Categories
Recidivism

The Importance of
Consistent Communication

Anyone who has a family member or friend who is or has been incarcerated knows the struggle and the frustration associated with the behavior of the inmate.

Whether a short term stay or a lengthy sentence, those incarcerated are serving time for breaking the law. That behavior is a thorn in the side of every loved one—a thorn that can lead to a lack of empathy, a lack of patience and a lack of communication in their relationship with the inmate.

While those feelings aren’t uncommon and, in most cases, are justified, people who are incarcerated need consistent communication, empathy and patience, if their loved ones want to see them reenter society with lower recidivism rates than other inmates.

Communication Breakdown

In their research article on recidivism, Matthew A. Koschmann and Brittany L. Peterson argued that many reentry efforts focus primarily on traditional signs of reoffending, rather than on what is actually to blame for that recidivism. In other words, the focus is on continued criminal behavior, violations to parole and compliance with treatment requirements, but not on communication.

According to the pair, “the underlying cause is a communication breakdown of being cut off from networks and meaningful relationships that provide the necessary social capital needed for successful reintegration.”

A parent, spouse, sibling, other family member or good friend needs to continue offering consistent communication to the inmate throughout their sentence. Even better, a network of people who care for the incarcerated individual and want to see them succeed upon release need to work at consistent communication with the inmate to ensure their relationship with the individual stays strong. Deep ties to family and friends help an inmate to walk away from people and situations that don’t have their best interests in mind.

Prison staff should also strive for consistent communication with inmates. However, their style of communication must be different than the support offered by families. Staff have a responsibility to uphold an impartial, professional, and uncompromising relationship with the incarcerated population.

While staff want to see an inmate succeed in reentry and likely have some great advice to share with the inmate along the way, their relationship with any single inmate should be a sterile one.

This is important to remember, because, in some cases, staff relationships are all an inmate has for communication. Staff relationships do not offer the strong, deep ties to family and friends that will see them through difficult situations upon reentry.

Overall Importance of Relationships

According to an Evidence-Based Professionals Society article by Timothy Daty, “When examining recidivism, the study of family relationships is often a key component in predicting repeat criminal behavior among formerly incarcerated individuals. Research suggests that strong family ties produce lasting impacts among this population and often deter future incidents of crime (Bales and Mears, 2008).”

Consistent communication is an important factor in life, whether behind bars or not.

Kathy Miller, a caregiver coordinator who works with the elderly, wrote, “Our ability to communicate thoughts and feelings to those around us helps us to maintain our sense of identity, and is an integral part of maintaining our quality of life.”

She may have been referring to people suffering from Alzheimer’s, but the sentiment remains true to all facets of life. Communication is a key factor in our psychological well-being—something that can warp and disappear very quickly behind bars.

Keeping consistent communication with an incarcerated individual is easier said than done in many cases, as the pressures of prison can be extremely overwhelming, especially in the beginning.

The Roadblocks

There is pressure for inmates to find a group, to assert themselves or blend in, to maintain their independence or embrace the regulatory nature of prison. That pressure is a weight all inmates must carry, and it’s significant.

Inmates face strict regulations on items they can own, the amount of time spent out of their cell, and what they are allowed to eat, which can cause frustration. They also are surrounded by other inmates, some of whom have no desire to grow beyond their poor decisions and cultivate healthy relationships and success in life.

Break the rules, and the few privileges an inmate has will vanish. That includes phone time and in some cases receiving mail, depending on the severity of the infraction. Keeping those communication lines open is vital.

Being part of the support system for an inmate who regularly lands in trouble may put a damper on your relationship, but family members and friends should maintain consistent communication in spite of that, for the benefit of everyone.

According to a Prison Legal News article by Alex Friedmann, “studies have consistently found that prisoners who maintain close contact with their family members while incarcerated have better post-release outcomes and lower recidivism rates.”

While a family member or friend can’t be forced to have consistent communication with an inmate, the opportunity is always there. More and more jails today have various forms of telecommunication for inmates, whether it be video visitation, phones or secure email.

The fact is, making the choice to keep up with your incarcerated loved ones directly affects their likelihood of getting out of jail—and staying out.

Categories
Recidivism

Back to Work: Why it’s Hard
to Hire Former Inmates

Inescapably, one of the first questions asked when you meet someone is: “So, what do you do?” or “Where do you work?” The answer seems to define who you are as a person: I am a doctor, or I am a lawyer, or I flip burgers at that fast food joint, etc.

Of course, what we do is not the only thing that defines us. We are each unique and complex individuals, with varying situations, pasts and dreams. But that question is always there—looming—“What do you do?”

Finding a good job, a job which defines you, can be difficult. Sometimes finding any job can be difficult. And finding work, when you were formerly an inmate, can be very difficult.

There are a number of reasons why getting a job can be difficult for former inmates. One of the biggest reasons is employers.

Employers and Former Inmates

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which deals with unlawful employment practices, does not prohibit employers from asking questions about your criminal history.

There is no law which forces an employer to ignore a job applicant’s criminal history, even though that individual has completed their sentence and paid their debt to society. A large percentage of employers do discriminate against those with criminal records even if they claim not to.

A 2004 study, by Harry J. Holzer, Steven Raphael and Michael A. Stoll, found that over 40 percent of the employers they surveyed would “probably not” or “definitely not” hire an applicant with a criminal record. A large percentage of surveyed employers said it “depends.” The study also found that the companies which were most willing to hire former inmates tended to offer unskilled jobs that had high turn-over rates and little customer contact.

Since 2004, the unemployment rate has dropped considerably and the prison population has increased, and, because of this, more and more reports are finding that pulling from the former inmate pool is the way to go. That doesn’t change the fact that former inmates have a much harder time finding work than others.

According to a 2017 study, among the five million formerly incarcerated people living in the United States, 27 percent are unemployed–over five times the national unemployment rate for 2017.

Employers are often hesitant about hiring former inmates, and, according to the Society for Human Resource Management, the ones which are willing to do so are far more likely to hire those who had committed substance-related crimes rather than financial, violent or sexual crimes.

So, what can a former inmate do to have a better chance at getting a job? Same as anyone: nail the interview.

Preparing for the Post-Prison Interview

In an interview, employers, as with anyone, are looking for good references, a solid performance record and training in relevant skills—all things which are difficult to obtain while incarcerated. But not impossible.

Pre-prison employment experience is something which will help an inmate when reentering the work force. In a 2008 brief, the Urban Institute surveyed a large number of former inmates and found that 70 percent had held a job for at least one year prior to entering prison.

While that experience is helpful, former inmates are still going to have to explain why there is a large gap in their employment history. The 30 percent who did not have employment prior to being incarcerated will have an even harder time. That is why in-prison programs and work release options are in place.

Former inmates must give an honest account for their time in prison to a potential employer. The National Institute of Justice has found that, while giving this honest account, it is good to have some prepared things to say.

An applicant should be able to acknowledge the factors that led to their criminality and describe how the prison experience has made them stronger and better able to contribute to society. They should acknowledge responsibility for their past and demonstrate a commitment to change.

Along with heartfelt contrition, having taken the initiative to be a part of a work program does show an employer that a former inmate is committed to changing their life. Educational programs are also often available to inmates, which can aid an inmate in finding work after release.

Any certificates, diplomas, documents demonstrating completion of training, workshops or seminars which were obtained in prison are helpful and should be clearly listed on a resume.

How Technology Helps Inmates

Expanding and strengthening a social network is very important for former inmates seeking employment. Family members, former co-workers, parole officers, social services providers, and acquaintances without criminal records can all assist in an inmate’s job-search, not to mention make for solid references.

Telecommunication infrastructure in jails can make a big difference here.

Prison communication technologies aid inmates in maintaining those relationships with their social network, and in the future, job postings could be sourced from online job boards and filled out by inmates before they’ve even completed their sentence.

So much of the job searching process today requires familiarity with computers and the internet. Applicants will have to do things like create email accounts, use search engines and job search sites, fill out electronic forms, and format both resumes and cover letters. The fact is, many jobs now require some working computer-use knowledge.

Even so, incarceration could provide the computer-training resources inmates need in order to be viable members of the workforce.

Gaining certification in various areas can also be accomplished by inmates online. Prisons often do not offer college courses, and some do not even offer work options or GED programs. However, there’s no reason why this can’t change.

Prisoneducation.com has compiled a list of over 35 college correspondence programs which allow prisoners to enroll. Not only does college education help inmates in finding a job, but it gives them a chance to find a job doing something they really want to do.

According to the 2008 Urban Institute brief, there is research which suggests “finding and maintaining a legitimate job can reduce former prisoners’ chances of reoffending, and the higher the wage, the less likely it is that individuals will return to crime.”

Former inmates should also prepare themselves for the reality of the situation; they will probably receive a lot of rejection and disappointment. But with preparation, contrition, tenacity and courage, inmates can find placement after incarceration.

Categories
Recidivism

Make Jails Safer: Overcrowding
and Program Access

In 2015, a riot resulting in the deaths of two inmates broke out at the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution in Tecumseh, Neb. Several inmates and facility staff were also injured in this terrible event. After a tragedy like this, one question should be on every jail administrator’s mind: How can we make jails safer?

According to an article written by Paul Hammel for the Omaha World Herald, inmate idleness was one of the contributing factors that led to the uprising. Hammel wrote that 1,000 inmates in the correctional institution were disgruntled due to a lack of jobs, education and training programs.

Additionally, Hammel interviewed the mother of a Tecumseh inmate who said her son joined Alcoholics Anonymous as a way to pass the time, since there weren’t enough jobs available for every inmate in the facility.

At an institutional level, overcrowding is making facility administration more difficult. From reduced parole outcomes to the general degradation of the prison environment, overcrowding has wrought havoc upon not only Nebraska, but US corrections as a whole.

Program Enrollment Makes Parole Easier

Educational programs and jobs make jails safer by supplying inmates with meaningful occupations. Unfortunately, institutional overcrowding makes these programs harder to enroll in, and also discourages parole-seekers.

According to an article published by the ACLU, “Prisoners can’t complete the parole board’s requirements because there are too many prisoners for far too few programs and classes. Instead, prisoners serve more time than is needed and are released without any supervision or supports to help them transition back into the community.”

Keep in mind that a significant portion of the US inmate population are non-violent offenders. States like Oklahoma have enacted policies to reduce prison overcrowding by saving correctional facilities for only the most violent offenders. Oklahoma’s policy relegates non-violent, low-level convicts to substance abuse or mental health programs, instead of hard time.

By reducing the overall inmate population, more inmates will have access to education and training programs. Education classes could help these inmates achieve a GED, college credit toward a post-secondary degree, or vocational training, to ultimately help them land a good job after their sentence is over.

Educational Access has Room for Improvement

According to Evaluating the Effectiveness of Correctional Education by Lois M. Davis, Robert Bozick, Jennifer L. Steele, Jessica Saunders and Jeremy N. V. Miles, “Data from the BJS 2005 Census of State and Federal Correctional Facilities indicate that 66 percent of state correctional facilities offered literacy or 1st-4th grade education programs, 64 percent offered 5th-8th grade education programs, 76 percent offered secondary or GED, 50 percent offered vocational training, 33 percent offered special education, and 33 percent offered college courses.”

Because educational programs vary from state to state, it’s difficult to make conclusive statements about nationwide program access. However, this study also referenced a declining number of inmates participating in educational programs. This decline could be attributed to a widespread lack of program availability due to overcrowding, although it could also reflect a reduction in spending. Regardless, in order to make jails safer, jail administrators should strive to reduce overcrowding and encourage educational program participation.

Local NGOs Could Help Make Jails Safer

Here in Nebraska, local groups and charities have already stepped-up to help inmates reintegrate into society. In many ways, these NGOs (non-governmental organization) represent rehabilitative blueprints for jail administrators to learn from and draw upon. There are 10+ organizations in Nebraska that serve this purpose, including:

  • Opening Doors to Success
  • Good News Jail & Prison Ministry
  • Friends & Family of Inmates – NEPEN
  • Crossover Prison Ministries
  • Compassion in Action
  • ReLeasT Ministry
  • Society of Saint Vincent de Paul Omaha
  • African-American Empowerment Network
  • Destination…Dad
  • Bridges to Hope

All of these organizations help inmates after they are released from a correctional facility. For inmates who had no access to programs while they were on the inside, these organizations can bridge the gap. However, preventing future riots and ensuring the long-term success of inmates requires more than merely supporting them after they’re released. Broadly speaking, the corrections industry needs to reduce overcrowding to make jails safer, and the only way to do that is with buy-in from all parties. NGOs, local constituencies, inmates, and law enforcement alike must come together to solve this problem. In the face of widespread cooperation and coordination, institutional overcrowding stands no chance.

Categories
Recidivism

Choices Lost on the Inside, and how
to Develop Correctional Solutions

In a previous article, we discussed the limited choices available to incarcerated persons. And while there are many choices that inmates can’t be allowed to make, some options and decision-making processes are too important to be allowed to atrophy. Incarceration facilities already have exercise equipment to train inmates physically; why shouldn’t there also be a way for prisoners to practice making better decisions? This post will cover the obvious and less-obvious choices inmates lose upon entering a jail or prison, as well as the correctional solutions that could return a semblance of judgment back to incarcerated individuals.

Obvious Inmate Choice Limitations

When a person goes to prison, their choices regarding time, physical movement, and privacy must be limited. In order to maintain a secure environment, incarceration facilities must be allowed to schedule the daily lives of their inmates. For instance, if a pair of prisoners is liable to a no-contact order, the jail or prison in which they both reside must feed, bathe, and exercise them separately. Allowing inmates to make choices regarding how they spend all 24-hours of their day is a recipe for chaos.

The physical movement should be the most apparent choice limitation, as the cornerstone of imprisonment is a revoked freedom of movement. An inmate can’t choose to visit their Grandma because inmates can’t leave prison. Similarly, inmate privacy must be limited to minimize escape attempts, riots, plots, and conspiracies. How else could guards discover inmates tunneling out of their cells without searching said cells? Likewise, it would be impossible to find and confiscate weapons and contraband if inmates had an inalienable right to personal privacy. These obvious choice limitations are the bare-minimum infringements incarceration facilities have to make to function. Smart correctional solutions can’t change this.

Non-Obvious Inmate Choice Limitations

It may not be apparent, but there are several choices that are unnecessarily limited in prison. Choices that–if made available through well-executed correctional solutions–would expedite the rehabilitation process.

In prison, inmates first lose the choice to appear vulnerable. On the inside, inmates are subject to a self-imposed status hierarchy. The weak are exploited by the strong. Any sign of outward weakness or vulnerability is swiftly punished, not by the guards, but by other prisoners. Due to this fact, inmates don’t have the option to cry in front of each other or grimace in pain, or to relax and let down their guards simply. The correctional environment itself breeds antagonism, which is mentally draining and not conducive to self-reflection or repentance.

Second, the choice to participate civically is lost upon the inmate. Barring prisoners convicted of treason, the vast majority of inmates in prison will have the ability to vote again after their sentences end. However, many of these people will be so stuck in their habitual civic disengagement that they won’t even bother to re-register, let alone cast their ballot. Instead of fostering a sense of responsibility, this lack of choice invites individual complacency, and can further the “victim mindset.”

Third and finally, inmates lose almost all free-market economic choices. While commissaries do provide essential goods and services to inmates, their lack of competition/selection does nothing to stimulate the discerning mind. Because of this, inmates make fewer value-based judgments and appraisals. They don’t need to weigh the pros and cons of buying one product versus its competitor; there is no competitor. If an inmate wants to buy a bag of chips, there is only one vendor to buy from. This lack of economic choice does nothing to prepare prisoners for the real world, nor does it strengthen critical thinking skills.

Developing Correctional Solutions that Return These Choices to the Inmate

Fortunately, none of these choice-related problems requires a correctional solution that would compromise the incarceration environment. In other words, there are solutions that don’t inversely impact facility security or control.

For instance, consider the inability to appear vulnerable in front of other inmates. To solve this problem, facilities could offer options like group therapy, skills workshops, or even remote visitation. Perhaps, while speaking with their peers in a group setting, inmates could learn to confide in each other and break down their social hierarchies. And for those in extremely unwelcoming environments, calling home for a face-to-face video chat may offer some prisoners an alternative to permanently “looking hard.”

Civic participation could also benefit from minor changes at the facility level. Sure, incarceration institutions can’t change laws prohibiting voting by inmates, but they can do other things instead. If the prerequisite to a democracy is a well-informed populace, then jails and prisons could offer news services and substantial libraries so that when inmates get out, they aren’t bewildered by current events. These information options could also keep inmates attached to the outside world.

Free-market economic choices would be the hardest for incarceration facilities to implement, but that’s only because no readily-available model exists as of yet. It’s highly abnormal for a facility to offer more than a single commissary option. But imagine if multiple commissary providers could all compete in the same marketplace instead of receiving county-wide monopolies as they do today. A reality like that would offer significant incentives for inmates to think critically.

Conclusion

While there are many choices that are restricted on the inside, some choices and decision-making processes are so crucial that correctional facilities should shift gears and encourage them. Interpersonal intimacy, civic engagement, free market participation; these are hallmarks of good citizenship. But when an environment limits the choices making up these attributes, it becomes impossible for individuals within that environment to strive towards good citizenship. Luckily, there are numerous correctional solutions which facilities can use to restore these choices to inmates. The bottom line is that jails and prisons shouldn’t make it hard for prisoners to practice being good people. In fact, they should make it as simple as making a choice.

Categories
Recidivism

Inmate Rehabilitation:
Who Are We Without Choice?

Across the board, incarceration facilities do two things well: they prevent violent offenders from wreaking havoc upon the state, and they satisfy the shelter, sustenance, and medical needs of varying prisoner populations. Unfortunately, jails and prisons make it hard for inmates to practice making the right decisions, due to the lack of available choices. Compared with life on the outside, prisoners have only a handful of ways they can express their agency. In part, this is by design. Correctional facilities are concerned primarily with security, and in light of that, some inmate choices must be restricted. Even so, without the option, inmates can only help themselves so much.

However, what if there was a way to return a sense of choice to people on the inside? Better yet, what if there was a way inmates could practice making positive life decisions before their sentences end? Returning a sense of choice to inmates could have profound impacts on recidivism. But how do we know what options to offer, or how to frame them? Before we can use choice to improve post-incarceration outcomes, we have to understand more about it.

Without Choice, we are Prisoner to our Emotions

Think about this phrase: “I had no choice.” How many times throughout history has that statement been used to justify something terrible? When people feel like they have no options, they are forced to act. Little time is spent pondering the consequences, or how our actions may impact the people around us. Because of that, we make rash decisions. When we lose customers, friends, or lovers, it’s not because we took a calm, rational approach to the situation. In most instances, we make mistakes when our emotions get the best of us. Without choice, we are living life without self-control.

Self-control is just a series of choices. Sure, they are often hard choices to make. There’s nothing easier than losing your temper. And sure, these self-control choices must be consciously made on a recurring, moment-to-moment basis, but that only makes practice all the more relevant. The more often a person makes positive decisions, the more relaxed those choices become. In fact, self-control is so vital that Professor Richard Nisbettthe world’s greatest authority on intelligence—plainly stated that he’d rather his son be high in self-control than highly intelligent.

This is where jails and prisons can make the most significant impact. Maybe not in the quality of decisions that are made, but in the consistency. An incarceration facility is a micro-society. The choice is limited, but because the same incarcerated person can make the same decisions over and over again over the duration of their sentence, incarceration is a powerful vehicle for reinforcing choice habits. Right now, the evidence shows that U.S. correctional facilities are reinforcing the wrong habits. All of this is to say that without choice, and especially good options, we are the prisoner of our emotions.

With Choice, we can Rehabilitate Ourselves

Imagine this: alongside its usual junk-food staples like soda and candy, a commissary provider includes healthier options like fruit or whole-grain granola bars. Now, inmates have the choice between snacks that are healthy or unhealthy; provided costs are controlled for. On the one hand, they have the instant gratification and sugar-rush that a candy bar offers. On the other, they improve their long-term health. Just by adding more options, the commissary has provided inmates with the opportunity to make a value judgment. This example could be made even more efficient by encouraging inmates to create positive, long-term choices; either by way of price incentives or digital signage campaigns.

Of course, not every behavioral problem can be solved by adding tangerines to the commissary. Many of the people who end up in prison have corrupted perceptions of right and wrong that were ingrained in them over a lifetime. But if jail administrators think about choice as a tool, instead of as an afterthought, prisons and jails could improve recidivism rates by incentivizing positive behavioral change.

The smartest people in our society create their positive options. They don’t wait for someone to give them a handout or tell them it’s okay to solve a problem. They just do it. Nobody listed “Become the first black president of South Africa” as an option on Nelson Mandela’s commissary request form. He made that happen himself. Unfortunately, the majority of the prisoners in the U.S. Justice system aren’t naturally gifted human beings. They’re regular people living regular lives who somewhere down the line, made the wrong choice. Incarceration facilities shouldn’t just punish people for making bad decisions; they should prepare them to make better ones in the future.