Tom O’Connor


Tom O’Connor set up Transforming Corrections in 2010 after 20 years of being involved in a wide variety of change projects throughout the criminal justice system. Over the years Tom witnessed many “failures to launch” – well intentioned efforts at change and development that did not work – and a few key successes that did work.  Putting the learning from the failures and the successes and from a wide body of literature about change into practice is the key to Transforming Corrections.

Ron Heifetz, the senior lecturer in public leadership at Harvard University has shown that most organizations tend to focus on “technical change” when they are really dealing with issues of “adaptive change“.  Technical changes are easier to make because they concern problems that are localized and can be solved by an “expert”.  We already know how to build and run prisons in an efficient manner, so building a new prison in a state prison system is an example of making a technical change.  In a sense it is easy for us to build and run a new prison and it solves the problem of an expanding inmate population caused by new sentencing laws or a growing population.

Adaptive changes, however, cannot be solved by an “expert” because they concern problems that affect the whole system, and we are often not even sure of  the precise nature of the problem we are trying to solve.  Every correctional officer can tell you there are major problems with our prison system today and that it is not working well, but they are unsure about what precisely needs to change.

We know from practical experience, backed up by research, that when we mix lower and higher risk people together in a prison the higher risk people make the lower risk people worse.  Think of a 4th grade class of 25 kids in an elementary school where three of the kids have serious impulse control issues and simply cannot sit still.  Do the 23 kids who can and want to learn dominate the tenor of the class or do the three kids? We all know the answer?  In most prison systems about 50% of the inmate population falls into the lower risk category and yet these people are mixed in with the higher risk population and are thus harmed.  To date, our prison systems have not been able to change their way of doing business and run a system that does not mix the lower and the higher risk people together. Making such a change would mean that the entire system would have to function differently and no expert can tell you how to create a system like this.  This kind of adaptive change would have to be figured out by and involve everyone in the system.  The entire system of processing people would have to change, and if a prison system did make such a change it would look entirely different.  Transforming Corrections, led by Tom O’Connor, is focused on helping systems and the people who run the systems to make these kind of adaptive changes. Tom’s life story has prepared him for this work.

Tom grew up in Ireland and qualified as an attorney in the Irish legal system. Then Tom took a new direction in life when he joined a contemplative Catholic religious order called the Carmelites, and lived as a friar (a wandering monk) for 9 years working and studying in Ireland, Scotland, France and the USA. The Carmelites sent Tom to Washington DC to study in 1987 and he has lived in America ever since. After two years in DC Tom left the Carmelite order and took a job at a research institute in Loyola University of Maryland evaluating the impact of a federal prison program on recidivism. Twenty-three years later Tom has spent most of his career focused on change and human development issues in the criminal justice system.

Tom has degrees in law, philosophy, theology and counseling; his Ph.D. from the Catholic University of America focused on Religion and Culture in the US Penal System. Tom has been nationally certified in the US as a chaplain and a counsellor, and is trained in and trains many evidence-based practices such as Motivational Interviewing, Cognitive Behavioural Coaching and the Level of Service/Case Management Inventory (LS/CMI). Tom is certified in Dialogue Coaching and the administration of the Behavioral Propensities Profile survey process developed by David Kantor the renowned systems psychologist, organizational consultant and clinical researcher.  Tom is also certified to lead people through the “Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization” process developed by Robert Kegan, the famous developmental psychologist and Dr. Lisa Laskow Lahey his partner at Harvard University. Finally Tom draws on the insights from the implementation science literature developed by Dean Fixsen and the National Implementation Research Institute in South Carolina to guide his transformative work with people and organizations in the criminal justice field.

Tom lives in Salem, Oregon with Aislinn Adams, his wife, and Sorcha, his 12 year old daughter. Aislinn is an illustrator by profession and is also from Ireland. Sorcha was born in Salem and is busy with friends, hip hop dancing, the outdoors (back packing and rock climbing) soccer and middle school.

Most recently Tom worked as a research manager for two years and as the head chaplain for eight years with the Oregon Department of Corrections.  He currently teaches part-time at Western Oregon University, Criminal Justice.  Tom has published, trained, and coached widely on change management, organizational development, the contribution of chaplaincy and volunteers to corrections, the role of humanistic, spiritual and religious ways of making meaning in the desistance process, and implementing evidence-based practices in corrections.

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