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What are the most successful methods of rehabilitating prisoners?

A question recently posted to Quora asks, “what are the most successful methods of rehabilitating prisoners?” Nelson Butler, an inmate at San Quentin State Prison, gives his response. Add your own opinions in the comments.

I really wish it was that easy to just identify those programs that rehabilitate prisoners and then duplicate them throughout the system. Then our minority communities wouldn’t be dealing with so much crime and violence as they are now.

The truth is, from my experience of living in the prison system, that rehabilitation can’t be cookie-cutted and pre-fabbed to solve every reason for a person’s criminal behavior. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to solving the problem of crime. I have been involved in various programs all during my 23 years of incarceration, and although many were very useful and gave me tremendous insight into myself and why I committed my crimes, some of the groups and programs were not designed for me, so I didn’t benefit from them. The trick to rehabilitation is an individual approach where the offender has his/her particular issues identified, and then they are directed towards issue-specific programs that address that person’s own needs. But, since this is a quick-fix society, I would, from my ‘professional’ opinion (LOL), suggest two things to help rehabilitate prisoners.

The first thing I would do is offer college programs to prisoners. There are numerous studies that show what educating prisoners has a drastic effect on recidivism, and a prisoner who earns a college degree is much more likely NOT to commit any new crimes upon release and not come back to prison. The reasons, I believe, are because, a) the prisoner learns new skills and his mind is stimulated, so he now sees that there are other ways of earning money that going out and being a stick-up kid or slanging dope to make money. They can now see that their previous lifestyle wasn’t conducive to them living the type of life that they wanted for themselves or their families. Earning an education in prison, especially a college degree, opens up opportunities for employment and a career that many men and women in prison feel is out of their reach.

The b) part is earning a college degree is an incredible self-esteem builder. My personal experience is I started taking college classes at San Quentin in 1997; it took me four and a half years just to earn my Associate of Arts degree from Patten College. But, the feeling of empowerment I felt in 2001 when I walked across the stage in the Protestant Chapel to receive my diploma is something that I can’t describe. Up until then, I was doing the bare minimum, as far as programs, just to have something to show the parole board. But, once I earned my degree, I became truly invested in my own rehabilitation, and became what we call here in San Quentin a “program junkie,” signing-up for, and going to, every program, group, seminar, class, whatever, just to better myself.

This type of motivation you can’t regulate on anybody. There is no rehab treatment center, no court- mandated program, no lengthy prison sentence that can get someone who feels rejected by society to change her life if she doesn’t want to. I know too many men in here who have a “I-don’t-give-a-f*@k” attitude and have given up on a normal life in society and the American Dream (whatever that is). Unfortunately, many of them are young Black and Latino men under the age of 30. They have simply given up on doing the right things in their communities, and by default, given up on themselves. So, once in prison, there is no motivation to rehabilitate themselves.

They feel as if they are unheard, disrespected, unvalued, made to feel like second-class citizens despite that promise of the American Dream that many of them learned in school. In fact, many of them feel that the so-called American Dream is a bunch of B.S. and a lie, so they are going to get theirs by any means necessary. But, give someone a college degree, an AA or a BA/S, and you will see their whole attitude change. They feel self-assured, empowered, capable of accomplishing anything because they have achieved the impossible in a place that is infamous for crushing hopes and dreams. If you can earn a college degree while under the pressures of doing a bid in the pen, then there is NOTHING in mainstream society that you can’t accomplish.

I have to add one last thing to what I feel is a good method for rehabbing prisoners: don’t let them become prisoners in the first place. There are a plethora of studies that show a significant correlation between early education and the odds of a student eventually coming to prison. This is called the Schools-to-Prison pipeline, and I see its effects every day. I would encourage citizens to lobby our lawmakers to put a greater emphasis on our failing educational system, especially for K-12th grades, and less on giving as much money to the corrections department as they want. In the long run, we save money if we invest in our children and their future by investing in schools than by waiting for the child to grown up disillusioned and disenfranchised, commit a crime and then lock him/her up for life. We are going to have to deal with him/her eventually, might as well save some money on the front end, instead of wasting a life on the back end.

All communications between inmates and external channels are facilitated by approved volunteers since inmates do not have access to the internet. This program with Quora is part of The Last Mile San Quentin. Twitter: @TLM

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