Nebraska prisons launching new, ‘holistic’ approach to prepare inmates for reentry into society

A $900,000 grant helps set up program focused on positive thinking and relationships, and use of fellow inmates as ‘peers’

By: - November 25, 2023 5:45 am

The Nebraska Department of Corrections is launching a new program to better prepare inmates for reentry into society using inmates to teach other inmates. Currently, the department employs about 200 inmates in peer support roles. (Courtesy of Nebraska Department of Corrections)

LINCOLN —  State prisons are launching a new, “holistic” approach in mentally preparing inmates for their return to society, using fellow inmates as guides.

A three-year initiative, started with an anonymous grant of nearly $900,000, seeks to better make ready inmates for reentry by focusing on things like healthy thinking, positive relationships and meaningful work.

The “5-Keys for Wellbeing Development” program replaces two existing classes, called “Thinking for a Change” and “Moral Reconation Therapy,” with an overall goal of preventing a return to criminal behavior and to prison.

“Our goal is to approach reentry from that holistic sense of looking at the whole person, and not focusing on just one area,” said Dawn Renee Smith, the deputy director of Nebraska Corrections.

‘Innovative’ approach

Rob Jeffreys, the state’s corrections director, called the 5-Keys program an “innovative” approach.

“Successful reentry preparation is about providing the right tools and getting the right person in the right program at the right time,” Jeffreys said.

Currently, about 28% of Nebraska prison inmates return to prison within three years, the state’s so-called “recidivism rate.”

That rate has hovered between 27% and 32% over the last eight years, and dropped from 31% three years ago.

But state leaders have often stated a goal of improving rehabilitation and reentry programs to further reduce the recidivism rate, with a larger objective of helping to reduce spending on and overcrowding of Nebraska prisons. They rank among the nation’s most crowded, housing about 1,700 more inmates than state prisons were designed to hold.

First state to try program

Nebraska will be the first state to try the 5-Keys program within its prison system. Officials have been working over the past year with faculty at Florida State University and a 2-year-old, Florida-based think tank called Well-Being and Equity Innovation Inc. The program will be launched full bore next year at seven state prisons.

The preliminary work has focused on training dozens of prison inmates as “peers,” who will present the four, four-week-long, two-hour-a-week classes to fellow inmates along with prison staffers. Those classes are: Unlocking Your Thinking, Ideas for Better Communication, Understanding and Reducing Angry Feelings and Building Social Networks.

Smith, who works with reentry programs, said the idea is to build on inmates’ strengths, giving them a healthier mindset when they step back into society — and more than 90% of the state’s 5,700 prison inmates will ultimately leave prison.

She said the Nebraska prison system has been using inmate peers as “co-facilitators” of rehabilitation programming for the past couple of years and has found success with the concept.

Fellow inmates have ‘built-in credibility’

“(Fellow inmates) really come in with built-in credibility — they have lived experience,” Smith said. 

The 5-Keys classes should be shorter and easier to manage than the previous reentry programs, she said, and will focus on five areas: healthy thinking patterns, positive relationships, positive social engagement, meaningful work trajectories and effective coping strategies.

A study by the University of Nebraska at Omaha Center for Justice Research, released in February, concluded that “only a small minority of programs” run by Nebraska corrections to turn inmates into law-abiding citizens were evidence-based.

State prison officials, in a press release, said that the 5-Keys programming is “evidence-based” and a “packaged approach” to preparing inmates for reentry.

“This model works because these are things that all of us need to be healthier,” Smith said.


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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska state government and the state for decades. Previously with the Omaha World-Herald, Lincoln Journal Star and Omaha Sun, he is a member of the Omaha Press Club's Hall of Fame. He grows hops, brews homemade beer, plays bass guitar and basically loves traveling and writing about the state. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation.