Finding meaningful use of time for inmates

Offender idleness is the precursor for lack of order and disruption

Meaningful use of time is the byword for correctional leaders whose goal is to manage prison or jail populations in the safest manner possible. Offender idleness is the precursor for lack of order and disruption. With budgets on tilt, agencies are dangerously close to slipping backwards from important gains made in recent years to a time experienced in earlier periods of correctional management.

These were times when only a few meager programs were funded, long waiting lists quickly became the norm, and little evidence-based research, which measured the value of these programs, existed. Alarmingly, in an effort to identify any opportunity to save money, decision-makers are cutting a wide swath; as a result, programs and services that were once used to keep populations engaged are being dramatically reduced.

What's left is a population whose idleness will likely influence important components of a facility's daily dynamics. As a result, correctional agencies may experience changes in the overall atmosphere of institutions, placing staff and offenders at risk, and eventually creating costs in the future which are greater than current savings being realized. Moreover, with programs being eliminated, offenders will be ill-prepared to re-enter communities successfully.

Important data which has been gathered over the years will become meaningless as trends observed and measured are interrupted by gaps. At some point, 90 to 95 percent of America's incarcerated populations will be faced with release and re-entry. Therefore, best correctional practice means preparing offenders for release from the very beginning of their period of imprisonment.

With funding for transition programs hanging in the balance, it is safe to assume offenders will repeat past behaviors, pose a risk for the public's safety and impact recidivism. For example, offenders, whose basic reading skills and level of education are below the eighth grade level, prior to entering the correctional system, stand little chance of successful re-entry and finding significant employment without time spent in developing academic skills during incarceration.

At one time, facility programs created opportunities for offenders to discover new ways to solve problems, deal with anger, develop practical life skills, complete sex offender treatment, drug and alcohol treatment and other classes. All of these are important to address genuine rehabilitative goals and are required by parole boards considering terms and conditions of supervision status.

Vocational training and correctional industries bring opportunities to develop and practice real work skills. With these programs on the chopping block, age-old questions surrounding recidivism will resurface, with discussions about meaningful research becoming murky.

Ironically, government officials are clamoring to get offenders out the door earlier, while at the same time eliminating the very programs which aid in success upon release. Parole boards and community placement specialists are not likely to risk early release for offenders ill-prepared, even under supervised conditions. Therefore, the push and pull factor will be ongoing.

For correctional agencies across the nation, saving money means, among other strategies, cutting programs. The result translates to greater offender idleness and fewer opportunities to prepare for release. Offenders, when not adequately prepared, are not likely to be approved for parole or community supervision.

This outcome suggests populations backing up in correctional facilities where there is little to do, and, when offenders are released, past mistakes are repeated. As current fiscal challenges continue, members of the public, correctional staff and offenders will notice the underlying strength of agency missions beginning to unravel.

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