US Penal System Fails to Deliver on its Promise to Rehabilitate Inmates

More and more people are convinced that the present U. S. penitentiary is not an effective means of rehabilitating criminals. Experts point to high crime rate, overcrowded prisons, and high number of repeat offenders as irrefutable evidence that rehabilitation is simply wishful thinking as far as U. S. jail systems are concern. This paper will investigate a generally accepted idea that the reason for this country’s inability to rehabilitate criminals is rooted in a flawed prison management theory that adds to the already unwieldy prison environment.

This means that in itself, the world that exists for prisoners is one that can easily induce negative behavior. Now, if unsound management principles are added to an already volatile situation then one could expect inmates to experience mental and emotional torment rather than a setting that will encourage rehabilitation and reform. Background A problem exists because one is aware of a standard upon which something is compared to. With this standard as a yardstick to measure success, a problem is evident if something is measured and it is found to be wanting.

In the case of the U. S. penal system the only acceptable criterion for success is rehabilitation. This means that all prisoners must be evaluated after a certain period of time to find out how far or close they are to the ideal. But before going any further it is important to find out what exactly is meant when declaring that an offender or criminal was already rehabilitated? Perhaps a basic definition of the term will make for a more comprehensive view of the problem. In this regard Thomas Matiesen in his in-depth study of penology provided the following:

Rehabilitation is a combined French and Latin word, coming from the French re, which means ‘return’ or ‘repetition’, and the Latin habilis, which means ‘competent’. Originally, the world thus denoted ‘return to competence’ … restoration, reinstatement to former dignity or privilege, reparation of honor (2006, p. 27). If the above-mentioned definition is the gold standard for U. S. penal systems then there is a great divide that separates the ideal from reality. There is a huge difference between the behaviors of a hardened criminal to that of a socially responsible citizen.

In order for rehabilitation to occur the incarcerated felon will have to move towards the positive end of the spectrum and forsake a life of crime. Defining the Problem According to sociologists and other experts there can be three major means of measuring the effectiveness of the U. S. penal system and this can be done through looking at the following: ? Recidivism or repeat-offender ? Graduation from petty crime to more serious offenses Recidivism is simply a description of a phenomenon of “falling back” to the old ways.

A truly rehabilitated person is someone who has made up his mind never to go back to his old his ways. This can lead to a more serious problem and as someone moves back and forth from prison to society there is a tendency that petty crimes will escalate into more serious ones. The problem with the U. S. penal system has reached crisis proportions because millions of tax payers’ money is spent on something that did not deliver quality service. If U. S. correctional facilities can be likened to a business enterprise then all jailhouses in America would have been bankrupt by now.

Say for example that someone pays for a particular service – and pays good money for it – that person will demand for exceptional quality. If U. S. jailhouses is a business that advertises a rehabilitation program for criminals and yet fails to deliver on its promise it would have closed its doors long ago because customers – tax paying public – will not continue to patronize it. According to Mark Colvin this present crisis is punctuated by violence, disorder and overcrowding because in the 1970s policy makers shifted ideologies and instead of focusing on rehabilitation the government instead focused on other social ills such as poverty etc.

Rehabilitation is indeed a costly endeavour and at that time it was not deemed important enough. The problem with its inability to rehabilitate is rooted in two major factors: environment and prison management. With regards to the kind of environment that an inmate has to go through in the process of rehabilitation, he or she can encounter the following: 1. prison overcrowding 2. testosterone charged setting (negative aspects of masculinity) 3. bad influence What is the big deal with overcrowding?

Others may even dare speculate that it could add another dimension to the punishing of criminals and therefore why make their stay more comfortable? In the book about U. S. prisons, authors Clear, Cole, and Reisig found out that, “In 2003, 22 states and the federal prison system reported operating at or above capacity. The federal system was estimated to be operating at 39 percent, and overall the state systems were operating at 14 percent above capacity” (2005, p. 467).

Michael Jacobson the former Commissioner of the New York City Department of Correction, the largest city jail system in the U. S. provides additional figures that help to clearly illustrate the crisis. And he remarked, “The United States now locks up a higher percentage of its population than any country in the world. The more than 2 million people who are incarcerated today make up roughly eight times the number in 1975” (Jacobson, 2005, p. 8). Overcrowding is due to tougher laws that were ratified due to the belief that habitual offenders must be punished longer. These laws also aimed to put these types of criminals locked up for good – that they may feel the full force of the law.

Joycelyn M. Pollock in her book assessing the current state of American prisons remarked why there will be an increasing number of men and women who will be under lock and key for the rest of their lives: Even as recently as 1968, 23 states had statutes that authorized life imprisonment for habitual offenders who had previously been convicted of certain specified offenses […] these “new” sentencing laws have the potential to exacerbate already severely overcrowded prison conditions while simultaneously creating more problems for state and federal governments, criminal justice agencies, and prison administrators (1997, p. 2). It is therefore helpful to see prison overcrowding from another perspective.

And that is to understand the real purpose of incarceration. Mark Colvin in his study of the infamous New Mexico prison riot of 1980 asserted that squeezing more and more inmates like sardines into a tin can was the result of a change in philosophy. It is therefore easy to argue that riots can be expected in prisons where the needs of inmates are not met or when the prisoners feel that basic human rights are not respected due to the lack of resources.

It is also not hard to imagine the stress levels experienced by shorthanded staff. When riots ensue, the safety of the prisoners and at the same time the staff responsible in managing said facility will be in extreme jeopardy. Freeman elaborates on this issue when he wrote that, “It is difficult to maintain a close watch on ‘problem’ inmates when overcrowding exists. This problem is especially acute when those problem inmates are prone to violence” (1999). If this is the case then overcrowded prisons is not the place to keep criminals.

It may sound absurd but placing criminals inside crowded facilities will not only mean non-rehabilitation but it will also result in a more hardened criminal forced to become tough in order to survive in a harsh environment. These facilities will do more harm than good. With regards to the second point, there is just too much testosterone present in male correctional facilities. A casual observation on how boys behave in a natural setting will convince anyone that boys interacting with boys will yield a higher probability of conflict, rough play, and other risky behavior.

There are prison systems in America that are designed to be operated like a boot camp. The means of rehabilitation is through a grinding routine that hopes to break down the will of the inmate in the same way as military boot camps process green recruits. But studies have shown that this set-up does not guarantee reform. Benda and Pallone contend that, “… hyper masculine prison environment tat exists in most prisons, and especially boot camp prisons, creates a milieu that has a tendency to mitigate the potential for creating long-term positive change in male offenders” (2005, p. 35). The previous statement is not hard to understand. In a military a drill sergeant may be harsh and disrespectful to new recruits but his actions are honed by years of military training and extensive experience. Furthermore, even if the drill sergeant gets mad or exercise cruelty all of these ends after a very short time and all of the animosity disappear as the drill sergeant celebrates with the recruits after graduation.

In the case of the penitentiary that simulates the boot camp experience, the drill sergeant – in this case the prison guards – are operating not from a platform of respect and anticipating future camaraderie but acting with true disdain for criminals that in their minds had done dastardly deeds. If this happens then one can expect excessive force to be applied and what is worse is that there is no graduation day to look forward to in the near future. The “training” becomes torture and it is goes on for a long period of time.

With regards to the third point it does not require a rocket scientist to figure out what first time offenders will face when placed in a crowd of drug dealers, violent gang leaders, murderer, rapists etc. A first time felon that is in constant contact with these types of character will find it hard to resist associating with them at least for the sake of survival. Friendships are formed and covenants are made inside prison walls and when they get out they have already upgraded their network. So when they came in, first time offenders may well be petty thieves but when they come out they become a part of organized crime.

Overhauling the Program The preceding pages provided a lengthy discussion on the aspect of prison environment and why it is a contributing factor to worsening track record of U. S. prisons in terms of providing rehabilitation for its occupants. The following pages on the other hand will seek to clarify the role of prison programs in rehabilitation. The major problem when it comes to American type of prison management was brilliantly discussed by Colvin. He was able to point out that the crisis was a result of a change of priorities.

And he was right to say that there are more important things to consider in times of economic depression and naturally policy makers shifted focus from providing quality correctional facilities sensitive to the requirements of rehabilitation and reform to more important national matters. As a result 21st century America inherited a faulty program that needs to be rectified. In a rare case of ex-convict turned penology researcher and prison management expert Veronica Compton provides an inside look at a Woman’s correctional facility in Washington.

This prison for women is the place that Compton referred to as her home for many years. And in her lengthy stay she realized that the U. S. penal systems tend to focus on the punitive aspect of incarceration rather than restoration and reform. Compton was an eyewitness for the brutal consequence of such a medieval prison management theory and she wrote, “The results I’ve witnessed hastened or perhaps even pushed some women to commit suicide, or to self-mutilate, and emotionally break down, becoming fragments of who they previously had been” (2003, p. 10).

There is perhaps no better example of the negative effect of current prison management program than what one will find in super-maximum security prisons. An example of which can be found in Boscobel, Wisconsin where, “Every inmate live alone in a 7-ft. by 14-ft. cell that resembles nothing much as a large, concrete closet, equipped with a sink, a toilet, a desk and a molded stool and a sleep platform covered by a thin mattress” (Kluger, 2007, section 1). The spartan amenities will surely drive any sane person mad. But what happens when an already imbalanced person gets isolated in a shoe box?

No one knows the exact mental problem that results from this type of incarceration. But Kluger asserts that there is need to evaluate programs especially in places where inmates have a high probability of release because if extreme measure are being used to punish convicts then society will have to bear the full brunt of their rage. And so Kluger warns, “Demolish their psyches while they’re in prison, and nobody’s sager when they get out” (2007, section 3). Solutions Before going into any kind of crusade to change U. S. enology there is a need to fully examine American prisons and find out exactly what is going on. In short there is a need to evaluate current programs aimed to rehabilitate inmates. Yet, an accurate assessment of U. S. penitentiary is almost impossible. This is because the best way of getting unbiased and reliable data is to become one of the prisoners. There may be some extreme researchers out there who will go the extra mile just so they can get the best information but it is improbable that they will force themselves to stay behind bars for a very long time.

And being incarcerated for years – within claustrophobic prison walls – changes a person in a way that is only understandable to a convict. Moreover, interviews and questionnaires can only probe so much. Criminals behind bars are like highly attuned animals that are on survival mode. They view everyone with suspicion and there is a general distrust for authoritative figures. Observing prisoners from the vantage point of researchers can be an exercise in futility.

Researchers can obtain information up to a certain degree but prison life can take on a different color when lights are out and when visiting is over. The inability of policy makers and sociologists to penetrate the facade of prison life is probably the main reason why U. S. penology is still an inexact science. As a result there is no comprehensive and clear-cut program that can assure the public and prisoners that rehabilitation will occur after a certain time of incarceration.

It seems that everywhere one turns there is very little that will offer some form of encouragement that there is still hope for inmates. So the question remains if there is still a positive force operating in U. S. jailhouses that will facilitate rehabilitation. According to DeRosia who spent signficant amount of time interviewing inmates there are some prisoners who are still optimistic that affirmative change. One interviewee’s comment made an impression when he remarked, “Is there really prison rehabilitation? Yes… if you want to rehabilitate yourself.

There’s no way to really force a guy to learn” (as cited in DeRosia, 1998). Alternatives to Incarceration Criminals must serve time. Justice demands for that. But sometimes there are offenders who do not need to spend another day in prison. This pertains to those guilty of non-heinous crimes, to which imprisonment in overcrowded prison will only turn them into hardened criminals. Policy makers and other experts can see the solution in using technology to keep an eye on those who are serving time but doing it outside the penal colony.

For this to possible the United States government is turning to high technology and a product popularly known as ankle bracelets. It is a documented fact that oftentimes than not imprisonment will make a person much worse instead of rehabilitating him. But an alternative to prison time means putting a system in place where authorities can keep a watchful eye on a convicted felon’s movements even if the justice department had given them a more lenient sentence by sending them home rather than hauling them to the slammer.

The only possible route is to use high-technology wherein law enforcement officers rely on sophisticated gadgets to keep intense vigilance of those found capable of doing illegal acts and yet allowed to serve time under house arrest. It is a good thing that there is a gizmo such as the “Constant Watch”, a gadget that points to the future of crime prevention. and a new way of keeping an eye on a few troublemakers. An example such a device is called “The Constant Watch”, a stainless steel wristwatch or bracelet affixed and locked to a parolee’s ankle, to which Christie pointed out as having:

A Global Positioning System chip … [that ] will track the individual’s changing location … If a parolee moves out of the prescribed freedom area or removes the Constant Watch bracelet, the Constant Watch computer system will immediately alert police officers who can take corrective action to contain the offender (Christie, 2000, p. 126). An eye for an eye Imho Bae in his study on the possible alternative use of restitution in the State of Minnesota arrived at the following conclusion, “The results show the public’s strong support for restitution as an alternative penalty for incarceration for property offenders.

Considerable ignorance or misunderstanding by criminal justice officials of the public’s support for restitution as an alternative sentencing has been found” (p. 291, 1992). The only way that the judge and the probation officer can hit two birds with one stone is through the use of restorative justice. The reason why restorative justice can be very effective in solving the twin dilemma of overcrowded prisons and the need to rehabilitate Joe will be discussed by Siegel and Senna who wrote:

According to the concept of restorative justice, the true purpose of the criminal justice system is to promote a peaceful and just society; the justice system should aim for peacemaking, not punishment […] Advocates of restorative justice view the efforts of the state t o punish and control as encouraging crime rather than discouraging it (p. 1, 2003). Conclusion Incarceration should not be seen simply as a form of punishment for those who have committed criminal acts. There is much to gain seeing jail houses as a tool for rehabilitation.

Society in general will benefit from an ex-convict becoming once again a responsible member of society. Unfortunately the U. S. penal system is an antiquated system that focuses on the punitive aspect rather than on its capability to initiate rehabilitation among inmates. There has been a clamor for change in the way correctional facilities are run. Still, there is a significant amount of evidence that the environment that exists within prison walls is something that would encourage repeat offenders, a hardening of the criminal and a total breakdown of the person.

Instead of restoration the person gets deeper and deeper into trouble. Therefore in the discussion on possible solutions, it was suggested pointed out that there must be an awareness of alternative dispute resolution that will insure that justice is served but at the same giving emphasis on the fact that once a first time offender gets thrown to the slammer there is a great possibility of being negatively influenced by more seasoned criminals.

Aside from providing conflict resolution another alternative for incarceration is the use of present technology to make house arrest a viable option. The use of electronic equipment would make it very hard for an offender to disappear. Using these alternatives will prevent juveniles and first time offenders to be in contact with more hardened criminals.