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Prisons are often presented as a solution to crime, but incarceration without rehabilitation is also a cause of crime. As violence floods cities, it’s time to look inside prisons and reimagine their possibilities.
While serving time for bank robbery, I saw firsthand what was wrong. Two decades later, I spent years as an advocate, and there have been improvements in the prison system, including sentencing reform and better access to prison programs – but the positive results remain elusive.
Prisons were not built to rehabilitate. We cannot expect people to become good citizens when corrosive prison culture sabotages character change. It’s time to transform the way we “do” prison in America.
Recidivism – the rate at which released prisoners return to state custody – has long been the dominant statistic of US correctional services. Instead of quantifying success, however, it measures failure. Although recent research challenges the idea that recidivism is a sufficient measure, it remains central to the prison system. To combat recidivism, researchers have identified risk factors, such as antisocial thinking and behavior, to target for reduction. Officials now seek to provide evidence-based programs that address criminogenic factors.
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Although commendable, these treatment programs are insufficient. Recurrence rates have remained high, despite decades of efforts to reduce risk factors. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 62% of people released from state prisons are re-arrested within three years.
What else needs to be changed?
The harm reduction approach ignores the fact that the negative prison environment is more influential than any program. Research shows that the simple act of working in prison is detrimental to the safety and well-being of correctional officers. However, there are no universal criteria for evaluating prisons. Although we have worked to define a good prison program, we have neglected to ask the most crucial question: “What makes a good prison?” »
Ideally, prison programs that develop good citizens would be surrounded and supported by a culture that reinforces moral learning. Research indicates that learning occurs best in an environment of transparency and trust, with good role models and plenty of opportunities to put learning into practice. Instead, the typical prison environment offers the opposite. Role models are rare, practice opportunities are few, and trust and transparency can make prison residents fall prey to less scrupulous peers.
We cannot expect people to become good citizens when behaviors taught in the prison classroom conflict with prison social norms. We can no longer ignore the reality that the prison environment has a direct impact on public safety.
A prison system that only measures recidivism is like a hospital system that only measures mortality. Recidivism and harm reduction will never tell us whether people come out of prison equipped to thrive as good citizens. It is time to focus on adopting or enhancing the positive and prosocial attributes of good citizenship.
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At Prison Fellowship, we don’t want people to simply avoid going back to prison. We want people to work, pay taxes, take care of their families, volunteer and catalyze virtuous circles in their communities. We want people to thrive as good citizens inside and outside prison. The more prison culture aligns with prosocial norms and promotes values of good citizenship, the safer our prisons and communities will be.
It is not a chimera. But to get there, we need to start measuring the deficits and gains in the values of citizenship: community, affirmation, productivity, accountability, restoration, and integrity. Instead of asking why people commit crimes, we need to identify and reinforce what stops people from committing crimes in the first place.
My own transformation from prisoner to lawyer took place at Prison Fellowship Academy, a unique prison community governed by these values, where I had role models and opportunities to practice new behaviors. Lasting change has taken root, and not just for me. To this day, I maintain friendships with other men who are now community leaders, pastors, husbands, fathers, entrepreneurs and agents of change.
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Prison Fellowship is developing a “model of good citizenship” to make this work possible on a larger scale. This model proposes that human flourishing is the expected result of the prison system and that the adoption of the values of citizenship is the means to achieve this objective. This model applies to prisons and those who live and work there and includes new assessment tools to provide meaningful benchmarks.
We have a responsibility to provide avenues of rehabilitation for incarcerated people. To fulfill this mandate, we must redefine success. Life after incarceration is not just about avoiding another arrest. It is about reintegrating into society as a productive, independent and fulfilling citizen. The more people can train for this future in prison, the better off everyone will be.
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