For many decades, the U.S. recidivism rate – the rate at which released prisoners return to prison or get convicted again – has hovered around two-thirds or 70%. In other words, our correctional methods don’t rehabilitate very well. A wise prison warden in 1912 set forth the requirements of a good prison system, but our society has not listened to his advice. Instead, prisoners get worse over time by learning sick prison values, the process of “prisonization.” The gang culture thrives in prison, sometimes recruiting new members there or simply continuing previous gang membership. Our prisoners do not always receive drug rehabilitation or psychiatric counseling and only a minority learns valuable trades or skills or obtains a GED in prison. The mentally ill should be in mental institutions, not prisons; 16% of prisoners have significant mental problems. Inactivity and boredom take a toll, punctuated by violence and sometimes rape. Responsible conduct is not encouraged; we do not trust our prisoners to act responsibly. Their conduct in prison is judged by whether they have obeyed prison rules, not whether they are capable of navigating in the outside world. Because U.S. laws inhibit and discourage prison industries, relatively few convicts work productively while behind bars. In the federal and many state systems, determinate sentences release prisoners on a set date whether they are ready for the free world outside or not. After release, ex-cons are denied food stamps, welfare benefits, public housing, student loans and most jobs, and they are perceived as poor marriage, employment, housing and business prospects. Prisoners lose contact with family and friends, especially during longer sentences, and invariably find that things have changed while they were gone.
Recidivism will never disappear. There is no certain cure. Felons tend to be losers, and only some of them straighten out. So, recidivism is not going to hit zero, not in our lifetimes. But it can drop significantly with fundamental changes:
First, prisoners should support themselves in prison through industry in anticipation of supporting themselves outside prison, without interference from outside businesses and labor unions. By manufacturing goods now made exclusively in foreign countries, the age-old objection to prison industries will be eliminated.
Second, indeterminate sentences are required, making prisoners earn their release with constructive behavior, not just the passage of time. If released prisoners would clearly poison the outside world, they should not be released.
Third, education should be provided. Education in this context should include schooling in trades, job skills, GEDs, drug and alcohol rehabilitation or counseling, and even college degrees for those capable of performing college-level work.
Fourth, religious culture should be imparted. The government cannot get involved in propagating religion, so private religious organizations must play a significant role. The foundation of secure workhouses or work communities will facilitate religious activity, because those enterprises can be sponsored, owned or managed by religious organizations.
These changes are not my idea, but the culmination of 50 years of prison service by Zebulon Brockway, the father of rehabilitative penology. He figured it all out a long time ago. In the last 100 years, we lost our way.