Why correctional facilities should classify inmates based on readiness for change

Rehabilitation programs in correctional institutions are often very basic and not treated with respect and seriousness by many inmates who participate


By Harold Goldstein, Ph.D. and Dana Gabriel, Psy.D.

The national movement toward rehabilitating offenders calls for alternatives to incarceration in the form of community-based diversion programs. This may be appropriate for first time offenders, particularly those with substance abuse problems, but those who are repeat offenders require a more structured setting while being offered rehabilitative services. In previous articles, a proposed step-wise merit based model of correctional rehabilitation in a close custody setting was discussed. I would like to broaden the discussion to include the general population of any given correctional institution. Identifying and classifying inmates based on their readiness for programming and placing them in tracks best suited to maximize the opportunity for change should be a core mission of correctional institutions.

Most correctional institutions are designed to permit the safe and efficient movement of inmates. This includes movement to and from locations within the prison and across levels of status during a prison sentence, from most to least restrictive. Inmates are given access to work and programs based on their classification status, which is generally based on their institutional behavior and criminal history. This status also determines which housing units and correctional institutions the inmates can be sent to.

While all inmates should be given the opportunity to acquire skills necessary to lead lawful lives, these skills are of little use if one is not motivated to utilize them.
While all inmates should be given the opportunity to acquire skills necessary to lead lawful lives, these skills are of little use if one is not motivated to utilize them.

Rehabilitation reality

Currently, rehabilitation is an ancillary activity in the correctional world. The programs that are available in correctional institutions are often very basic and not treated with respect and seriousness by many of the inmates who take them. These are didactic, introductory level classes that are important in teaching fundamental skills such as decision making, available to any inmate who qualifies based on specific criteria such as sentence length, nature of offense and other institutional factors. Although there are inmates who take these classes because they genuinely want to change their lives, a greater number are primarily concerned with fulfilling a requirement. These inmates participate in programs because of the concrete benefits accrued to them; they have no real desire to integrate what they are learning into their attitudes.

These inmates have not given serious thought to changing their lifestyles, have never explored their own values, goals and relationships in any meaningful way and are essentially stuck on auto pilot. This does not mean that all of these men and women are content with their lives – in private moments, many feel quite desperate and lost. However, they can’t yet imagine their lives differently. Others are lost, do not see the light at the end of the tunnel and often are not even aware that they are in a tunnel.

Readiness for change

All inmates should be given access to introductory level courses, and while in these courses be challenged to examine their lives. Inmates who demonstrate a genuine motivation and ability for change should be offered more advanced opportunities for rehabilitation. Correctional institutions must then become expert at, and have much greater emphasis on, classifying inmates based on their genuine readiness for change, operationalized as an Investment in Programming score (also known as IP).

How to implement IP

Just as inmates are assigned an entry level security status by the classification department when they enter the correctional system, they would be similarly assigned an IP level by programming staff. This would necessitate re-thinking how inmates flow through the prison on any given day and move through the system across the sentence. The two classification systems would be complimentary - in certain cases security concerns would outweigh programming but the general rule would be that the inmate’s IP would determine housing, program and work assignments whenever possible.

The inmate’s IP score would be fluid and subject to change based on observations of their effort, behavior, and personal development. It is very difficult for inmates to maintain a façade of cooperation over an extended period, so their true level of investment in change would eventually become apparent. The only way to move through the system would be to devote effort into self-development.

Inmates that are genuinely engaged could progress to more challenging levels of programming where more would be expected of them in terms of participation and leadership. Inmates progressing at a slower rate or stuck at a particular stage of growth would remain at one level of status until they showed signs of development. This approach gives the more advanced inmates rehabilitative experiences that they are ready for, and it also serves to facilitate the motivation and growth of those inmates straddling the fence of change.

While all inmates should be given the opportunity to acquire skills necessary to lead lawful lives, these skills are of little use if one is not motivated to utilize them. Correctional institutions should become proficient at selecting those inmates who are most prepared for the change process and funneling them toward treatment opportunities that are commensurate with their readiness and abilities. In this way, rehabilitative resources would be portioned out based on the likelihood that the individual inmates would benefit from them, significantly upgrading the efficiency of the system that will increasingly be asked to expand rehabilitative opportunities for incarcerated offenders.

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