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The History of TSI Within the Justice Environment

Therapeutic Storytelling Intervention, (TSI), is a process that was developed within a population of youth offenders. In 1976, Ron Phillips and his wife Mary founded Creative Alternatives, a residential treatment facility in Turlock, California. A good proportion of the boys in placement there were from youth justice.

The program worked with both 6011 and 6022 designated boys. It was while Ron worked with these boys that he became motivated to develop the innovative intervention that became TSI.

Conduct-disordered youth grow into anti-social personality-disordered adults. In 1994 Ron was invited to use TSI with inmates at Paremoremo Prison3 in New Zealand. Ron was keen to work with the inmates to see if his process would be effective with men who were endogenously stuck in behaviors that were costly and anti-social.

At that time Ron believed, and now more strongly believes, that most prison inmates never develop a healthy sense of self. Their identity is diffused because their personality development is stuck in the developmental stage of ‘latency’. The strong personal value system necessary for healthy identity never developed. There are various reasons for this. However, at the end of the day, it was not achieved, leaving most of the prison population with impoverished personal identities or identified as having an ‘anti-social personality’ characterized by opposition and defiance. Ron believed these people formulate their choices on the pleasure principle, that is: ‘I want it, and I want it now’. Often they have little impulse control and are unable to tolerate delays in gratification.

These people are often charismatic, yet pathologically dishonest, both with themselves and with others. Their consciousness is seared4. In many ways they are adolescents who never developed, whose mental and emotional psychology became diffused and stuck in immature patterns of behavior.

Ron went into Paremoremo convinced that Therapeutic Storytelling Intervention would be effective, and it was; big time! The very methodology of the intervention worked magic with the prisoners. They saw themselves as if they were looking into a mirror clearly for the first time.

Dena Gray, a former prison educator, and now community education teacher, worked with TSI at Dunedin Prison. This is also in New Zealand. She used the methodology very effectively there as well. Dena used TSI within the ‘Dare to Make Change’ drug resistance programme for a number of years within the prison system and she would be happy to receive inquires regarding her experience and impressions of TSI in the prison environment. Dena is contactable at: or 64 027 223 4880.

Sam Halstead, the director of Prison education, wrote a brief evaluation in response to a survey Ron conducted after the groups at the prison. He noted Therapeutic Storytelling Intervention was very effective working with this population for the following reasons:

  • It levels the playing field.
  • Many youth justice children are poor readers. Therapeutic Storytelling
    Intervention is delivered in story fashion; each segment of group therapy centres on the told story of (the book) Gem of the First Water.
  • Kids/adults who have done poorly in school due to reading disabilities or
    inabilities function in life by listening. The modality of Therapeutic Storytelling Intervention is auditory, requiring no reading.
  • (TSI) is not a "you should," "you must!", "if you don't," process.

Paradox is an integral part of the TSI strategy. "Stay stuck kid I've got time." – "You'll never make it to the triple peaks!" – “I love it when you go off, when you storm through the house slamming doors, when you’re soooo angry your head’s about to explode, I love it man!" This type of paradoxical strategy is effective with defiant people. When you tell them what they can’t do, they unconsciously strive to do just that. Ron developed the use of paradoxical intention at Creative Alternatives because of the oppositional nature of many of those young 602’s.

The stages of the Therapeutic Storytelling Intervention journey are clear. At the beginning a picture of dysfunction is delivered from the story. A second picture is that of a dungeon with the notion that the dysfunction can be ‘life long’ unless a person chooses to get out. From there, many more pictures are painted and the listeners form imaginal perceptions most often in pictures. With TSI there is an attendant process which offers for each of these pictures, questions that engage and stimulate discussion thereby inviting change. Often, indeed very often, this endogenous change is phenomenal.

Therapeutic Storytelling Intervention does not attempt to access the internal world of listeners via the front door. Prisoners have been bombarded with front door attempts at engagement. TSI is a bathroom window sort of intervention. The use of eidetic imagery that lodges in the psychology of listeners allows unconscious processes to begin work. Listeners see themselves in the stories because the issues the unnamed boy (who is the central character) encounters on his way to the triple peaks of success, are their very own issues.

TSI is non-threatening. Listening to the storyteller, or to the CD’s, is safe; especially with the knowledge that they are able to “pass” if asked a question that they don’t want to respond to. The (group) therapy is not dependant on participants “spilling their guts”. Initially they can simply sit back and listen to the story and choose when they want to begin the journey. Quickly they begin to identify with boy in the story and then they start to internalize his struggles and his issues and, as the process progresses, often incredibly, start to take effective control of their own lives; not because they have been told to, but because they can actually see themselves as they are for the first time.

The journey gives the listeners a blueprint for change. The plan is clear and unambiguous. Therapeutic Storytelling Intervention offers believable hope and is easy to implement on a large scale. The great teachers of our times used stories to teach and they did it that way because they wanted their message to be processed and remembered.

There are two items of interest available that speak to TSI’s effectiveness in this field.

One is a "60 Minutes", television documentary that contains a segment on TSI called ‘Survival Stories’. YouthHealth New Zealand is able to make this documentary available to you.

The second is a poem which was sent to Ron Phillips by one of the life-term inmates in ‘C-Block’ at Paremoremo. He sent the poem after a group of prisoners saw the “60 Minutes” television programme. He wrote Ron a letter and included the poem, based on Ron’s work.

1Social Service system children.
2Juvenile Justice system children.
3Paremoremo is New Zealand’s maximum security prison.
4From The Travels of Plymouth, chapter 11: ‘Two Amazing Events’.

Read About TSI In: Youth or Adult Justice, Education, Social Work, Mental Health, Religious Education



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