UNK studies potential of Work Ethic Camp

Thursday, December 4, 2003

Corrections officials throughout the United States have been brought up-to-date on the Work Ethic Camp program in McCook. In a thorough and positive report, two members of the Criminal Justice Department at the University of Nebraska-Kearney have described in detail how the camp was established, what was accomplished in the first year, and what the camp's goals are for the future.

The article -- which covers seven full pages -- appeared as the lead story in the November 2003 issue of "Corrections Compendium," the national journal of the American Correctional Association. It was written by Beth Wiersma, Ph.D., and Kurt Siedschlaw, J.D., assistant professors in the Department of Criminal Justice and Social Work at UNK.

Their interest in the Work Ethic Camp was inspired when the Criminal Justice Department at UNK was chosen to study the Work Ethic Camp's effectiveness at changing the attitudes and behaviors of non-violent, first time, felony crime offenders. That study started in January.

In the first phase of the research, the professors are following up with offenders following their release from the Work Ethic Camp. They are also contacting supervising probation officers in the offenders' home communities, and checking with employers about how the offenders are doing in their work.

The objective of the study is to determine if the Work Ethic Camp can truly make a difference in criminal offenders' lives. Early indications are that the Work Ethic approach does have that potential. In Canada, where a similar philosophy has been in use since the 1980s, researchers report a 20 percent reduction in "recidivism," which is the term criminologists use to describe the return to prison rate of offenders.

How does the Work Ethic Camp in McCook stack up? Is it helping young offenders change their ways; getting away from a life of crime and becoming productive members of their communities?

In just a little over a year and a half -- from the camp's opening in April 2001 through October 2003 -- 517 offenders were admitted to the Work Ethic Camp, with 364 successfully completing the program. That number grew through November and the first few days of December, with 84 (out of a capacity of 100) currently incarcerated at the camp.

The key to success -- according to the Kearney study team -- is "cognitive intervention." What that means is this: In order to succeed, the Work Ethic Camp program must help offenders change the way they think and make decisions. It's not an easy task, as many of the offenders have long histories of drug use and antisocial behavior.

But we must try. Traditional prisons aren't working. We have to try new approaches, such as the Work Ethic Camp, and we applaud the UNK research team, Beth Wiersma and Kurt Siedschlaw -- for bringing that fact to the attention of America's corrections' profession.

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