Reform Prison Guards

By · Saturday, March 14th, 2009

In the 1970s, Professor Phillip Zimbardo conducted the famous Stanford Prison Guard experiment. Many academics have cited his findings. Matt Kelley quoted some of Professor Zimbardo’s findings in an article he recently wrote for The academic experiment at Stanford, together with my own experiences as a long-term prisoner, convince me that when guards enforce policies that extinguish hope for a prisoner to redeem himself, they simultaneously perpetuate the cycle of failure.

Katie A., a college student,  asked what kind of policy changes I would suggest to increase the possibilities for correction in America’s prison system.

Naturally, I recognize the need for prison staff members to maintain security and order within an institution. Prisons exist to protect society. When policies create oppressive environments, however, they lessen the likelihood of encouraging reform among the offenders that prisons hold. High recidivism rates make this clear. The Pew Report recently published findings that show how our prison system has grown. Despite $9 of every $10 in correctional spending going to confine people in prison, the Second Chance Act published findings that show seven of every 10 prisoners recidivate. Although I’ve been a prisoner for more than 21 years, that data suggests to me that this public policy is in need of reform.

We need prison reforms that do not necessarily make prisons more lenient, but rather provide incentives that would encourage offenders to work toward earning freedom through merit. When administrators implement policies that extinguish hope, that require staff members to do nothing more than guard, they miss an opportunity to create an environment where real growth can take place.

The policies that I would change would be those that totally isolate offenders from hope of making meaningful contributions to society. Rather than telling prisoners that the only matter of importance is the turning of calendar pages, I would recommend reforms that offer mechanisms through which prisoners can work to reconcile with society.

If prisoners perceived that they could work toward making a positive change in their classification and status through merit, prisons would inspire hope. That hope would lessen the troubling tendency of negative adjustments. The high rates of failure that our nation’s prisons condition are well documented. My experience convinces me that prison reforms that include incentives would create an atmosphere where corrections can take place. Such reforms would lower recidivism rates, lower operating costs of prisons, and lead to safer societies.

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