How to get out of prison using ABA.

Angela Cathey, MA & Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D

bSci21Media, LLC

Brett DiNovi, M.A., BCBA

Brett DiNovi & Associates

In a recent panel discussion, behavior analysts from Brett DiNovi and Associates and bSci21Media discussed ways in which behavior analytic principles might be used to reduce recidivism and teach appropriate skills to inmates. Though behavior analytic principles are frequently used in prison settings the use of behavior analysis in these settings could be far better integrated into all aspects of prison life to produce better outcomes for society and for the inmates themselves.

One such suggestion came from panelist, Todd Ward, PhD, BCBA-D, of bSci21Media who provided a number of tips for how behavior ways in which we might increase the spread of behavior analysis in prison settings. Dr. Ward suggested an Organizational Behavior Management driven perspective on increasing the use of behavior analytic principles in prison settings. Dr. Ward’s suggested that it is important to create a verbal relation between outcomes desired in the prison and larger organizational outcomes of interest to decision makers. For example, a behavior analyst might want to explicitly make clear that reducing the number of fights in prisons also may increase the availability of staff for other tasks and thus increase profitability. Creating such a verbal relation tends to augment the functions of achieving a smaller organizational goal, such as reducing the number of fights between inmates, to increase the appetitiveness of the goal and more strongly motivate efforts towards change. Using suggestions like these can help front line staff or behavior analysts motivate decision makers to pursue effective change strategies.

Brett DiNovi and other panelists further suggested the importance of training a high level of skills such that contingencies are loaded towards reducing recidivism after the inmate is released. One major way that this can be done is by increasing the focus on teaching new and marketable skills to inmates while they are in prison. It is well recognized that inmates who leave prison, now less able to gain viable employment with a criminal record, are more likely to commit another crime.

Another suggestion offered in this video by Brett DiNovi & Associates, dealt with the altering the contingencies around the prison economy to improve inmate behavior. Because prisons are, in a sense, enclosed environments they represent somewhat of a behavioral laboratory where contingencies can be altered and controlled on a large scale. Few other settings allow for such systemic control of influencing variables. Within prisons, inmates need to maintain some income in order to obtain many necessities and comforts. Altering the economy to a Token Economy and making these necessities and comforts contingent on engagement in skills learning or good behavior could vastly improve behavior in a prison system. Additionally, since these environments are so highly controlled that access to social and recreational contact all must pass through the system – engagement in these things might be used to motivate good behavior as well.

One important aspect of this work may also include increasing the number of behavior analysts working in prison systems. As a behavior analyst working in a maximum-security prison you frequently observe a lack of knowledge around how contingencies are likely to affect behavior. Many front-line staff will tend to respond based on common verbal rules about how individuals should be motivated result, the result being strengthening of ‘maladaptive’ and disruptive patterns of behavior in the inmates.

Be sure to check out the full video, and to subscribe to Brett DiNovi’s YouTube channel and let him know what you would like to see in future videos.  Also be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!

bSci21Media, LLC, owns the top behavior analytic media outlet in the world,  bSci21Media aims to disseminate behavior analysis to the world and to support ABA companies around the globe through the Behavioral Science in the 21st Century blog and its subsidiaries, bSciEntrepreneurialbSciWebDesignbSciWriting, and the ABA Outside the Box CEU series. 

Brett DinoviBrett DiNovi, M.A., BCBA has the unique and distinguished experience of studying the principles of applied behavior analysis under the rigorous scrutiny of both Dr. Julie S. Vargas (formerly Skinner) and Dr. E.A. Vargas at West Virginia University’s internationally recognized program. For the past 26 years, Brett has used behavior analytic principles to create large scale change across school districts, Fortune 500 companies using principles of Organizational Behavior Management (OBM), and across individual learners. Brett has been a OBM consultant in Morgantown WV, an instructor at West Virginia University, a guest lecturer at numerous universities, a speaker on multiple Comcast Newsmakers TV programs, an expert witness in due process hearings, has publications in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, and has been in in executive leadership positions across schools and residential programs nationwide. In addition to an award from South Jersey Biz Magazine for “Best Places to Work,” an award for “Best of Families” in Suburban Magazine, and the distinguished “Top Ranked U.S. Executives” award, Brett’s proudest accomplishment is being a role model and father for his daughter and two stepchildren (one of which has autism). Brett can be reached at

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