One Step Forward, Two Steps Back
How lack of rehabilitation leads to a vicious cycle of recidivism
The Clink. The Big House. The Slammer. There are many names for prison. Yet, with significant recidivism rates and overpopulation, perhaps “Revolving Door” would be a more appropriate choice. While prisons are a staple of the justice system, the incarcerated are often pushed out of the public eye once the harrowing drama of a trial is over. A sentence is given out and the perpetrator is imprisoned. But what happens after that? The main purpose of prison is supposedly to take in felons and then release them back into society as reformed individuals, but many prisons do not provide the rehabilitative services necessary to do that.
Prisons originated in the 14th century, according to the Crime Museum. Structurally, they were a very far cry from the brutal institutions they are today. Instead of long-term holding facilities, prisons were originally used to simply detain someone awaiting trial. As sentences back then were usually comprised of brutal physical punishment, fines or death, there was no need to provide a living arrangement for a prolonged period of time. However, in the centuries that followed, the Crime Museum noted that campaigns against the death penalty revolutionized prisons as places for extended incarceration.
For most of the 20th century, a majority of prisons operated on the basis of a “rehabilitative ideal,” according to the U.S. Library and National Institute of Health. Under this belief, correctional facilities pushed inmates toward reform by creating dignified and humane prison environments. Inmates were aided in resolving psychological problems, overcoming addictions and adapting to work environments along with a number of other preparations designed to reintroduce them into society.
However, a crime spike in the 1970s led to a pivotal point in U.S. prison history. According to a 2015 Washington Post story, the rehabilitative focus of prisons was reduced in the 70s in the absence of any perceived benefit gleaned from this approach. Beth Huebner, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Mississippi-St. Louis, said pressure from the public and growing frustration with the justice system subsequently changed the prison dynamic.
“During this time, there was definitely a political shift where you had more people saying that rehabilitation doesn’t work,” Huebner said. “And this, combined with an economic decline, narrowed [rehabilitative] efforts.”
The effect of decreased rehabilitative programs in prison has taken its toll. The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world, according to BBC News, which estimated that the U.S. imprisons 737 people for every 100,000 residents — more than any other country. While imprisonment may occur for a number of reasons, it is important to take a closer look at the internal structure of prison and how it doesn’t prepare inmates for life beyond bars, leading to the potential for reincarceration.
Those who serve their sentence and are released without receiving much rehabilitation often face grim prospects after leaving prison. Radio station WBHM named unemployment, difficulty finding housing and ongoing legal battles as some of the most pressing issues facing ex-prisoners upon release. The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) attributed some of these challenges to a lack of “correction” within facilities. And this lack of rehabilitation has grave consequences. In 2016, The Huffington Post estimated that 76.6 percent of prisoners returned to prison within five years of being released, often for more serious offenses.
Unemployment is one of the most serious issues facing ex-prisoners. The prisoner advocacy website, Prison Fellowship, reported that up to 60 percent of ex-prisoners are out of a job one year after their release. This has serious ramifications, as the freed prisoners are unable to support themselves or their families. The site also mentioned that ex-prisoners who are unemployed may also fall back into drug habits. Unemployment is often a result of lack of focus within prison on how to succeed in the workforce after release, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, which also noted that many re-entry programs offered do not include training beyond minimal preparation for low paying, blue collar jobs. When ex-prisoners cannot find a job or can only find one that is low-paying, they may feel they need to break the law to provide for themselves, leading to the possibility they will land back in prison.
Along with the technical complications of re-entering society, such as getting a job after being released, it is also clear that many inmates suffer from mental health issues. A study conducted by Oxford University in 2015 discovered that 42 percent of male prisoners suffered from some sort of mental illness while incarcerated, and 25 percent of those committed violent crimes after they were released. Additionally, The Guardian estimated in 2015 that one in seven prisoners has a mental illness. However, what is most troubling is that most of the mental illnesses, such as depression and bipolar disorder, are described by The Guardian as common and treatable.
Maurice Chammah, who frequently writes for The Marshall Project — a nonprofit news organization that covers the U.S. criminal justice system — said the difference between what prisons were originally intended to do and what they have become is another reason for rehabilitative failure and the lack of resources dedicated to treating mental illness in prison.
“The whole model of American prisons is centered around basically housing people,” Chammah said. “Treating them is not what the system was designed to do. Now that prisons have to do that, due to the large number of mental cases within, you can really see the strain.”
Chammah added that prisons have often become the new mental hospital in the absence of hospitals specifically dedicated to mental health, many of which were shut down in the 1960s and 70s. But prisons are not a particularly hospitable place for those with mental illnesses. In 2015, the Huffington Post noted that guards receive minimal training in handling mental illness and that, due to the severe conditions brought on by punishments like solitary confinement, those who enter prison with a mental illness often leave in a worse condition than when they got there.
When it comes to prisons as a whole, Chammah blames insufficient funds as well as administrative problems for the dearth of rehabilitative opportunities.
“Lack of funding is often the product of political gridlock,” Chammah said. “When people are setting budgets and making decisions about prisons, there’s a tendency to avoid giving privileges to prison inmates.”
Chammah added that when faced with taking a stance on rights for prisoners, such as education or other rehabilitative programs, politicians will often choose not to support such causes in order to gain public favor and appear “tough on crime.” But all this serves to do is deprive prisoners of opportunities to work toward stability in their lives when they are released.
It is becoming clear that today’s prisons are crafted in an image of fear and cruelty, not rehabilitation. Segregation and physical retribution are among the various disciplinary actions used in prisons, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
Solitary confinement is another popular but flawed form of punishment. Victoria Law, a freelance author who reports frequently on the prison system, said isolating prisoners for long periods of time can have a detrimental impact.
“[They] are not able to cause physical harm, but what the administration is not talking about is the harm that isolation can do to a person’s mental, physical and emotional health,” Law said. “It’s an easier way to keep control, but it’s very much designed to incapacitate.”
The Scientific American noted in 2013 that those kept in isolation suffer from hypersensitivity to light, paranoia and hallucinations. In addition, the site also found that in 2007, 69 percent of prisoners in Washington state who were released directly from solitary confinement were back in prison within three years. Conversely, the rate of recidivism was lower for those who were allowed to integrate back into the prison community before being released.
To combat the brutality of prisons and high rates of incarceration and recidivism, it is necessary to take a closer look at alternative structures that are based around ideas of rehabilitation, not punishment.
According to the NIJ, there are a plethora of benefits reaped by prisoners who receive the appropriate amount of rehabilitative attention behind bars. Those who are allowed to earn a high school equivalency diploma and receive vocational skills are more likely to get a job and earn higher wages after their release than prisoners who do not. In terms of effectiveness, methods like isolation and physical punishment were also reported by the NIJ to have been less effective at reducing recidivism rates than community service, drug and alcohol programs and employment workshops.
These rehabilitative programs are similar to methods of “restorative justice” which are used in 80 countries around the world, according to a 2005 paper by the Centre for Justice and Reconciliation. Norway, in particular, has a robust restorative justice program. Humane prison conditions, reduced sentences and the transformation of prisoners are the objectives of Norway’s criminal justice system, according to a Business Insider article from 2014. In this system, inmates are given responsibilities such as cooking and cleaning to better prepare them for life after prison. Restorative justice programs also include surprising elements such as friendly relationships between guards and inmates. While it may sound like a liberal fantasy that could never possibly satisfy the need for repentance, according to Business Insider, Norway boasts one of the lowest incarceration rates at just 75 for every 100,000 people, a far cry from the 737 per 100,000 jailed in the U.S.
The mindful treatment of Norway’s prisoners is something the U.S. could certainly learn from. Implementing a similar scheme in American prisons could bring about a reduction in incarceration rates and a better general well-being of inmates as they re-enter society, giving them a higher chance of staying out of prison.
Certainly, some people belong behind bars. Yet, when it comes to locking people up with increasingly obscure cause, the end result — a prisoner coming back to the same row of cells every few years — seems to be a waste of time, money and energy. With a change in tactic and structure, social rehabilitation could be reintegrated into prisons for the benefit of those involved, providing them with a better future.
Catherine Colgan is a first-year exploratory major who had Orange is the New Black playing on repeat while writing this article. You can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org.