Prison Reform Can Lower Recidivism

By · Sunday, May 10th, 2009

In 2002, the Bureau of Justice Statistics published Recidivism of Prisoners Released in 1994 by Patrick Langan and David Levin. “The study found that 30 percent [of] released prisoners were rearrested in the first six months, 44 percent within the first year, and 67.5 percen within three years of release from prison.” I gathered this data from Professor Joan Petersilia’s book When Prisoners Come Home. To me, the data makes a compelling case on the need for prison reform.

My 22 years of experience as a federal prisoner give me a strong opinion on the reasons that our system of corrections breeds so much failure. The prisons in which I have been held extinguish hope. They do not encourage those who strive to prepare for law abiding lives upon release. The consequence of this flawed policy, from my perspective, is that prisoners who struggle to sustain focus through incarceration abandon adjustment patterns that could help them prepare for law-abiding lives upon release. Instead, they embrace adjustment patterns that lead to continuing cycles of failure.

Professor Petersilia reports some of the findings from her distinguished colleague, Professor James Q. Wilson. For many years I have read of Professor Wilson’s work. He is well known for his 1985 book Thinking About Crime, in which he wrote that prisons ought to isolate and punish. I’ve served my entire sentence in prisons designed not only to isolate and punish, but also to extinguish hope. The high recidivism rates that the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported represent the fallout from such myopic objectives.

The problem with prisons is that they condition people to live inside boundaries, though they simultaneously condition people to fail upon release. We need prison reforms that would lower recidivism rates and simultaneously lower prison operating costs. The way to accomplish such goals would require fundamental changes with the ways administrators manage prisons.

Rather than extinguishing hope and erecting barriers that obstruct prisoners from preparing offenders for law-abiding lives upon release, administrators ought to implement incentive programs that encourage the opposite. As Justice Burger once said in his speech Factories with Fences. We need prison reforms that will encourage offenders to earn and learn their way to freedom.

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