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Three Words to Live by: Knowledge is Power

I’ve always had a profound love of sayings and proverbs in language. Few are as to-the-point and thought-provoking as this one: Knowledge is power.

The pursuit of knowledge opens so many doors. It gives us power over our lives and futures, the ability to learn from the past, the ability to learn about others and the world around us and the opportunity to pass on what we’ve learned to others.

On top of that, knowledge (to be more precise, education) staves off stagnation and helps break cycles that impede individual progress.

One of the most crippling and vicious cycles facing our nation is recidivism. Unfortunately, our jails and prisons bear the brunt of this, as they house millions of reoffenders each year.

We know that the temptations for inmates to continue engaging in behavior that put them behind bars in the first place are strong. But we also know that empowering inmates with the means to education counteracts those temptations, making the road to rehabilitation smoother.

Education and rehabilitation are practically one and the same; it’s tough to imagine one without the other. And in their darkest hour, unfettered access to information and academic literature provides inmates with a beacon of hope.

Frankly, the collective effort to combat recidivism starts from within—specifically, within the walls of our correctional facilities.

Three brothers—Cole, James and Robert Younger—recognized that knowledge is power as far back as 1887. Thanks to the Youngers, that year saw the birth of America’s oldest active prison newspaper, The Prison Mirror. Their story is nothing short of remarkable.

Just 10 years earlier, the trio led lives of crime alongside fellow outlaw Jesse James (Maybe you’ve heard of him). Together, they formed the James-Younger Gang. After their involvement in an armed bank robbery that went awry, the Younger brothers were tracked down and jailed.

Having barely dodged a death sentence and serving life in the then-Minnesota State Prison, they sought to redefine their legacy. Each of them worked their way up and obtained resume-building jobs in the prison. Eventually, this led to a love of literature and a desire to launch a newspaper.

While others had a hand in The Prison Mirror, it was the Youngers’ name recognition and funding that made the publication possible. It’s believed that one thing convinced them most: The lion’s share of the profits would be put back into the Minnesota State Prison’s library.

The rest, as they say, is history.

This revolutionary idea came at a time when inmates were underserved and often ignored. Today, the need for education in our correctional system is just as pressing. We at Encartele have highlighted the importance of prison libraries in encouraging intellectual curiosity among inmates in past articles.

When we think of structures that exist to educate, we automatically think of schools and public libraries. We attend schools and visit libraries to advance our job prospects and expand our knowledge.

If rehabilitation of inmates is the ultimate goal, why shouldn’t they be afforded that same right?

In “Books beyond bars: the transformative potential of prison libraries”, author Lisa Krolak asks that very question. She argues that prison libraries should functionally be no different than any other library.

Krolak explains, “It is important that the prison library is a special space, separate from the rest of the prison, where inmates can experience an inspiring, creative atmosphere different to their everyday cell life.”

How tangible is the impact when education is emphasized in correctional settings?

One study cited in “Books beyond bars” revealed that inmates provided with an opportunity for sustained learning were 43 percent less likely to wind up back behind bars.

For perspective, a 2018 report from the U.S. Department of Justice indicated that nearly 45 percent of former inmates are arrested no more than a year after release.  

The evidence suggests that as access to informational resources for inmates goes up, recidivism goes down. And if that’s the case, it’s about time the phrase “knowledge is power” echoes in every hall and housing unit of jails and prisons across the country.

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Correctional Insights

Scandinavian Jails: Why is Their Recidivism Rate so Much Better?

Imagine a picturesque summer landscape in southern Norway with the scent of blueberry bushes, birch trees and the North Sea wafting through the air. None of the 300 inmates at the Halden maximum-security prison have to imagine anything; that seaside breeze is part of their daily routines. Unlike the majority of prisons on Earth, Halden allows its inmates to freely roam the facility for 12 hours per day. Now, visualize electric fences with razor wire, guard towers with snipers and 400 other inmates crammed in all around you. That’s what the one-to-two-hour yard time at ADX Florence Supermax feels like. Based on these accounts, it’s easy to see that Scandinavian jails and prisons are very different from their American counterparts. But why are the recidivism rates of Norway and Denmark so much lower than America’s?

Well, for one thing, American correctional institutions are some of the most heavily populated institutions in the world. While American sheriffs and jail administrators can’t make immediate changes to federal law enforcement policy, they can mine the Scandinavian incarceration model for strategic wisdom. To that end, here are some of the key differences between Scandinavian and American facilities:

Scandinavian Jails Offer More Freedoms and Amenities

Scandinavian jails, including Halden, get a bad rap from American media. They’re portrayed as cushy, naïve and soft on crime. Halden is one of Norway’s newest maximum-security prisons near the border between Norway and Sweden. According to an NPR article by Jeffrey Kofman, each inmate’s cell is a private room equipped with a fridge, a television, and a desk. Inmates also have access to a fully equipped kitchen, and a metal and woodworking shop. In short, while it’s true that Halden was not designed like an American maximum-security facility, it’s hardly a caviar and bonbons experience.

According to an article in the New York Times written by Jessica Benko, Halden had no security fence or warnings about picking up hitchhikers because no inmate had ever tried to escape the facility. “There were no coils of razor wire in sight, no lethal electric fences, no towers manned by snipers—nothing violent, threatening or dangerous,” Benko wrote.

At ADX Supermax prison in Florence, Colorado, it is a completely different world. Each cell gets a four-inch window; a concrete bed, a stool and a desk. Showers at ADX are set on timers, and the toilets and sinks are combined units. It also houses nearly twice as many inmates as Halden normally does.

Norway Focuses on Life After Incarceration

There are significant differences between US and Scandinavian punitive systems. Norway’s incarceration rate is 72 jailed offenders per every 100,000 people compared to America’s 693 per 100,000 people. Norway also has the world’s lowest recidivism rate at 20 percent, while America sees 75 percent of its prisoners re-offend within five years of release.

According to Benko’s article, Halden Prison takes a different approach to rehabilitating its prisoners. There, the facility staff focus on preparing inmates for life after incarceration. Amazingly, guards are also encouraged to cultivate friendships with the inmates. In Norway, there is no death penalty, nor is there a life sentence. Instead, the maximum sentence is 21 years. However, five-year increments can be added onto a sentence if the Norwegian justice system finds that a prisoner hasn’t been rehabilitated.

In Colorado, where ADX Florence is located, capital punishment is legal and each criminal sentence depends upon the severity of the crime. While America has its own process for rehabilitating inmates, the Scandinavian model is extremely successful at keeping its citizens out of prison. Since there is a staggering difference between the recidivism rates of each country, American jail administrators should take notice. By creating facility policy that focuses on life after incarceration, jail administrators could reduce American recidivism on their own.

North Dakota Prisons Test the Norwegian Philosophy

Don Specter of the Prison Law Office funded the US-European Criminal Justice Innovation Program in partnership with Dr. Brie Williams and Cyrus Ahalt of the UC Criminal Justice and Health Consortium at UC San Francisco. This program allows criminal justice professionals of all levels to tour Norway’s correctional system and learn from European reform leaders.

In 2015, North Dakota Prisons Chief Leann Bertsch and her deputy Karianne Jackson enrolled in the program. They toured Halden and came away with the knowledge to enact a similar system in North Dakota. According to Dashka Slater’s article in Mother Jones, Bertsch found some modular units to house inmates at the Missouri River Correctional Center (a minimum-security facility) and urged the staff to adopt the Norwegian philosophy. Inmates had the opportunity to snag one of 36 private rooms in exchange for good behavior. Some of these rooms even included showers and toilets. Bertsch and her deputies also reevaluated the list of minor infractions and searched for candidates in solitary confinement that could be transitioned into general population.

Since the new system was established, North Dakota prison officials have noticed large declines in violence, threats against the staff, and the use of force by staff. It should be noted that North Dakota already had a lower-than-average incarceration rate compared to other states, and that not every prison can move inmates around on a whim. Larger facilities in many states may have different problems and needs.

Slater went on to say that some states with larger prison populations have enacted rules encouraging staff to interact with inmates without relying on command terminology. Maybe that’s a step in the right direction. It’s a relatively small change to make compared to building 36 special housing units. Instead of showing force in a tense situation, staff could employ empathy to resolve an issue without feeding resentment within inmates. The best incarceration facilities have staff that can treat those in their charge like human beings, while maintaining an air of impartiality. However, only jail administrators can craft facility policies that encourage this type of conflict resolution.

For more information about Norway’s prison system from an inmate’s perspective, check out this translated video.


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.


The Missing Man in Prison Reform: Father Figures

A family has always been an integral factor in a person’s development. When a parent is absent, children must rely on other sources to mold their concepts about the world. Traditionally, the father figure in families provides children with security, discipline, and guidance for morals and everyday life. When the father is absent, children may have a less balanced view of the world around them and often turn to risky behavior to seek approval from surrogate father figures. This can lead to delinquency, crime, and incarceration when left unaddressed. Learn how this “missing man” concept relates to the father factor and increases crime and incarceration rates for youth and adults.

The “Father Factor” Defined

According to the U.S. Census, there are an estimated 70.1 million fathers in the United States. 24.7 million of those have children under the age of 18 and live as a married couple in the same household. Two million fathers are single parents, but only 17 percent of those have full-time custody of their children.

The latest numbers from the Bureau of Justice Statistics show that out of the 1.5 million total inmates (male and female) in the United States, over 809,000 were parents of minor children. Depending on the race, between 45 and 70 percent of all male inmates reported having at least one minor child. Only 35 percent of fathers incarcerated in state prisons reported living with at least one of their biological children in the month prior to their arrest.

The father factor refers to the effects upon children when their biological fathers are absent. In addition to effects such as increased delinquency, crime rates, and incarceration, the absence of a biological father also impacts:

  • Mother and child health
  • Emotional and behavioral development
  • Teen pregnancy rates
  • Reduction of education levels achieved
  • Increased child abuse
  • Increased drug and alcohol abuse
  • Childhood obesity

How Absent Fathers Affect Crime Rates

Good relationships between a biological father and his children reduce the risk of adolescent misbehavior that leads to crime, as well as reducing criminal behavior itself. When fathers are present in the home, adolescents are less likely to commit delinquent acts. When communication and a positive relationship exists between a child and an in-home father, delinquency rates are decreased even further. This is especially true for male children.

But when the father is absent, the risk for his children to commit crime goes up — and so does the risk for other children in the neighborhood. Studies have found that not only are adolescents from single-parent homes at higher risk of committing a crime, but it also has an influence on the other adolescents attending the same schools. Risks were found to be higher for status, property and person crimes in schools with high rates of single-parent homes.

Incarceration Rates

Research has shown that incarceration rates are higher for children who grow up in homes without a biological father present. The highest rates were for those children who had never lived with their father. In a Department of Justice survey, statistics were compiled for the previous living situations of jail inmates. The survey found that:

  • 39 percent had lived in “mother-only” households.
  • 46 percent had a family member who had previously been incarcerated.
  • 20 percent were children of fathers who had been in prison or jail.

Solutions for Prison Reform

Ideally, all these problems would be solved by creating a stronger, two-parent household for all children in which the biological parents played supportive and loving roles in the development of the children throughout their entire childhoods. But reuniting parents with their children is also a viable solution for addressing these issues and suitable for prison reform.

Using a cognitive-behavioral approach to address criminogenic needs is one of the methods recommended by the National Registry of Evidence-Based Programs and Practices. By changing attitudes, building parenting skills and confidence, increasing parental knowledge and improving family contact, programs with this approach teach men to be better dads both inside of prison and in the community once they are released.

Mentoring programs can help reduce recidivism rates and provide for a more successful reentry into the community and family life. A mentor can help educate fathers and give them a vision of what a crime-free life looks like. Encouragement and connection from someone who has been in their shoes show them that life without crime is possible and attainable.

After implementing this type of training program for incarcerated fathers within the Kentucky Department of Corrections, Kentucky experienced a 57 percent decrease in recidivism rates for men who completed the program. The program provided training while in prison to address:

  • Criminal and family history
  • Relationships with spouses and children
  • How to obtain education and employment upon release
  • Appropriate leisure and recreational activities

After release, mentors continued to train the men during their transition back into the community and their family life.

While there are many factors related to the choice of committing a crime, building a stronger family with a fatherly influence is one solution that’s achievable. Through appropriate training programs both inside and outside of prison, men can become fathers with healthy family relationships and leave behind the life of crime.