The Circle of Recidivism
If a hospital were to surround one sick person with more sick patients, we only expect them to end up worse. Though when we lock away a criminal with other criminals, many are surprised to see them later return to a life of crime. Over the years countless resources have been put into rehabilitation services for prisons, but the results are always disappointing. It’s easy to point at the individual, but it’s more productive to point at the process. The common factor in all of these failings is the prison environment itself. The need for a successful program could never be found in a prison and is actively opposed by the environment that does exist within one.
According to “A Systematic Review of Criminal Recidivism Rates Worldwide: Current Difficulties and Recommendations for Best Practice,” taken from Plos One journal, recidivism is “…a broad term that refers to relapse of criminal behavior.” To look at how successful prison rehabilitation is, it is useful to analyze the recidivism rates of different countries. The same review explains that the rate of recidivism can be up to 50% in some jurisdictions, with one 3-year sample of U.S prisoners hitting 66%. Even in the current century when rehabilitation is implemented in many of these countries, their overall failure is clear.
Rehabilitation centers are places that offer a positive environment, set on creating better futures through hope and determination. In almost the complete counter to this, prisons overall are a place of punishment that destroys life and make it bleaker. In the report “‘The prison don’t talk to you about getting out of prison’: On why prisons in England and Wales fail to rehabilitate prisoners,” taken from Criminology and Criminal Justice, the faults of rehabilitation are communicated directly from prisoners. One interview comments how themselves and fellow prisoners “ ‘….haven’t got their house anymore. They haven’t got a job and they’re out there thinking, ‘How am I going to survive?’ ” Prison doesn’t let their victims leave with hope, in fact, it takes hope away. These prisoners unsurprisingly end up being released with a ‘do what needs to be done’ look on life, even if it means going back to crime.
Re-entering society, a vital part of the rehabilitation process, is not a goal of prison. The isolated environment does not help this, nor do the programs. In The Prison Journal piece, “Rehabilitation Programs for Incarcerated Drug Offenders in Malaysia: Experience-Based Perspectives on Reintegration and Recidivism,” prisoners provided multiple common themes that they felt held them back from successfully getting through the process.
Having gone through a few rounds of rehabilitation programs offered in prisons, they felt these did not prepare them to face the challenges of reentering and reintegrating into society. Again, failure to cope with these challenges caused them to go back to more familiar groups with whom they were previously involved and where they found belonging and acceptance
Teaching a prisoner not to feel like an outcast, while currently incarcerated and separated from the outside world, is a near-impossible task. The goal of prison is to use isolation as a punishment, and this punishment will always be in the way of successful rehabilitation.
Rehabilitation programs are only as good as the individuals running them, interacting with and supporting the patients on a daily basis. These people must be driven not just to do their job, but to truly help others get better. This is not the archetype for the common prison officer. Referring back to the Criminology and Criminal Justice article, the writers explain this relationship. Their job is to maintain safety, not babysit the prisoners to follow through on their program.
From the perspectives of prisoners even where officers come with good intentions, cynicism can wear them down over time and initial support for rehabilitation among prison officers may become undermined by the realities of delivering rehabilitative interventions in unfavorable conditions.
Even if they did give a true helping hand in rehabilitation, there will also be an undeniable power dynamic in place between a prisoner and an officer. Ben Crew describes this relationship in his essay “Soft power in prison: Implications for staff–prisoner relationships, liberty, and legitimacy.” Officers have the ability to make everyday life better or worse through small favors or punishments, and that never leaves the minds of those in the system. Prisoners Crew interviewed discussed being forced to put on a fake facade, saying it feels as though officers are to ““… ‘play mind games with you.’” From the prisoner’s perspective, they are constantly distrusting the people who are supposed to be guiding them. It would be like trying to trust a doctor who doesn’t seem to care if you get better or not. This then leads to problems for the officers, having to deal with prisoners not being honest and turning into “yes-men” to ease the situation, rather than to make themselves better people.
Resources are another big problem facing prison rehabilitation services. Greg Newbold comments on this issue in his piece “Criminal Reoffending and the Failure of Corrections: Rehabilitating Criminals Ain’t That Easy,” Newbold uses the example of the Integrated Offender Management program that was meant to reduce recidivism by 15% over the course of two years by matching prisoners to specific programs. Though these results never came due to multiple problems of the program in real-life use. The program was complicated for prison staff, many had problems understanding it as well as managing it in their prison system time-wise. Even when a prisoner was matched to a proper program, the resources needed to address their needs rarely existed. Time and money are both needed resources that are lacking in prison rehabilitation.
All the effort to rehabilitate prisoners comes with good intentions, but it is inherently an impossible task. Not due to the programs themselves, but because prison is not an environment that can foster it. There will always be necessary powers not prevalent, such as resources or proper support, and there will always be antagonistic factors that only suppress the rehabilitation process.
Those who are in support of prison-based rehabilitation will often cite stories of prisoners finding success after their time incarcerated, usually as a consequence of proper education, job training, or focused therapy. Now I am not attempting to refute that rehabilitation done correctly can improve an average individual’s life or help them overcome deeply personal issues. There is an abundance of evidence that rehabilitation is not just helpful but necessary in reforming people who’ve fallen into bad times. You can’t expect someone to get better without support, but with similar stories that occur in a prison setting, they are often not reflective of reality and focus on smaller testing groups that don’t translate into larger-reaching programs.
Criminologist Joan Petersilia writes in support of prison rehabilitation in her essay “Beyond the prison bubble,” originally published in The Wilson Quarterly. Petersilia claims that rehabilitation is a key in putting an end to the ever growing prison population. The main idea lies in a belief that if “effective” programs are implemented there can be a 15 to 20 percent reduction in recidivism. Although already today many places including the U.S and abroad have a form modern prison rehabilitation service, recidivism rate still reaches up to 60% worldwide. It is possible that not all of these programs might fit Petesilias definition of an effective, though we can look at a specific modern program she advocates for, and how it ultimately will not bring her idealistic outcome.
A major point made by Petersilia is in reference to the informational advantage prisons have in creating new programs after past failures, one of them being the risk-need-responsivity (RNR) model. RNR works by using tools to match prisoners into specific programs based on their needs. Though similar programs to the RNR model have been attempted before and the outcome was no were close to Petersillia’s estimation . Looking at Greg Newbold’s piece “Criminal Reoffending and the Failure of Corrections: Rehabilitating Criminals Ain’t That Easy,” these programs do not fit well when implemented into the prison system. He cites a specific IOM program that worked similar to Petersilias RNR model by putting prisoners into individual treatments and facilities based on their personal and criminal history. This program was meant to create a ¼ to ⅓ improvement in correctional efficiency. The program alone could have been effective, but underlying problems with adding it into the prison system lead to its failure.
IOMS and procedures associated with IOM, such as constructing a sentence management plan, are complicated and time-consuming and are not fully understood by staff. This leads to a large number of errors and omissions in data entry and assessment information. Approximately 1/3 of computerised assessments are overridden by staff because they think the assessments are wrong. This results in inmates being given treatment that is inconsistent with their identified needs. Where assessment data are available and adhered to, resources seldom exist to address the needs identified.
Prisons are not rehabilitation centers, and they can’t easily change into them. Intense amounts of training and preparation must go into creating rehab centers, and reforming national and local prison proctor would not only be difficult but nearly impossible to achieve. This is not only due to the environment and program implementation itself, but because of the resources involved.
Those like Petersilia argue that large quantities of money should be given to prisons and managed into rehabilitation services. The reasoning behind this is to put money and resources into it now rather than pay for it later through prisoner costs, but as Newbold pointed out resources are often not available as needed for these programs. Prisons don’t have the ability to put their resources entirely into rehabilitation in the same way as a rehab center, and Petersilia admits that this is an issue in the process herself in her essay. While discussing the growing use of Intensive supervision programs (ISP), Pertersilia recalls personally finding out that the resources meant for the program were being siphoned out to other parts of the prison system.
But as I discovered when I was co-director of the RAND Corporation’s national evaluation of ISPs in the early 1990s, despite all the good intentions, most of the ISP dollars wound up being used to fund more drug testing, parole agent contacts, and electronic monitoring rather than enhanced social services.
The resources Petersilia discusses were not being used in a drastically immorally way, they were being used to sustain what these facilities are meant to be: Prisons. If a facility needs to take out money from another program just to fund their original purpose, it would be reasonable to say extra services like ISP or RNR are more of a burden than an advantage.
Education is another major part of the rehabilitation argument. It’s an important tool for many in having a successful future, but not all education is equal. The majority of prisoners don’t take advantage of these programs and even in the best of cases, their education almost always ends there. Lucius Couloute describes statistics relating to this in his piece “Getting Back on Course: Educational exclusion and attainment among formerly incarcerated people.” Only 27% of incarcerated attain their GED while in the prison system. And when it comes to further education, which is often needed for a sustainable life, only 9.6% of the formerly incarcerated end up receiving some form of it. These education resources are not the same stepping stone that many in the general public have, with about 42.8% receiving some college education after high school. Education can offer great benefits, but one given in prison is not a desirable one.
Rehabilitation is a necessary tool in making people better. But trying to merge it with the prison system in hope that it will one day lead to lower recidivism rates and better communities is unhelpful and misguided. The argument for the potential of prison rehabilitation is outweighed by the reality. The programs that do exist are not reaching expectations, and no matter how perfect the service is, prison’s system has not melded well with them in the past.
Prison rehabilitation services are meant to make people better and prevent future crimes, but they in fact accomplish the opposite in most cases. Not only do prisons not harbor an environment for rehabilitation, but they are also places where people often become worse versions of themselves. There is strong evidence that the prison system fails to prevent future offenses, and the negative environment can only lead to bleak outcomes after a prisoner is released. Prison actively makes people worse and doesn’t prevent recidivism that is meant to be reduced by their rehabilitation services.
Before making the case that the effect of prisons is negative on individuals, it is important to address that they fail to do what they are meant to do: keep communities safe and reduce crime in a specific area. A big building packed from wall to wall with criminals encourages violence and despair, and the prison environment has rescued very few inmates from a life of crime. In the early chapters of Jens Soering’s “An Expensive Way to Make Bad People Worse: An Essay on Prison Reform from an Insider’s Perspective,” he debunks the myth that prisons have a measurable positive impact on society when it comes to preventing crimes.
In one well-known California study, the 300% growth of that state’s penitentiary system in the 1980s was shown to reduce non-violent crimes like burglary marginally, but rapes and murder hardly at all. Even the US Department of Justice realizes that locking up as many felons as possible ‘does not appear to achieve a large reduction in crime [but] can cause an increase in prisoner population.’
Prison environments that fail to reduce crime must be held under the microscope. That is because the common factor in 100% of cases where an offender is sent back to prison is that they went through the system in the first place. When looking closely into the treatment of prisoners it is clear why this lack of prevention is the case.
A significant effort in prison rehabilitation services relies on work training for future placement, but this training often does not suit what is necessary for real-world life. In the Criminology and Criminal Justice article, “‘The prison doesn’t talk to you about getting out of prison’: On why prisons in England and Wales fail to rehabilitate prisoners,” these work programs are just one of the many factors of failed rehabilitation.
We heard that work opportunities within the prison are often limited, and the nature of the work is often experienced as repetitive and mundane, which does little to develop transferable skills and improve future opportunities.
Many of the job placements rely on luck, rather than what the prisoner might suit best and find the most success in. At a minmum, it should be the responsbilty of a prison to include promoting honest work and leaving prisoners prepared. After programs like this, prisoners are left with skills that are not useful and an even discoreg them from seeking any work after being relased. It is easy to see how this treament would forcebly push prisoners back into a life of crime.
This feeling of hopelessness after leaving prison is discussed in The Prison Journal piece, “Rehabilitation Programs for Incarcerated Drug Offenders in Malaysia: Experience-Based Perspectives on Reintegration and Recidivism”. Re-offenders told of their experiences which often included leaving prison feeling powerless in their outside life.
Participants felt helpless, hopeless, and powerless after multiple negative postprison experiences. These feelings developed over time and resulted in negative self-perceptions, low self-confidence, and low self-esteem.
No one expects prisoners to be very happy while incarcerated, but constantly pumping out low self-esteem individuals with little to no skill after they are released will only increase recidivism rates.
Mental illness and its relation to crime is a large and difficult topic in itself, but it is simple to determine how negative the effect of prison is on those individuals. Prison systems often do not offer the necessary faculties to support these individuals, and in some cases cause more harm to their well-being and mental state. This relationship is analyzed in Craig Haney’s essay “ “Madness” and penal confinement: Some observations on mental illness and prison pain.” Haney puts emphasis on the large number of prisoners who are considered mentally ill, and how the harsh treatment given in prisons can leave with lasting consequences.
These practices can result in a large number of mentally ill prisoners cycling back and forth between mainline prison housing and various forms of isolated confinement, a pattern that poses especially significant risks to their well-being. In many instances, their long-term mental health is placed in grave jeopardy as a result. For some of them, their deterioration, decompensation, and even more serious consequences (in the form of self-harm and suicide) may prove irreversible (e.g. Kaba et al., 2014).
This is unacceptable behavior for an already suffering group of people, and the mental pain can extend to anyone who has dealt with the prison system. Haney points out that these people are a sizable minority, with the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimating that fully 43% of prisoners in the U.S suffer from mental health problems including major depression. There are clear reasons why this treatment is a common association in prison suicides, especially among the mentally ill. Signs of worsening problems can oftentimes be ignored or unnoticed until it is too late.
Making people better is a good goal that is constatnly failed inside a prison environmentt. If prisons aren’t preventing crime in the way so many of us are led to believe, it is important to question if they are instead making things worse. Building more prisons doesn’t reduce crime, it only houses more criminals. It is not surprising when looking at how prisoners have been treated and the lack of effort put into rehabilitating them that recidivism is still rampant. Prisons only create worse prisoners who are less equipped for outside life, and this ultimately does not prevent recidivism.
Bullock, K., & Bunce, A. (2020). “‘The prison doesn’t talk to you about getting out of prison’: On why prisons in England and Wales fail to rehabilitate prisoners.” Criminology & Criminal Justice, 20(1), 111–127.
Cheah, P. K., Unnithan, N. P., & Raran, A. M. S. (2020). “Rehabilitation Programs for Incarcerated Drug Offenders in Malaysia: Experience-Based Perspectives on Reintegration and Recidivism.” The Prison Journal, 100(2), 201–223.
Couloute, L. (2018, October). “Getting Back on Course: Educational exclusion and attainment among formerly incarcerated people.” Prison Policy Initiative.
Crewe B. “Soft power in prison: Implications for staff–prisoner relationships, liberty and legitimacy.” European journal of criminology.
Fazel, Seena, and Achim Wolf. “A Systematic Review of Criminal Recidivism Rates Worldwide: Current Difficulties and Recommendations for Best Practice.” PLOS ONE, Public Library of Science.
Haney, C. (2017). “Madness” and penal confinement: Some observations on mental illness and prison pain.” Punishment & Society, 19(3), 310–326.
Petersilia, Joan. “Beyond the prison bubble.” The Wilson Quarterly, vol. 35, no. 1, winter 2011, pp. 50+. Gale Academic OneFile, Accessed 20 Nov. 2022.
Newbold, G. (2006) “Criminal Reoffending and the Failure of Corrections: Rehabilitating Criminals Ain’t That Easy.”
Söring Jens. : “An Expensive Way to Make Bad People Worse: An Essay on Prison Reform from an Insider’s Perspective.” Lantern Books, 2004.