Turning Prisons into Schools

We can no longer ignore the incarceration crisis in the United States. Our correctional system is not living up to its namesake: corrections. An over-emphasis on retribution over rehabilitation is counter-productive to one of the key roles that a correctional system is supposed to fill: to return people back to society in a better state than they started.

The U.S. prison system releases far too many people back into our communities without the tools they need to integrate successfully back into society. This lack of rehabilitation and over-emphasis on retribution harms all of us. 95% of people in prison will eventually be released. As John M., a prisoner at Monroe Correctional Complex, highlights well: “Because of our misconceptions about crime and incarceration, we’re perpetuating a disservice, an injustice, on our neighborhoods, on our families, when we’re not properly rehabilitating these men and women in prison before we’re releasing them into our communities”. Correctional officers are also disserved by policies which make prisons less humane, and more dangerous and inhospitable for everyone involved.

In countries which place greater emphasis on rehabilitation, fewer former prisoners go on to commit further crimes. In German prisons, a prisoners’ loss of liberty due to incarceration is considered the complete punishment, without the need for poor prison conditions or lack of education opportunities. And the numbers bear out the results: 33% of former prisoners in Germany go on to commit crimes within 3 years of release, as opposed to 70% in the U.S.

To be smart on addressing crime, crime needs to be understood as both an individual and a societal issue. Today in the U.S., crime is dominantly viewed as an individual moral failure. Adults are certainly responsible for their decisions, and should be held accountable in a society that prides itself on individual freedom. This view was more commonplace before the War on Drugs and expansions in mandatory minimum sentence laws throughout the 1970s - 1990s. Nonetheless, if we are to design successful policies and build a society which fosters conditions to reduce the likelihood of crime, we must recognize that high incarceration rates are symptomatic of larger social issues. A lack of education and workforce opportunities is at the root of social problems leading to crime, as well as recidivism. As Michelle Alexander points out, in low-income communities across America, young men are more likely to end up in prison more than they are to make it to college. Multiple studies provide a conclusive link between crime, recidivism, and education. To address the root causes of crime, we need to shift the balance toward rehabilitation and education in our correctional system. A prison is designed to suspend freedoms. That is where the punishment should end, and an opportunity to reform oneself needs to begin. Prisons need to function as education institutions. I suggest five areas for reforms which are needed:

(1) Correctional facilities need to expand prison education programs across:

  • Academic programs
  • Vocational programs
  • Social & emotional wellness programs By some estimates, academic and vocational programs are unavailable for three quarters of imprisoned adults. Where they are available, they are too often considered a privilege for good behavior, instead of a key mission of correctional facilities. A recent study has found that only 2% of adults in custody are enrolled in a college program, while nearly 70% are eligible.

(2) Correctional facilities need to measure and track learning as with the same rigor as disciplinary infractions. Just providing isolated education programs is not enough to drive the results needed. Academic case management also needs to be an integral part of prisons. In my role with Nucleos, I’ve been talking with many administrators and state correctional departments. Many prisons have no equivalent of a student information system. If learning is going to be an integral part of a correctional system, it must be tracked and measured.

(3) Correctional facilities should provide counseling on careers and education pathways (4) Credits toward parole should be based on progress in rehabilitation programs. The recently passed First Step Act takes these changes into effect for federal prisons.

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