism.
The Maine Department of Corrections is now looking to expand the program to 48 weeks.
The batterers intervention program, held October through December, is the first time such a program has been offered in the Maine corrections system, according to Tessa Mosher, the director of victim services for the department.
Gov. Paul LePage and the corrections commissioner have made ending domestic violence a top priority, supporting and encouraging the program, according to the department. The state contracted with Rockland-based New Hope for Women, and the domestic violence prevention and education organization serves a four-county area from Bath to Belfast.
Mosher said if a prisoner participates and completes the program, that can be considered when they seek to have contact with their domestic partner while still in prison, if the partner is also seeking contact.
“Victim safety is the number one concern,” said Amber Wotton, the director of the Time for Change program, offered through New Hope.
The classes were 90-minutes once a week for eight weeks. Twelve prisoners began, and seven completed the full program.
The participants have a history of domestic violence. The most serious charge for a prisoner in the class was attempted murder and elevated aggravated assault against a partner, she said.
Wotton said she believes the program impacted the participants.
“I saw some real critical thinking. They challenged themselves. At first they had a real hesitation about the program, but after a few weeks, they really opened up to what the class was about, and they talked about real things and noticing ways of being abusive that they had not noticed before,” she said.
The prisoners realized that their violence was not just physical but emotional, economic, psychological and sexual, Wotton said.
“They might be in prison for punching someone or stabbing someone, so they hadn’t thought about other ways they were being violent,” Wotton said.
The Time for Change director said the program is about exploring, thinking and being honest about the batterer’s abuse. She also said a main goal is accountability — for them to be accountable about abusive behavior toward their partners.
Upon finishing the course, prisoners are given a letter of completion and one is sent to the Maine Department of Corrections. Wotton said the class was not a pass or fail situation. There is no way to grade it.
The program, like other education programs offered, can qualify for prisoners to receive time taken off their sentences through good-time credits.
Wotton said another goals of the program is to break patterns that people in prison have developed.
“Abuse is a learned behavior. The reason we offer these classes is because if it’s learned, it can be unlearned, and new behaviors can be learned,” Wotton said.
Often, the participants are from abusive homes, she said, but that does not take away their accountability.
The state was pleased with the pilot program and is considering creating a 48-week program within the prison, Mosher said. New Hope offers a 48-week program in the community. About 50 to 60 people take the program each year, she said.
“This is a wonderful opportunity for all parties. There is a great need for this program inside and outside,” Wotton said.
“The sooner they get exposed to the information and start critically thinking about their abusive patterns, the sooner they are going to shift those patterns and make healthy decisions about their intimate partnerships,” she said.