Treating Prisoners With Dignity Can Reduce Crime

In Europe, prisoners work for real wages and even cook for themselves. And when they leave prison, they don’t come back.

National Journal
Nicholas Turner And John Wetzel
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Nicholas Turner and John Wetzel
May 22, 2014, 8:07 a.m.

It sounds like the first line of a joke: “Three state cor­rec­tions teams and some ex­perts who are old hands at vis­it­ing pris­ons go to meet their warden coun­ter­parts in Ger­many and the Neth­er­lands in mid-Janu­ary to see what they could learn.”

But it’s a true story — and what high-level del­eg­a­tions from Col­or­ado, Geor­gia, and Pennsylvania learned through the Vera In­sti­tute of Justice’s European-Amer­ic­an Pris­on Pro­ject is no laugh­ing mat­ter. What we learned, in fact, has ser­i­ous and timely boots-on-the-ground im­plic­a­tions.

Twenty years after the 1994 fed­er­al Crime Bill led to an up­surge in pris­on con­struc­tion and pun­it­ive tough-on-crime sen­ten­cing meas­ures, our na­tion­al con­ver­sa­tion around crime and pun­ish­ment has shif­ted sig­ni­fic­antly. It is bi­par­tis­an. It is oc­cur­ring in Con­gress and state­houses. En­ergy for re­form is fo­cused primar­ily on re­du­cing sen­tence lengths, nar­row­ing the pop­u­la­tion that goes to pris­on, and bet­ter pre­par­ing those who are leav­ing for re­in­teg­ra­tion.

A new re­port from the Na­tion­al Academy of Sci­ences, The Growth of In­car­cer­a­tion in the United States: Ex­plor­ing Causes and Con­sequences, is an im­port­ant mark­er high­light­ing the pro­found ra­cial and eth­nic di­men­sions of our sys­tem, one in which 34 per­cent of state and fed­er­al pris­on­ers in 2011 were black, though they made up only 13 per­cent of the U.S. pop­u­la­tion in the last census; 22 per­cent were Lati­nos, who com­prised 17 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion. It is a crim­in­al justice sys­tem that per­petu­ates a poverty trap in which black men un­der age 35 who do not fin­ish high school are more likely to be be­hind bars than em­ployed.

In ad­di­tion to re­com­mend­ing policy changes that would lim­it rates of in­car­cer­a­tion, the Na­tion­al Academies re­port also re­com­mends im­prov­ing the ex­per­i­ence of in­car­cer­a­tion and the harms as­so­ci­ated with it — which ex­tend bey­ond bars to the already suf­fer­ing com­munit­ies that pris­on­ers and their fam­il­ies come from.

All of this brings us to an im­port­ant meta-ques­tion taken up by the re­port: what is the role of in­car­cer­a­tion at a time when how we in­car­cer­ate achieves little of what we know works to stop re­offend­ing and cre­ate stronger people and stronger and safer com­munit­ies?

For those of us who vis­ited Ger­many and The Neth­er­lands, the ap­proach to sen­ten­cing and the pris­on philo­sophy we saw as­ton­ished and in­spired us. Not only are far few­er people im­prisoned, but even those who have com­mit­ted ser­i­ous vi­ol­ent crimes serve far short­er sen­tences.

In these European coun­tries, pris­ons are or­gan­ized around the be­lief that, since vir­tu­ally all pris­on­ers will re­turn to their com­munit­ies, it is bet­ter to ap­proach their in­car­cer­a­tion with con­di­tions as close to “nor­mal” as pos­sible—with the ad­di­tion of treat­ment, be­ha­vi­or­al in­ter­ven­tions, skills train­ing, and needed edu­ca­tion — and to re­move them from com­munit­ies for the shortest pos­sible time so that in­sti­tu­tion­al life does not be­come their norm.

In­mates live in rooms and sleep in beds, not on con­crete or steel slabs with thin pad­ding. In­mates have pri­vacy — cor­rec­tion­al of­ficers knock be­fore en­ter­ing — they wear their own clothes, and can dec­or­ate their space as they wish. They cook their own meals, are paid for work that they do, and have op­por­tun­it­ies to vis­it fam­ily, learn skills, and gain edu­ca­tion. In­mates are re­quired to save money to en­sure that they are not pen­ni­less upon re­lease. There are dif­fer­ent ex­pect­a­tions for their cor­rec­tions of­ficers — who are drawn primar­ily from the ranks of law­yers, so­cial work­ers, and men­tal health pro­fes­sion­als — to be part of a “thera­peut­ic cul­ture” between staff and of­fend­ers, and con­sequently re­ceive more train­ing and high­er pay. There is little to no vi­ol­ence — in­clud­ing in com­mun­al kit­chens where there are knives and oth­er “dan­ger­ous” im­ple­ments. And their max­im­um time in any kind of pun­it­ive sol­it­ary is eight hours.

Pris­on policies groun­ded in the be­lief that pris­on­ers should be treated with dig­nity were start­lingly ef­fect­ive — and have em­in­ently prag­mat­ic im­plic­a­tions here at home. The ad­verse so­cial and eco­nom­ic out­comes for former pris­on­ers in the U.S. are severe—and they are con­cen­trated in com­munit­ies that are already strug­gling migh­tily. With 95 per­cent of our na­tion’s in­car­cer­ated in­di­vidu­als even­tu­ally re­turn­ing home from pris­on — and 40 per­cent go­ing right back to pris­on with­in three years — we would do well to heed the strategies used in these na­tions to teach pris­on­ers how to be good and pro­duct­ive cit­izens that can re­build their com­munit­ies.

One can­not be re-so­cial­ized or re­hab­il­it­ated if there is little or no op­por­tun­ity to in­ter­act with the free world, wheth­er through em­ploy­ment, fam­ily en­gage­ment, or study. And if, with­in three dec­ades, we will be a coun­try that is ma­jor­ity people of col­or, isn’t it im­per­at­ive that we do everything in our power to re­duce the per­ni­cious and de­bil­it­at­ing im­pact of our crim­in­al justice sys­tem on the eco­nom­ic agency of the people we will ul­ti­mately rely upon to fuel the na­tion’s eco­nomy?

Can we re-ima­gine Amer­ic­an pris­ons and their use? Yes. Pennsylvania is a sys­tem with some 51,000 in­mates and 16,000 staff that re­flects the ra­cial dis­par­it­ies of the na­tion as a whole (one in every 58 black res­id­ents and one in every 129 Latino res­id­ents are in­car­cer­ated, com­pared to one in every 505 white res­id­ents). We have star­ted to roll out “trans­ition­al units” in each fa­cil­ity for people with­in six months to a year of re­lease, and we are pi­lot­ing some of the nor­mal­iz­a­tion and reentry prac­tices seen in Europe. We are also re-struc­tur­ing our ba­sic train­ing for of­ficers, em­phas­iz­ing com­mu­nic­a­tions skills, mo­tiv­a­tion­al in­ter­view­ing tech­niques, con­flict res­ol­u­tion, and men­tal health first-aid train­ing to be­gin to give of­ficers the tools to be change agents. Vera and Pennsylvania are also work­ing to­geth­er to ef­fect­ively and safely re­duce the use of sol­it­ary con­fine­ment.

Ap­proaches such as these can be im­ple­men­ted and tested in Amer­ic­an pris­ons with a small co­hort of the pop­u­la­tion or test pi­loted at dif­fer­ent se­cur­ity levels. These pi­lots can be tied to in­cent­ive pro­grams or units that may already ex­ist.

Are there chal­lenges to whole­sale re­form? Of course. Money. In­fra­struc­ture. Strains of ra­cial di­vi­sion borne of our his­tory and het­ero­gen­eity. And, cul­tur­al dif­fer­ences es­pe­cially as relates to vi­ol­ence may mean that some European prac­tices may not trans­late smoothly to the U.S. Yet we are at a mo­ment of po­ten­tial for sig­ni­fic­ant shifts. It will re­quire le­gis­la­tion and policy change, in­clud­ing re­think­ing sen­ten­cing for lower of­fenses and re­du­cing the time for those who must be in pris­on. But the no­tion that we should strive to cre­ate an en­vir­on­ment with­in our pris­ons con­du­cive to our goal — to re­turn good cit­izens to our com­munit­ies — is a chal­lenge we can and must meet.

Nich­olas Turn­er is pres­id­ent of the Vera In­sti­tute of Justice, an in­de­pend­ent non­profit cen­ter for justice policy and prac­tice. John Wet­zel is sec­ret­ary of the Pennsylvania De­part­ment of Cor­rec­tions.

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