Incentives Would Improve Prison Culture

By · Friday, March 20th, 2009

The U.S. Congress published findings that show how much prisons cost taxpayers to operate. They swallow more than $59 billion each year. According to the Pew Report, those funds are diverted from social programs like education, health care, and unemployment assistance. What taxpayers may find especially troubling is that despite the massive expenditures, recidivism rates remain at the troubling high level of more than 60 percent.

As a long-term prisoner, my experience convinces me that the reasons so many prisoners adjust in ways that fail to prepare them for law-abiding lives upon release may be found in the tactics and strategies of prison management. They extinguish hope. To change the dismal results, we need prison reform that would bring fundamental improvements to prison culture.

Stephanie Kidder, a criminal justice student, asked what sort of incentives I thought would be appropriate to improve our nation’s prison system. The purpose of incentives, I think, ought to focus on inducing prisoners to adjust in ways that will prepare them for the challenges that await their release. Current management practices result in rebellion, defiance, and adjustment patterns that perpetuate cycles of failure. Incentives should not exist to make life easier for prisoners, but to make society safer by lowering both recidivism rates and prison operating costs.

To achieve such an end, the incentives ought to be wide and far reaching. They should provide a mechanism through which all offenders could work toward gradual increases in freedom. That does not mean all offenders can lead a cushy life, but rather that they can improve their existence through merit and positive adjustments.

Some of those incentives would include access to more telephone time, access to more visiting opportunities, access to the use of email and other technologies that may prepare them for release. Congress found through its Second Chance Act that strong networks of community support represent the best probability for success upon release. Administrators ought to offer incentives that prisoners may earn to nurture those ties.

Incentives can lead to a better prison culture. I measure “better” by safer prisons that reduce recidivism and operating costs. Administrators ought to use incentives to create prison cultures where guards can become correctional officers, and thus enjoy more fulfillment from their profession.

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