COE Faculty Member Trains Parole Officers, Corrections Officials in Motivational Interviewing

September 25, 2014

Dr. Melanie Iarussi
Dr. Melanie Iarussi

Dr. Melanie Iarussi, an Assistant Professor in the counselor education programs in the Department of Special Education, Rehabilitation, and Counseling, is working with Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles officers to train them in Motivational Interviewing.

“Motivational interviewing (MI) is a humanistic approach to elicit intrinsic motivation for change,” Iarussi explained. “MI places an emphasis on respecting the ex-offender, as opposed to directing and threatening them. I am now training probation and parole leaders so they can learn MI techniques that will help the parolee want to change and see the positive benefits of such change.”

MI is collaborative and person-centered or humanistic, as opposed to “rules” centered, and it seeks to evoke a person’s own motivation and commitment to change behaviors that led to probation or other problems in the first place.

In addition to her work with parole and probation officers, Iarussi has also offered training sessions at Ingram State Technical College for its counselors. Ingram serves only students who are incarcerated in state or county facilities.

Iarussi will soon be introducing MI to juvenile probation officers, and after that she will provide an introduction to members of the Alabama State Department of Corrections. Ultimately, MI is part of a strategy to reduce incarceration and recidivism. There is a huge financial drain on the state associated with incarceration.

Dr. Peggy Shippen, who herself has worked for years in the areas of literacy, disabilities, and corrections, has collaborated with Iarussi on this outreach effort. The two have collaborated on projects and grants focused on Motivational Interviewing for ex-offenders.

“By training counselors, probation officers, and others who work with ex-offenders, Melanie is bringing an evidence-based, humanistic counseling style to institutions and systems that have opportunities to ignite lasting changes among ex-offenders,” Shippen said. “Such changes will not only improve the lives of the individuals they serve, but also the surrounding communities and society as a whole. What makes her work especially impactful is that the United States Department of Justice recognizes MI as an evidenced-based practice in reducing the likelihood of recidivism for ex-offenders. Melanie’s work is cutting edge in our state as she is the only member of the Motivational Interviewing Network of Trainers (MINT) in Alabama.”

Shippen pointed out that of the 56,000 Alabamians served by the Board of Pardons and Paroles, almost 75 percent have a current or previous substance abuse issue. Since MI was developed, implemented, and proven to reduce substance abuse, it is a natural fit for working with the prison and parole population.

Sharon Shannon, Training Director of the Alabama Board of Pardons and Parole, said her agency has provided over $120,000 of in-kind contributions to Iarussi’s work.

“This project is purposeful and focused,” she said. “We feel that MI should become part of our practice so we can reduce parole violations and re-incarceration.”

Iarussi’s initial interest in MI was sparked by a mentor in her Master’s program in counseling at Kent State University in Ohio.

“I started applying MI techniques as part of my work in substance abuse counseling, and then as a doctoral student I focused on MI in my dissertation,” she said.

Iarussi also has experience using MI as a mental health and substance abuse counselor in private practice and college counseling settings. She said she was drawn to MI because of its person-centered, humanistic foundation, and she feels it was a natural fit for her outlook and personal style.

“MI is designed to help people resolve their ambivalence about change,” she said. “For example, people who are involved in substance abuse are not ready for change and usually have reasons why they do what they do. We elicit their experiences to cultivate their own argument for change from their perspective.”

This year Iarussi and Shippen were the recipients of a competitive outreach scholarship grant at Auburn University targeting engagement needs for MI as a change agent. Her proposal was in the top tier among the projects that were funded. A distinguishing aspect of Iarussi’s proposal was the agency-wide influence along with the significant number of ex-offenders that could be positively affected by the project.

In addition to this grant, Iarussi hopes that she and her colleagues in the College of Education will be able to show a national agency the kind of data and groundwork required for more substantial funding in the near future.

Iarussi said MI “is just starting to get out there in corrections.” There is some work being done with MI techniques across the U.S. and in other countries, but she believes the approach will catch on in a much larger way.

“I see MI as restorative, as opposed to being retributive, and that’s what it is really all about. I think this could be a step toward helping ex-offenders make lasting, positive changes.”

To learn more about the clinical and philosophical aspects of Motivational Interviewing,

Story by George Littleton with photo contributed