Lowering Recidivism Rates Through Liberalism

By · Monday, February 9th, 2009

Josh is a recent graduate from Yale University who responded to an earlier article I wrote about prison guards. In my article, I had given my perspective on why they were guards rather than correctional officers, and Josh wrote about lessons he had learned through a course in political psychology.

According to findings from an academic study, Josh told me that many who pursue careers in law enforcement, presumably including correctional offers, tended to score high on tests that measured dispositions toward aggression and dominance. If such findings were accurate, Josh suggested that the best way to reform America’s prison system and to lower recidivism rates would be to staff there institutions with people who showed higher aptitudes for social work than corrections.

During the more than 21 years that I have served in prisons of every security level, I’ve had opportunities to interact with scores of people who pursued careers in corrections. During the early 1990’s I as confined in one medium-security prison with a progressive warden who selected me to participate on an inmate panned that would help acclimate new prison employees to the environment. My experiences convinced me that people who sought careers in corrections were primarily looking for job security in order to provide stability for their families. The policies and culture of corrections shaped their perceptions and the manners in which they carried out their jobs.

For at least the past 20-plus years, a culture of conservatism rather than liberalism has dominated to prison milieu. That meant administrators placed an emphasis on labels and rigid structures that dehumanized people in prison. The institution of corrections took precedence over the individual who served time within prison boundaries. As such, us-versus-them perceptions proliferated.

Staff members may have begun their career with ideas about making a positive difference in society. They were quickly overwhelmed, however, with the pervasive negativity. Recalcitrant prisoners tried to manipulate them, and their fellow staff members would ridicule those they perceived as being “inmate lovers.” Staff members learned quickly that an interest in helping prisoners emerge as successful, law-abiding citizens was not going to advance their careers.

Reforming the prison system the, would require an overhaul of the system–an advancement toward the more enlightened philosophy of liberalism that recognized each individuals capacity for change. Prison reforms would have to rely on more than the threat of punishment; they would also have to offer promise of shaping positive adjustments through meaningful incentives.

Under the current system of “corrections,” staff members are not held accountable to taxpayers or anyone else for the number of prisoners who emerge as law-abiding citizens. Their only responsibility is preserving the sanctity of the institution. Recidivism rates that exceed 60 percent are a consequence of these policies, and taxpayers fund these human warehouses that perpetuate failure with $60 billion each year.

To lower recidivism rates and make society safer, we need prison reform that brings a more enlightened approach to corrections.

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One Response to “Lowering Recidivism Rates Through Liberalism”

  1. Richard E. says:


    Mr. Santos:

    In your article entitled “Lowering Recidivism Rates Through Liberalism” you indicate why you believe that correctional officers are guards rather that the name they currently have, you also mention that in order for lowering recidivism rates we need to do it with liberalism. We have been on the conservative side now for about 25-30 years, according to my professor and what he has taught us. And lastly you mention that some correctional workers intended to be “social workers” within the prison setting, but quickly found out that it is something unattainable because of the nature of prisons. My question to you is, do you think it will ever come down to having social workers work with prisoners within the prison setting? I know that’s what we need, but do you think that maybe “correction officers” will get a new title/name for their current job, or do you think that the election of President Obama will have something to do with taking a step forward in prison reform and/or lowering recidivism rates? Sorry if it is too many questions within one. I’d really like to see what you believe we’re in for in the future. Thanks for your time and I, as well as all of us appreciate the time you take to read and respond to our questions. Thank You.

    Richard E.