Offender satisfaction and program change: offenders speak, Administrators listen.

Author:Wiersma, Beth A.

Throughout history, inmates have complained about the conditions in prisons, ranging from lack of medical care to the quantity and quality of the food. Up until 1970 when the end of the hands-off era ended, nobody, including the courts, listened. In the 1970s, courts began to pay attention to inmate grievances, and prisons subsequently enacted grievance procedures. Minor inmate grievances are often handled internally, within the prison, while more significant complaints can escalate to the level of formal litigation.

It is possible inmates have legitimate concerns and grievances. But, is it possible that addressing inmate concerns could result in better outcomes with respect to inmate reentry and recidivism? While this study does not directly answer these questions, it does present the possibility that addressing legitimate concerns could impact offender outcomes.

The purpose of this article is to address the results of an offender satisfaction survey of the Work Ethic Camp (WEC) program and serve as the third and final article about the WEC in McCook, Neb. "Nebraska's Work Ethic Camp: The First Year" (Wiersma and Siedschlaw, 2003) was published in the November 2003 issue of Corrections Compendium. The article provided a descriptive view of the foundation and beginning operations of the WEC in addition to the proposed evaluation and assessment of this new program. A second article, "Costs and Outcomes of a Work Ethic Camp: How Do They Compare to a Traditional Prison Facility?" (Siedschlaw and Wiersma, 2005), examined the costs of the program and the outcomes of those who completed it compared with those offenders who had received a conventional prison sentence. The WEC is different from a traditional prison in many ways, one of which is that offenders are sent there as a condition of a sentence of intensive supervised probation. The WEC program lasts for 120 to 180 days.

This particular assessment of the WEC involves a survey administered to offenders upon their release. The survey was both quantitative and qualitative in design and was undertaken to determine what offenders viewed as the strengths and weaknesses of the WEC program. The results of the offender survey were then used to alter and improve a number of aspects of the program. Program evaluations that employ offender/client satisfaction are still rare and most often occur in conjunction with substance abuse programming. However, offender satisfaction research can provide valuable insight into program quality and effectiveness and should not be overlooked.

Literature Review

In recent decades, there has been a resurgence of interest in program evaluation and, more specifically, a growing emphasis on evidence-based practices. Traditionally, evidence of correctional program effectiveness has involved the measurement of recidivism without attention to additional measures of efficiency. However, additional program measures could prove vital to assessing the success of correctional programming (Wormith et al., 2007), particularly if the program goal is community reentry as opposed to rehabilitation.

One such assessment measure is the offender satisfaction survey. Offender satisfaction surveys not only provide agencies with insight into program effectiveness, but also serve to validate program integrity. As Stohr et al. (2002) assert, "researchers cannot effectively evaluate the operation of a treatment program, particularly a therapeutic community-based program, without actively and independently soliciting the input of the inmate participants." White (2006) agrees, arguing that it is impossible to ensure program integrity without measuring the quality of offender/staff contact, something readily accomplished through offender surveys.

Today, there are few research studies that take into account the offender's perception of treatment programming (Melnick, Hawke and Wekler, 2004).

This is an unfortunate oversight since research suggests there is a relationship between offender satisfaction and program quality (Marsden et al., 2000). Wormith and Oliver (2002) found that when offenders fail to engage with their program treatment, attrition increases and overall program success is jeopardized. Stohr et al. (2002) concurred, asserting that offenders must be involved in their own rehabilitation to be successful. Furthermore, program attrition may be associated with recidivism. In 2001, Dowden and Serin found that offenders who dropped out of anger-management programs were not only more likely to be reincarcerated than those who completed the program, but also more likely to re-offend than those who never participated in the programming at all.

Several studies conducted in the past decade have involved directly surveying offenders about their treatment program experiences. In 2002, Stohr et al. surveyed offenders regarding their perceptions of Residential Substance Abuse Treatment (RSAT) programming. There are several similarities between RSAT and the WEC, including a population of incarcerated offenders, a likelihood of substance abuse issues, and the cognitive and self-help treatment modality. The RSAT project was designed to assess inmate perception of the quality of services, as well as the impact those services had on participant experiences. Offenders rated the program positively, asserting that if the program were run according to its intent, staff were trained and the facilities were appropriate, satisfaction would remain high.

Melnick et al. (2004) studied offender satisfaction in a prison-based substance abuse treatment program. After evaluating self-report surveys from 1,059 inmate participants, the researchers concurred with Stohr et al. (2002) that when programming is well implemented, offender participation in treatment activities is greater, as is offender satisfaction with programming.


At the time offenders completed the WEC program, they were given a survey to complete. The survey was filled out voluntarily and offenders remained anonymous. The surveys were returned by mail directly to the research team at the University of Nebraska at Kearney Criminal Justice Department.

The survey was both quantitative and qualitative in nature. Participants were asked five questions related to programming at the WEC and were to rate them on a five-point Likert scale. A score of 1 indicated a particular program area was "not helpful at all," a 3 indicated it was "somewhat helpful" and a 5 indicated it was "very helpful." The five areas of programming addressed were: education, substance abuse education and treatment, job-skills training, cognitive restructuring, and aftercare.

The participants were also asked to respond to four open-ended questions in order to gain insight into their individual opinions on their experience at the WEC. These questions provided the qualitative aspects of the survey. The participants were asked the following four questions:

* What specifically did the WEC provide that benefited you?

* What do you view as the strengths of the WEC program?

* What do you view as the weaknesses of the WEC program?

* What more do you feel could be provided at the WEC?

This evaluation and assessment of the WEC included 272 offenders who entered the WEC during a one-year period. Of these 272 offenders, 222 successfully completed the program and were handed survey packets; 192 completed and returned the survey, resulting in a representative sample comprised of 86.5 percent of offenders successfully discharged from the camp. Offenders were given the survey as they departed the camp, and 30 offenders or approximately 13.5 percent failed to return their packets to the researcher. Those offenders who were discharged from the camp for medical reasons (n = 10) or due to program failure (n = 40) were not included in the project.

Completion rates for the study period are consistent with a typical 12-month period for the WEC. When examining admission and completion rates during a seven-year period (2002-2008), the average number of offenders successfully discharged each year from the WEC is 190, or 80.5 percent. The average number of offenders unsuccessfully discharged each year is approximately 35, or 14.8 percent (Nebraska DCS, 2009). The remaining 4.7 percent carry over from one year to the next because they have not yet been discharged. Offenders can be removed from the WEC program for medical reasons or program failure. Program failure includes not completing the program within the allotted time, the commission of a serious rule violation, repeated rule violations, refusing to participate in the program and absconding.

Quantitative Results

The sample was comprised of 192 surveys; however, some participants did not respond to every question or indicated the question was not applicable, resulting in a minimal amount of missing data. The percentages on the...

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