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Given widespread frustration with social programs, with the size and efficacy of government, and with the shocking crimes that so often turn up on the television news, criticisms of the current social and prison reforms is understandable. At the same time, research over the last fifteen years has shown that some programs, designed and administered carefully, can reduce recidivism rates. Unfortunately, the programs that are available to most prisoners, the education, job-training, drug treatment, and work programs mandated in the federal and in most state prison systems, are often carried out in ways that undermine their purpose. The result is criticism, not only of prisoners and their chances for reform, but about the capacity as a society to do more than put prisoners away and hope they stay gone. This paper, by carefully analyzing and explaining the reasons for failure of most prison reforms, argues that a new approach, such is social rehabilitation, is needed in order to transform the current poor state of the US prisons, stressing the inadequacy of the modern correctional system’s restructuring approaches.
As long as there have been prisons, there have been efforts to rehabilitate. America's first prison, the Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia, was established by Quakers in the hope that isolation, religious counseling, the Bible, and simple useful work would lead offenders to reform. The famous Auburn “silent system” attempted to give prisoners discipline and structure while keeping them from sharing their bad thoughts with other inmates (Derthick 45). The Progressive Era belief in individualized treatment led to the practice of indeterminate sentencing and parole review, in which different plans would supposedly be established for each prisoner, who would then be monitored and confined until evaluations established his fitness for release. And fascination with the possibilities of psychology led to experiments with behavioral modification, counseling, and other forms of psychiatric treatment in the 1960s penitentiary (Derthick 47).
Yet each of these regimes has also been corrupted by a number of abuses. The solitary confinement of the Walnut Street Jail may have induced insanity in its inmates (American Friends Service Committee 18). The Auburn system was unable to maintain silence without whippings and other physical punishments (McKelvey 28). At the Norfolk Prison Colony, a model Progressive Era prison in Massachusetts, ditch digging, necessary for the construction of the prison, was redefined as rehabilitative so that prisoners could be assigned to it. The warden justified this somewhat novel theory of treatment by suggesting that “it will help to teach [the prisoners] to meet emergencies that are bound to arise in their life outside” (Rothman 406). Indeterminate sentencing, originally designed to enable the release of prisoners in individually sensitive ways, became an excuse for longer and longer sentences and the slow torture of an uncertain release date. Psychiatric counseling and behavioral modification programs licensed new forms of prison discipline and control (Derthick 47).
Why do reform regimes, whether they are as extensive as Auburn's silent system or as targeted as a behavioral modification program, fail in such similar ways? One common answer is that prisons are meant, not to reform delinquents, but to create them. Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish (1979) points out that recommendations for prison reform resemble each other throughout the ages and always entail more supervision, more control, more inculcation of moral habits to correct the failures of past supervision, control, and moral inculcation (264–72). But this perpetual failure does have a use. Prison creates delinquents: it brings prisoners together and encourages the creation of a criminal subculture, fails to give them real opportunities that could serve as an alternative to crime, serves as a reason to supervise their actions closely both before and after release, and essentially labels them as unfit to participate on an equal footing with others in society (Foucault 281–82).
This delinquency, “maintained by the pressure of controls on the fringes of society, reduced to precarious conditions of existence, lacking links with the population that would be able to sustain it,” is at once recognizable and scorned, impotent to pose a real threat to the state (Foucault 278). Delinquents prey on their fellow poor, dividing the working-class among itself and making unified rebellion against the state impossible. They provide an outlet for the delinquency of dominant groups—prostitutes for upper-class johns, alcohol and drugs for upper-class addicts, spies and informants upon organized-crime networks—and in doing so prevent this delinquency from threatening the dominant power structure (Foucault 279–80). Through the prison and its sister institutions of control, the state thus manages to use its opposition, to regulate it, and to prevent it from posing any real danger.
More recent critics have extended this theory by arguing that the latest movements in penology—classification of prisoners, the cost-benefit analysis of incarceration—create a type of risk management consistent with the claim that the state's primary interest is in managing rather than reducing crime (Feeley and Simon 19). Certainly as description, accounts like these warn against the arrogant optimism of reformers who seek to end crime, as well as the fashionable cynicism of realists who, taking laws as invariably just, scoff at blaming anything or anyone but law-breakers for breaking them. But as an empirical story, Foucault's critique lacks actors (Feeley and Simon 20). Neither the administrators who enforce the disciplinary function of the prison, nor the prisoners who suffer it, appear as anything but illustrations. As such, it is impossible to ask questions that compare how different groups of prisoners or staff experience, reduce, or resist the pains of imprisonment. The one account of resistance is a passage on workers' newspapers, which tried to recast criminality as a challenge to an unjust social order (Foucault 287). Yet Foucault gives no story of how this resistance arises or how it is overcome.
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David Rothman's study of a Progressive prison in Conscience and Convenience (1980) and Rose Giallombardo's study of a 1960s women's prison in Society of Women (1966) tell this micro-story. Work programs in these prisons were designed around the labor needs of the prison, rather than around marketable skills. Education and counseling programs suffered from a severe lack of resources. Less familiar observers might be led to blame incompetent staff or simple shortages for these problems. But by developing an understanding of the prison environment, Rothman and Giallombardo were able to explain that in these prisons, rehabilitation was imperfectly understood and equated with permissiveness. Staff considered rehabilitation an extra, incidental and clearly secondary to the more pressing needs of custody (34). Thus, everything from getting accurate counts to keeping prisoners orderly, from preventing escapes to clamping down on contraband, from maintaining the daily routine to instilling a healthy fear of guards, necessarily preceded any thoughts of treatment.
In such cases rehabilitation enjoyed support from the wardens of the prison, as well as much of the administrative staff. But this support did not translate into a coherent understanding of how the demands of programming could be reconciled with the custodial functions of the prison. Thus, supervisors in each prison repeatedly emphasized rehabilitation in discussions with staff, but did not see the conflict that programs created with custody, and could not give their staff direction on how to handle it. Staff responded by fighting among themselves about the relative priority and importance of their jobs, or simply by insisting that the demands of everyday life in the prison required the modification of programs. In Rothman's Massachusetts prison, for instance, the counselors complained that guards revoked rewards that counselors had given inmates who showed improvement; guards responded by complaining that the inmates needed more discipline. Prisoners, quick to catch on to the situation, played off one set of staff against the other (Rothman 401).
If one accepts this interpretation of the failure of prison reform, two possible consequences follow. One is to work within the ways prisons are structured, to reach an accommodation between the goals of maintenance, security, order, and treatment. Giallombardo alludes to this possibility when she writes that “the possibility of arriving at a solution to [the conffict between maintenance and treatment needs] by a reorganization of units at the maintenance and custodial levels was not considered” (72). Yet she casts doubt upon the effectiveness of this solution, calling it a “structural weakness of prisons” and concluding that “in the nature of the case, it could not be otherwise” (Giallombardo 73). Most commentators take this to its logical conclusion. If the attempt to join assistance to an essentially coercive institution eventually nullifies that assistance or turns it into another instrument of coercion, better not to try at all.
The justice model of imprisonment is often suggested as a way to make prisons more, not less, attentive to the needs of prisoners. As one of its proponents argues, “it was as well to recognize that all prison systems were in fact, and of necessity, human warehouses and that the point was to prevent them from becoming inhuman warehouses, whatever their lofty ideals” (King and McDermott 9). Proponents of this model often advocated for shorter sentences (as opposed to the longer ones felt necessary for treatment to take hold); for an extensive array of educational, vocational, and counseling programs that prisoners would be free to choose or reject; and for performance indicators that would hold prison officials accountable for maintaining humane standards of prison life and treatment (King and McDermott 56).
But this model was also supported by another group of proponents for whom the consistent failure of prison reform suggested something else: the hopelessness of reforming most prisoners, who would continue to commit crimes if not deterred by their cost. Scholars like Gary Becker, James Q. Wilson, and Ernest Van den Haag were influential in promoting the idea that criminals knowingly committed crime because it paid, and would only be deterred by stricter and swifter punishments (King and McDermott 59). Two research agendas in criminology also, indirectly, added support to this position.
An influential body of work on criminal behavior argues that differences in criminality are primarily related to childhood antisocial behavior, and thus are stable across individuals. In other words, some people are predisposed by childhood experiences to commit crimes and others are not, even though they may suffer the same disadvantages or enjoy the same advantages later in life (McKelvey 89). If this is the case, attempts to change prisoners are useless: the best hope is to keep prisoners in prison long enough so that they “age out” of their propensity to crime. Similarly, recent work on the benefits and costs of incarceration argues that imprisonment actually saves money when the cost of all the crimes criminals commit is considered. Based on data that show that prisoners commit many more crimes than they are arrested for, these studies argue that the social benefit of crime prevention is great enough to justify the continual expansion of both prison facilities and prison sentences (McKelvey 90-93).
Arguments that reformers should only concentrate on improving prison conditions, or that the most socially useful thing prisons can do is deter future crime, are harder to justify if there is evidence that prison programs can proactively assist prisoners to become productive citizens. But if programs are not effective, as research throughout the 1970s and 1980s suggested, there is no reason to try rehabilitation. A 1974 article by sociologist Robert Martinson, summarizing a review of 231 studies of correctional treatment programs, said it all: “With few and isolated exceptions, the rehabilitative efforts that have been reported so far have had no appreciable effect on recidivism” (Martinson 25). A later report by the National Academy of Sciences concurred, finding that if anything, the study Martinson summarized was too optimistic (Sechrest, White, and Brown 23). A simple way of talking about the failure of rehabilitation became popular: “nothing works.”
Research and politics have thus joined to suggest that the recurrent failure of attempts to reform prisons for rehabilitative purposes means that it is time to stop trying. But there is also a countervailing critique, which argues that the research on program effectiveness is not so bleak, the capacity of offenders to reform not so limited, and the failure of rehabilitation not quite so clear. This critique starts with recent evaluations that have reassessed program success. It draws strength from criminological work suggesting that criminal behavior does change with changes in life circumstances. And it returns to the history of prison programs to provide a different interpretation: one that focuses on how staff and prisoners interact around programs.