Why we should adjust our rehabilitation expectations

Rehabilitation doesn't mean returning a 'perfect' person to society; here's why we need to readjust our expectations

Considering myself to be quite the philosophical type, I am always questioning things in life. I question how beliefs are formed, how they change, and how they dissipate. I question how individuals and societies become who and what they are. What shapes them? What molds them? Who, or what, had an impact upon them, forcing or encouraging them to grow or evolve? Today I pondered the complexity of the word ‘rehabilitation,’ through the lens of corrections professionals across the nation.

My opinions and beliefs have morphed slowly yet drastically throughout my ten year career in corrections. I have been fortunate enough to have experienced many different areas of the field, and have been able to see things from many different perspectives, which has had a powerful impact on the shaping of my own view of corrections as a whole.

I have been a line officer in a male prison with seven different classification levels, ranging from minimum to maximum, paid to “people watch.” I’ve been an intake officer, tasked with interviewing every inmate walking through the front door, listening to them express regret, fear, anger, and elation at times; watching them go through several emotions throughout their time at my desk.

Kathryn Griffin Grinan, left, reacts as Harris County jail inmates sing her praises during a group session Tuesday, June 4, 2013, in Houston. Griffin started and runs prostitution rehabilitation program We've Been There Done That. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)
Kathryn Griffin Grinan, left, reacts as Harris County jail inmates sing her praises during a group session Tuesday, June 4, 2013, in Houston. Griffin started and runs prostitution rehabilitation program We've Been There Done That. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)

I’ve been a case manager, listening to family and social workers try to support and/or enable inmates on my case load, while listening to and coaching the inmates on whatever crisis or transition phase they were experiencing at that time. I’ve been a training and development specialist for corrections and detention officers at the Law Enforcement Academy, watching new recruits enter the field with enthusiasm and vigor as well as with hesitance and fear.

I ended my ten year career as the STG Coordinator for Montana State Prison, and this is where I began to really see more clearly. I worked with the worst of the worst inmates, in terms of behavior and criminal thinking errors.

I saw very little “rehabilitation,” and even less hope with these gang members. I observed a system with good intentions go in continual circles, beating its head off a wall, while trying to beg and barter with this population of misfits, just to get 24 hours of compliance and cooperation. I watched fear play out in many different forms, from different kinds of inmates.

Finishing  my career in corrections, I thought these inmates, and the field of corrections as a whole, were hopeless. I was wrong. People in general, no matter which side of the fence they are on, are not hopeless. They are not perfect either. No one is perfect; not the inmate who has been in lock up for fifteen years, not the Director of Corrections, who has served 30 dedicated years.  We are all imperfect humans.

The word “rehabilitation” sounds like a finished product. It sounds like a final destination of greatness: perfection. Our goal in corrections is to rehabilitate individuals who have victimized society. We want to “fix” those that are “broken.” What is the measurement of success: no more new crimes committed? If that is the case, we are hypocritically expecting more of these individuals than we, ourselves, can give. I speed every day. I don’t always wear my seatbelt. I even run stop lights in the middle of the night, when there is no traffic, and I have looked both ways. Those are all crimes, and I consider myself to be an upstanding citizen.

I think we set our expectations of inmates too high in our minds sometimes, expecting them to be perfect before we consider them “fixed,” or worthy of our approval. We forget they are human, just as much as you and me. I’m not talking about easing up and giving these inmates a break. We need to hold them accountable. We need to give them consequences for their chosen behavior, and they need to fulfill their debt to society and their victims. I’m talking about allowing ourselves, as corrections professionals, to be more forgiving in our minds.

Expecting perfection out of any human is absurd, but expecting complete compliance and total rehabilitation from an individual that struggles to follow any sort of authority or order on a daily basis is equally as insane. If we can measure success for each inmate individually, seeking any kind of improvement in any area of their life, we will be more apt to see hope in the people we are tasked with rehabilitating, as well as in society in general. Corrections professionals suffer from burnout so frequently, and research has shown that hopelessness is one of the key factors.

Why bother trying at our jobs, whether it is to serve food or to serve disciplinary hearing forms, if there is no hope for “rehabilitation” anyway? When we see hope, there is hope. We need to learn to look for small successes in the population we work with. We need to do this for their sake, and for our own, too.

Take, for example, the gang member I saw last week that is out of prison and almost finished with a community halfway house program. He is not “rehabilitated” because he has 40 years of probation and parole to complete before he serves out his sentence, but there is hope. He might commit a new crime in the future. He has failed before. He probably breaks small rules. He probably hasn’t learned all there is to know about success yet, but he has learned some things.

After talking to him, I found that he has learned to appreciate nature. Nature is his new coping mechanism. He prefers it over drugs. He has learned that he cannot return home when he is done with his community program. He knows his family will be a negative influence on him. He has learned how to order food in a restaurant. He had never experienced that until a few months ago. He doesn’t know what his future looks like, but he has learned that he has one. I say he is succeeding; always a work in progress, just like every other human being. There is hope. We, as correctional professionals, owe it to ourselves and to those we serve, to find it somewhere, even in the smallest form.

All improvements count because humans will never be perfect, or “rehabilitated.” 

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