Expanding The Broken Glass Theory for Prison Reform

By · Thursday, December 11th, 2008

In Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference , the author wrote about The Broken Glass Theory. I had read about the study before, as many law-and-order types extolled its merits. The Broken Glass Theory held that when society allowed the most trivial offenses to go unpunished, more significant offenses followed. Accordingly, by vigorously punishing the slightest offenses against the public order, society simultaneously discouraged more egregious crimes.

As a long-term prisoner, I have observed how prison administrators employ their own version of The Broken Glass Theory in managing their institutions. They are convinced that control and punishment represent society’s best response to shape human behavior.

At the United States Penitentiary in Atwater, for example, where a psychotic prisoner murdered a correctional officer earlier this year, high-level administrators responded with changes in prison management that promised more severe punishments. They drew plans to convert USP Lewisburg into a much more restrictive institution that would lock troublesome prisoners from across the country in more austere conditions. At USP Atwater, administrators brought in a new warden, the no-nonsense Hector Rios, to straighten things out.

According to media reports, Warden Rios came to the penitentiary with the intention of bringing more control. He ordered yellow lines painted on corridor floors and ordered guards to strictly enforce a code requiring prisoners to walk within the yellow lines. He ordered guards to frisk prisoners regularly and to rifle through their cells frequently in search of contraband. The new warden enforced the rules to the letter and threatened disciplinary action on anyone who didn’t comply.

In the Merced Sun-Star, Scott Jason reported on Warden Rios saying that “prison management comes down to control.” Like The Broken Glass Theory advocates, prison guards feel convinced that punishing trivial offenses like walking outside yellow lines with swiftness, certainty, and severity, they can lessen the possibilities for prisoners to commit more serious rule violations like murder.

I have been locked inside the Federal Bureau of Prisons since 1987. During those 21-plus years that I’ve served thus far, administrators have confined me inside prisons of every security level. I’ve been forced to share cells, tables, and shower space with many psychotic prisoners who thrive on mayhem. Certainly, order, control, and The Broken Glass Theory has a useful role in prison management.

Yet prisons fail society when promises of swift and certain punishments are the only factors in the equation. High recidivism rates show that oppressive institutions do not prepare offenders well to function upon release. I know the reasons behind these dismal results. Unfortunately, prison administrators ignore the need for incentives to motivate socially acceptable behavior.

Prison communities lock many hundreds of inmates inside close boundaries that extinguish hope. Prisons become societies of deprivation. They are brilliantly designed and constructed and operated to suppress the best aspects of humanity and to bring forth the worst. Despite the proliferating turmoil, some prisoners live lives of discipline. They commit to educating themselves, to building strong networks of support. They strive to generate resources that will help them transition into society as law-abiding citizens. In their lust to implement more controls, however, administrators show no interest in the individual striving to adjust positively.

Administrators express decisive views on the need for controls to discourage bad behavior. Ironically, however, the entire field of corrections resists the idea of meaningful incentives that would motivate more prisoners to prepare for productive lives upon release.

I know first hand how exposure to the degrading life of the penitentiary can paralyze an individual’s will to grow in productive ways. While serving time and struggling with patronizing rules that challenge a man’s dignity, men lose years or decades of their lives. Family members and loved ones desert them. They feel trapped, as if they are living a civil death.

Prisoners with weaker wills, or less vision for the future, sometimes succumb to the temptations of defiance. They lack the discipline or energy necessary to master English, math, or history. What’s the point? Prisons degenerate into primal societies where the most valuable currency flows to those who can instill fear in others, or to those who build coteries of recalcitrant followers who strive to disrupt the institution that holds them.

More controls can help keep the wicked in line. Yet for any “corrections” to take place, society needs prison reforms that will offer meaningful incentives to those who commit to work toward redemption and reconciling with society. I’ve been working to transcend the walls for many years, though I’m more hopeful now than ever.

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