Branden Tucker is finishing up his second stint behind bars and says if the Choose to Change Reentry Program had been available during his first stay, there never would have been a second.
“It’s mind blowing. You think at 42 years old you got it,” he says, shaking his head. “[Choose to Change] teaches you stuff that you don’t know about yourself.”
Choose to Change is an eight-week cycle of classes for people in Maricopa County jails who are at moderate to high risk of reoffending. The program is voluntary and inmates don’t get the promise of an early release if they complete the curriculum. The goal is to teach participants a new way to think so they won’t come back to jail. They are also given resources that make it easier for them to be successful when they rejoin the community.
“I wasn’t a bad person. Just certain decisions [were bad],” Tucker explains.
Choose to Change is overseen by the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office—in partnership with the county’s Adult Probation Department—with classes administered by paid vendors. While general population inmates can take stand-alone classes, Choose for Change participants spend up to 26 hours per week immersed in programming that connects the dots in new and potentially life-changing ways. The program started a year ago and received a 2018 Achievement Award from the National Association of Counties for its early success in reducing recidivism.
“When you’re in class, it’s kind of like you’re not in jail anymore,” Tucker says, describing the camaraderie that develops between program participants who he says, normally “wouldn’t interact” given the realities of jail politics. With this program, he says, participants live in the same pod, eat together, do homework together, and root for each other to succeed.
“You mold like clay,” Tucker remarks more than once.
Healthy communication is an area of emphasis in the Choose to Change curriculum. As an example, Tucker mentions his relationship with the mother of his five-year-old child. Before, they would argue constantly. Now? “She wants me to propose to her!”
The program includes classes on anger management, parenting, transitioning from jail, and employment after release. There’s also “Thinking for a Change,” a scripted, widely-used national curriculum that uses role play to make participants aware of bad assumptions and faulty thinking. The class is required for all Maricopa County probationers but can be challenging to complete on the outside because of cost, transportation, and other post-jail responsibilities. Participants in Choose to Change are able to complete the requirement before their release and also receive 300 hours toward their community service requirement.
Tucker is confident this is his last jail stay. He plans to use the skills he learned in Choose to Change to help others.
“I’m going to be a facilitator.”