(EDWARDSVILLE, Ill.) Armed with tools that can help manage anger and frustration, juvenile offenders who spend time in the Madison County Detention Center in Edwardsville are finding ways to squelch bad habits and learning to live productive lives. And, it’s in large part thanks to Southern Illinois University Edwardsville students and their mentor Jeremy Jewell, an associate professor of psychology in the SIUE School of Education.
Expanding on a master’s thesis from two of his students about five years ago that studied the use of relaxation techniques among college students, Jewell decided to build a program targeting juvenile offenders within the detention center system. “I thought this was a great idea so we began to use it and in the last four years it has evolved into using undergraduates in my research class to help these kids in the detention center,’ Jewell said. “We have about six to eight students involved and we go out Monday through Friday from 3-4 p.m. and teach these skills at the Madison County detention facility.”
Jewell said he created a program of what we might call anger management techniques for those in a detention center. “We call it the Relaxation Skills Violence Prevention Program, or RSVP for short,” Jewell explained. “We see a new group of kids each week, teaching them some coping skills for when they get upset with their friends or their parents. They can use these skills while in the detention center or for when they leave. We teach them to do more than act out—screaming, cursing, running away or punching someone—when they get angry.”
Although using anger management and relaxation skills to help cope is not new, what makes Jewell’s program unique is that it’s built around five days of sessions because of the short amount of time that a juvenile offender is kept at the center. “There are three specific techniques,” he said: deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation and also guided imagery. The kids can use these when they get angry at a teacher, in the home, or elsewhere. The idea is to have them practice these techniques, then review the techniques and then we encourage them to use their new skills when they get on the outside and for the rest of their lives.”
Jewell said the age range of those in the detention center generally is 10-17. “Most of them are having trouble in the home, or at school; some are in alternative schools, some are chronically truant, some are trying to get their GED,” Jewell pointed out. “And, some of these kids are accused of a range of offenses from shoplifting to domestic battery to murder.”
According to Jewell’s research, there is no other program published—either in the mass market or in the academic world—written specifically about using these skills with juvenile offenders in juvenile detention. “This is a unique population which almost always circulates every 30 days,” Jewell said. “There are long-term programs about dealing with juvenile offenders but nothing specifically aimed at the juvenile detention center setting. This is the only kind of program in the country that I have been able to find.”
One of Jewell’s students who helps at the detention center, T. Allison Lawler, says she has grown personally because of her involvement in the program. “I have become not only a different person but I’ve also become a better and more appreciative person,” Lawler said. “After hearing some of the stories the kids share, it made me realize how good I had it growing up and how good I still have it. I also thank God every day for making me a very open-minded and empathetic person because this helps me work well with the juveniles.” Lawler said that when she first started the program at the center, she believed the juvenile offenders were “dangerous” and “bad” but the first session with them allayed her worst fears. “I realized that these were just kids who made a few bad decisions,” she said. “Every day I work with them, I learn more about life and I am more and more thankful for what I have in life. I’m also thankful to SIUE for making this possible.”
Jewell said RSVP seems to be working but he’s in the process of writing a federal grant to help better track the results of the program. “We have found in the past four years that the students who go through the program, compared with those who are waiting to enter the program, tend to be less stressed, anxious and fearful. We seem to have had a very significant impact on their feelings about being fearful and anxious, and their abilities to manage their anger.”
Sponsors for the event include Ameren Economic Development, Husch Blackwell Sanders LLP, Madison County Community Development, St. Louis Regional Chamber and Growth Association, the Madison-Bond Workforce Investment Board, and Leadership Council Southwestern Illinois. The event is being organized by the SIUC Technology Transfer Program, the SIU School of Medicine, the SIUE Graduate School, the SIUE Southwestern Entrepreneurship Center and SIUE’s University Park, a research park on the campus.