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Killer Whales: Motivating Juveniles to Change
Sarah Etter, News Reporter

What could juvenile offenders and killer whales from Sea World have in common? On the surface, it might not seem like much, but for young offenders at the Orange County Jail in Florida, killer whales are an example of positive reinforcement and behavioral changes.

Officers at the Orange County facility have been using programs based on motivational books – such as “Whale Done”, “Who Moved My Cheese”, and “Fish for Life” – to motivate incarcerated youths to change their responses and behaviors. The juveniles have been particularly interested in the “Whale Done” book and program.

“Initially, you stop and think –Oh great now they are equating these kids with animals. But really, we are equating behaviors and juveniles are really gravitating towards these programs,” says John Richter, Juvenile Program Coordinator for the Orange County Corrections Department. “The ‘Whale Done’ books and programs help our kids to deal with fear, jealousy, and peer pressure, among a number of things.”

The book “Whale Done” is based on the premise that there are four types of consequences – no response, negative response, redirection and positive response. The book also focuses on two more responses known as ‘Gotcha!’ (used when someone is caught doing something wrong), and ‘Whale Done!’(used when someone is caught doing something right).

Richter promotes these programs in juvenile facilities because he wants to focus on the positive things that juveniles do rather than the negative.

“Don’t get me wrong,” Richter says. “I’m not a bleeding heart. Some juveniles will do things that land them in facilities for the rest of their lives. But we need to let them know that people care about them so they have the chance to change. We need to get these juveniles motivated. They need to reach a point where they are ready to go back into society. And “Whale Done” is really helping us prepare them to do that.”

“Well Done”

The “Whale Done” program is comprised of a three-hour class using the “Whale Done” book, video and power point presentation. Chuck Tompkins, a Sea World employee, conducts the classroom program. Tompkins brings slides of killer whales to help drive home the points of the book. By allowing the juveniles to understand positive responses and negative responses, they develop a new understanding of emotional reactions and understand the rewards they will receive if they learn to control their emotions.

“When killer whales have a toothache, they cannot be anesthetized because they will die,” Richter explains. “So they have to work very slowly with the whales – rub their bellies, give them fish – so that for all of this pain, they know there will be a reward at the end. It is very similar to what needs to be focused on here - rehabilitation and the recognition of a reward after that rehabilitation. And that reward is freedom and a new frame of mind.”

According to Richter, these simple concepts go a long way in teaching young offenders about what is right – and what is wrong. And the responses from the juveniles describe the changes and realizations they experienced during the program, and the lessons they will take with them for life.

“When I came into this place, I did not like it at all. All I was saying to myself was that this is not the place for me,” one juvenile wrote. “These programs made me into the man I should have been when I was on the outside. They really have helped me so much.”

Upon completion of the “Whale Done” program, each juvenile receives a certificate of accomplishment. Letters from the inmates are numerous with pages and pages detailing the personal discovery of each juvenile. While Richter admits that some corrections officials are skeptical of these programs – some accuse Richter of “babying” the juveniles – he says that the results of the program speak for themselves.

Chinese Bamboo

The “Whale Done” program at the Orange County Jail is a part of a larger program called Chinese Bamboo designed to help juveniles rehabilitate. The program is based on the concept that when bamboo is grown, it must be watered every day. However, since bamboo does not sprout for five years, all of the hard work that goes into the plant does not pay off until the sixth year when the bamboo grows about 60 feet.

The premise behind the program is that "you never know what you can do to help someone grow," according to Warren Kenner, one of the programs organizers and a Chinese Bamboo class teacher.

In the Chinese Bamboo program each juvenile must complete the series of books (such as “Who Moved My Cheese” and “Fish for Life”). The program gives each juvenile a certificate for each book they complete, which motivates them even more to achieve the final reward. After completing all books in the program, juveniles are allowed to attend a dinner in the facility with their family members and have a home cooked meal.

For many young offenders, the chance to reconnect with their families pushes them further to change their behaviors and show how much they have changed. And while the glowing reports from program directors and coordinators are uplifting, the letters from the juveniles truly express what kind of growth is happening at the Orange County facility.

Richter says that the value in these programs extends far beyond the facilites.

“We need to help these kids become adults, who are aware of consequences and actions,” Richter says. “Working in corrections for 32 years has been a pendulum – it goes from rehabilitation to punishment. But locking someone up and not doing anything with them accomplishes nothing. This is a reflection of our society in general, so I cannot understand why we wouldn’t want programs like “Whale Done” and Chinese Bamboo.”

“When I read your book, it helped me to understand how my responses reflected on my life,” one juvenile wrote. “But one thing that made a lot of sense to me was why it is so important to focus on the positive rather than the negative. I can get positive results which will help me take a step forwards instead of backwards.”

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