Incentives Lead to More Effective Prisons

By · Thursday, March 5th, 2009

Noel responded to an article I wrote about the need for work-release and study-release programs in prison with questions about specific prison reforms I thought would work best to prepare more prisoners for law-abiding, successful lives upon release.

 The 21-plus years that I have served inside prisons of every security level convince me that we need prison reforms that would bring fundamental changes. The manner in which prisons currently operate needs to change. Prisons extinguish hope. They perpetuate cycles of failure that result in high recidivism rates. They spawn negative adjustment patterns that lead to the proliferation of gangs, violence, and corruption, threatening society both inside and beyond prison boundaries.

Instead of extinguishing hope, I am convinced that administrators can encourage more prisoners to prepare for law-abiding lives upon release through the use of incentives. Rather than focusing on the threat of further punishments, administrators ought to implement clear mechanisms through which prisoners can earn graduated increases in freedom. Such a fundamental shift would lead to lower operating costs for prisons, and safer communities for taxpayers.

The big change I would make is to abolish the use of time as a measure of justice. In today’s system, citizens believe that we achieve justice by locking away offenders for specific lengths of time. A judge imposes a term of ten years or twenty years at the sentencing hearing. Yet I would submit that a more effective sanction would measure justice in terms of efforts an offender makes to reconcile with society. The offender who works hard to redeem his criminal behavior and to prepare for a law-abiding life ought to earn release faster than the offender who serves his time in negative adjustment patterns.

Today’s prison system does not encourage offenders through the use of incentives to induce positive adjustments. High recidivism rates and high operating costs result from the current prison management objectives. In order to make more effective use of prison resources, we need reforms that would begin with changes to encourage prisoners to earn graduated increases in freedom through merit. By educating themselves, building strong networks of community support, making contributions to society, and building sustained records of discipline, offenders ought to earn freedom.

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