Realistic Rehabilitation: 12 points for future success

Thoughts on reforming rehabilitation built by looking at past failures


Rehabilitation has become the keyword upon which our nation pins all its hopes that inmates will one day become productive members of society. Unfortunately, during the last 20 years most rehabilitation projects have resembled doomed-to-fail money pits more than successful policies. In fact, when most of us hear the word “rehabilitation” we let out a collective groan.


(AP photo)
(AP photo)

In the face of early inmate releases, the pressure to create successful rehabilitation programs is stronger than ever. By looking at the mistakes and failings of past programs we can learn, and with a little luck, we might be able to use the instability of today’s system as a window for implementing some projects that really work for the future.

In recent history, well-meaning people have tried everything they can think of to teach inmates to become productive members of society, only to see them return to prison between 60 and 70 percent of the time. This frustration has led to more money being thrown at the problem, to the point it has been incremental in bankrupting some departments.

This has forced most departments to cut their rehabilitation programs, and do away with the amazingly ineffective programs out there. So, faced with a clean slate, let’s take a look at what has been tried and why it has failed. Once we’ve looked at the areas we’ve gone wrong, I’ll outline my 12 points for successful rehabilitation programs.

College Education
Why put shiny rims on a 30-year-old Datsun? Sure, that’s a harsh comparison, but my point is that we are over-reaching. Many of the inmates in our system were not destined for college in any way, shape, or form prior to entering the penal system, so why force it on them now?

Question: What is the end result of cramming a college education down the throats of car thieves, rapists and murders? Answer: Car thieves, rapists and murders with college degrees.

What we forgot was that even if most inmates complete their college course, they have little to no chance of using it when they get back to the streets. Many of them were attracted to a life of crime because it was easy money. Despite what many inmate groups will tell you, I do not accept that they had to become a criminal because of their environment. I know too many people who I work with who are from the same neighborhoods as the felons they watch.

Even if they do have the drive to work legitimately, they will have a hard time finding employment. The American public, as sympathetic as they can appear to inmates sometimes, do not want felons working for them. If an inmate walks away from prison with an MBA in accounting, who is going to hire him? So again, why did we try to put rims on a Datsun?

Vocational Training
Vocational training was a great idea. Or, at least it could have been a great idea if the wrong people hadn’t taken control of it. The theory here was to provide a skill to an inmate to take back with him to the outside world so he could get a job upon parole. There were two problems with how this idea was implemented: First, the classes were offered to “lifer” inmates, and second, the skills that were being taught were not in realistic fields.

As we began these programs, we started including inmates who would never get out of prison. This was a horrid mistake that made the entire process useless. The “lifers” would go to these programs to manufacture weapons, smuggle contraband, or otherwise sabotage the process. These programs became large-scale weapon manufacturing shops that churned out some impressively deadly instruments.

To make matters even worse, the programs offered were unrealistic. One program taught inmates how to paint airplanes, while another taught inmates how to become aviation mechanics. These jobs would have been great on the outside, but realistically, what reputable airline would hire felons to work on their planes?

There were some effective programs. One was the auto body shop and the auto mechanics program. These were realistic programs. However, these programs were largely cut from budgets years ago because the “lifer” inmates who worked there were churning out what can only be described as “swords.”

Vocational training has gone bust. Between the lack of commitment from the inmates and the lack of realistic programs, very few people have benefited.

12 steps toward successful rehabilitation programs
Despite my pessimism towards past programs, I feel all of us, correctional staff, need to understand something: There is a need for rehabilitation programs. And if we have a first or second time offender that we can truly assert will benefit from our help, we should have something ready for them. This will avoid them re-offending and leave a lot less victims in their wake.

I’ve developed a set of 12 steps — or points — that I feel could contribute to successful rehabilitation programs. These points are mostly derived from what officers have been saying for years. I think society might finally be ready to listen.

1. Don’t waste money and resources on “lifer” inmates. This is critical. We need to stop wasting our resources on inmates that will never again see the light of day. This includes inmates with terms more than 20 years. Those inmates may feel like they could benefit from these programs, but society will not. We work for society as a whole so I think no inmate should be allowed in these programs until they are within eight years of release.

2. No more advanced degrees. There is no reason in the world that an inmate should leave an institution with a college degree paid for by tax payers. If an inmate truly wants to pursue college, he can do that on his own dime. I have yet to meet an inmate, or former inmate, working successfully in corporate America because of their prison college degree.

3. Sex offenders need psychiatric care, not rehabilitation. Study after study has shown that sex offenders will almost always re-offend. We’re wasting our time and money teaching them a trade. I’m not saying society should ignore sex-offenders — we should concentrate on giving them the psychiatric care that can affect their future behavior.

4. Real trade programs. Let’s have some realistic trade programs. Again, without the presence of “lifer” inmates, we should be able to teach a skill or two. No airplane mechanics or optical programs; these are unrealistic and do not provide a marketable skill when the inmate gets out. We should concentrate on skills that can be useful for an inmate’s future, programs such as wildfire firemen, agriculture, vehicle body shop, construction, and automotive mechanics.

5. Allow private businesses to teach their skills. Many states have to employ specialty staff just to teach inmates. We should consider allowing private industry access to the lower level inmates to teach them the skills that will help them stay employed when they get out. These organizations would have to make some assurances of future employment in exchange for access to this pool of employees. A construction company for example, could spend a year or two training an inmate. During this time the inmate would produce a product for the company, which benefits them, while receiving the training and job opportunity for when they get out. There are some security issues here, but nothing that can’t be worked out.

6. Pay for inmate labor. Rather than the state bearing the cost for inmate labor, lets allow the companies coming in to train inmates to pay them a salary. This will allow for a huge reduction in most state budgets, while still accomplishing the tasks needed to run the prison.

7. Release of trained, low-risk offenders. If the offender can be trained properly, and has shown good behavior, AND has a promise of employment outside of the prison; we should consider an early parole. This parole would be heavily supervised, and the loss of the employment would translate into a return to prison for the inmate. Sex offenders and violent offenders would be excluded from this program, but if we can give trained, low-risk inmates a fair shake, it could save us millions. There needs to be a caveat that this will only be done once for each inmate. If the released inmate commits a crime, that is the end of their privileges.

8. Increase the size of parole operations. Immediately, all parole agents should be given a manageable case load, and held accountable for their visits to a parolee’s home. Parole officers should be given the flexibility to impose a return to prison for any inmate that is not living up to the expectations of parole. Currently it is a mountain of paperwork every time an inmate is recommitted to prison. There is no reason for this, and the process should be streamlined for the safety of the community.

9. Increase the options for officers. Officers should be able to determine which inmates are successful and which are not. Officers should be allowed to make recommendations for the deletion of an inmate from a rehabilitation program, or the privileges that come with it. If an inmate puts on a good show at work, but then return to his housing unit and starts problems, the officers should be able to move the inmate to an area with fewer privileges.

10. Create non-conforming facilities. If an inmate refuses to participate in a program, we need a place for them to serve out their term. Parole should also summarily be denied for any inmate refusing to participate in a rehabilitation program. Entrance to non-conforming facilities would only be possible for outright refusal to participate or through the recommendations of unit officers.

11. Use the labor. Prisons should once again be self sufficient. Inmates for whom we cannot find a suitable program, or those who behave well but have a long term, must work for the betterment of the prison. Clothing, shoes, and food can all be handled by these inmates, as well as much of the maintenance and cleaning. This will set up longer sentenced inmates for the rehabilitation programs later, and give others something to do.

12. Treat inmates like inmates and hold them accountable. For years we have been moving away from this. I am not suggesting we go back to the days of physical punishment, however, I am suggesting a return to discipline. Mandate that inmates keep their hair neat and short. Mandate inmates to wear proper clothing. Mandate inmates to keep themselves and their areas clean. Believe it or not, many states have gone away from this. Not only does a structured environment provide stability, it also serves as a security tool. When an area is very structured, it is easier to see things that are out of place. This can prevent escapes, murders, assaults and drug use.

Why are we discussing this now?
I bring this issue up now because we are in a unique and opportune position. With budgets being slashed, creative new ways are being explored to reduce the costs of housing inmates. Rather than mass release inmates, we should look at other ways to reduce costs. We have a real chance to improve our prisons.

With any luck there are some administrators out there that will read this and agree. If the above changes are implemented, the department making the changes could save millions of dollars, and maybe, actually, rehabilitate someone.

As always, be safe out there.

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