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.