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Prison reform is a concept that has been with us since people first began to be incarcerated for their crimes. Among the more notable figures advocating for the benefits of comprehensive prison reform, Elizabeth Fry stands out. Known as Betsy Fry, she was born in the late 1700s and lived until 1845. Throughout her adult life, she became a leading voice in creating legislation to improve the humane treatment of prisoners, including teaching them valuable skills. Since her achievements in championing prisoner reform, there have been many others, both past, and present, who have looked into improving the prison environment. Unfortunately, many of those lessons have been lost on the current American prison system.

Prisoner Reform: Basic Concepts

Sometimes referred to as prisoner rehabilitation, prisoner reform is a system by which inmates are given the tools needed to rejoin communities as productive members upon release. Typically, there is a multi-pronged approach, often including:

  • Educational opportunities, including both high school equivalencies (GED) and/or college-level coursework
  • Vocational training programs
  • Mental/Social counseling
  • Interventional anger-management programs
  • Alternatives to incarceration, such as boot camps, work-release programs, or volunteering opportunities

In general, younger prisoners – those who have committed fewer or less severe crimes – are prime candidates for reform programs, and tend to be more successful in these programs than their older, more hardened, counterparts.

In the 1960s, the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania embarked on a novel voluntary group therapy program led by both professional therapists as well as prison officials. The goal of this program was to give inmates the coping skills they needed to overcome personal challenges, thus helping prepare them for a productive life after release. The program was met with surprising success. Sadly, the Penitentiary closed in 1969, and the program was not adopted by other U.S. prisons.

The American Prison Model

In the United States, there is much talk about “prisoner reform”, but few concrete examples of programs that have worked. The prison model in the U.S. can be seen as prisoner warehousing, where inmates are locked up until their sentences have been completed. Upon completion of those sentences, these inmates are released back into our communities, often with few, if any, skills they can use to become productive members of society.

For the most part, if educational/vocational training programs are available in U.S. prisons, they are reserved only for those inmates who are non-violent in nature. In other words, only a fraction of inmates have access to rehabilitation programs outside of group counseling.

Prisoner reform in the U.S. – or the lack of reform programs – can be pinned on the move to privatize prisons. Over the past three decades, more and more prisons were removed from municipal/state services and awarded to for-profit prison corporations like the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the Management and Training Corporation. Detractors of the privatized prisons model argue that these corporations place shareholder profits ahead of prisoner reform; CCA alone has seen a nearly 500% increase in profits as prison conditions have plummeted. There are two primary factors at work that complicate the prisoner reform concept:

  • Education and counseling programs are expensive. In an attempt to slash operating expenses and to boost profits, private prisons have eliminated the very programs that could help inmates rejoin society.
  • There is little incentive for prisoner reform under the privatized prison model. More prisoners equal higher per-bed profits. It can be argued that privatized prisons WANT high recidivism – released inmates that go on to commit new crimes and reenter the prison system – rates in order to maximize the capacity of their facilities.

Prison reform in the form of releasing non-violent prisoners before their sentences are completed in order to reduce overcrowding is another aspect that bears consideration. This type of “reform” places a significant burden on communities across the United States, especially those that have seen a substantial influx of released prisoners with no work skills and no training to cope with life outside the prison walls.

European Prisoner Reform: A Successful Model

By contrast to the deplorable conditions of prisons in the United States and the high recidivism rates, Europe is enjoying considerable success. The Scandinavian countries, including Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, stand out as leaders in prisoner reform, and these countries are seen as pioneers in this vital societal aspect. The country of Sweden made prisoner education mandatory in 1842, and vocational training programs were implemented as far back as 1874.

Denmark’s success in prisoner reform is another shining example of what works. Available since the 1850s to youthful offenders, educational programs were expanded in the 1860s for adults in the country’s prisons. Norway’s history with prisoner education goes back to the 1850s when legislators agreed to place a focus on education as a means of rehabilitating offenders. Today, every prison in Norway has some type of inmate school, particularly for primary and secondary education but also for vocational training programs.

The result of these programs is that recidivism rates in countries that have adopted prisoner education is significantly lower than the United States. The contrast in rates is staggering:

  • The United States has a recidivism rate of nearly 60%. For certain crimes and study selection periods, the rate exceeded 70%.
  • Denmark’s rate is 29%.
  • Norway’s rate is 20%.
  • Sweden’s rate was 43% in 2015 but has since dropped to about 36%.

Costs have dropped significantly as well. In the United Kingdom, it is estimated that every pound spent on prisoner education/rehabilitation saves taxpayers an additional 3-4 pounds in costs. The costs to communities cannot be overlooked; in areas where rehabilitation programs are available, released prisoners are less likely to commit further crimes, and have been able to rejoin society as productive members. In areas where mass inmate releases have taken place, crime rates have skyrocketed.

It goes without saying that prisoner reform programs are expensive and are often met with resistance by legislators who focus only on the upfront costs. Prisoner reform programs, however, have been shown to work, helping inmates gain valuable post-release skills and reducing the chances they will go on to commit new crimes. Without financial and public support for these programs in the United States, prison systems across the country will continue to be overcrowded and underserved. The burden to our communities will only increase as the year’s tick by unless comprehensive prison rehabilitation programs are implemented throughout the country.

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