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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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Articles Correctional Insights Recidivism

Connection Prevents Inmates from Developing a Criminal Identity – Here’s Why

Any student of history knows that functioning societies and verbal communication are inextricably linked. Whether we’re talking about skyscrapers or social bonds, without verbal communication, humans would have never succeeded in building anything.

Our ability to communicate is an integral part of our identity. However, in the absence of communication, a criminal identity can take the place of a functional identity.

Thanks to our ever-growing digital landscape, more traditional forms of communication have been taken for granted. Why make a phone call when it’s more convenient to share the same information via text, email or social media?

Technological progress has made it possible for us to communicate in ways that don’t involve a true vocal exchange. The consequence of which is a dramatic social shift that has forever changed human interaction.

Nevertheless, the most tried-and-true method for getting a message across, resolving conflict or reinforcing social ties is speaking face to face or by phone. Take the workplace for example.

A 2020 study done by SocialChorus revealed that 73 percent of survey respondents believe effective workplace communication promotes a healthier culture, inevitably leading to stronger worker mental health.

Meaningful communication gives us a sense of belonging and validation. It’s vital to our emotional, mental and social wellness. Though many of us don’t think about it, the same is true for inmates in our jail and prison systems.

Countless studies have shown that regular contact with loved ones, whether through visitation or phone calls, creates positive stimulation for those behind bars.

Picture of an inmate being lent a hand to make a connection. That connection, in the form of familial contact, will help preempt the development of criminal identity.

The upshot of this is inmates are less likely to violate rules while serving their sentence or, more importantly, reoffend at some point. Encouraging inmates to maintain communication with their families leads to positive short-term and long-term effects.

In the short term, correctional environments are safer and in the long term, reintegration is often smoother. As researchers Michael Rocque, David Bierie, and Doris MacKenzie put it, socialization lowers the chances inmates will develop a criminal identity while confined.

Conversely, an inmate who’s unable to speak frequently with loved ones is liable to smuggle contraband into the facility—namely, cellphones. And as technology continues to progress, illicit access to mobile phones will be considerably easier for inmates.

An inmate who introduces contraband to a correctional environment is likely to continue this behavior, thereby taking on a criminal identity.

Along with facilitating communication between inmates and their families, the need for modernized options is fundamental to rehabilitation efforts as well.

With the increased push towards virtual and online services, correctional institutions will need to keep pace. Ensuring security and making every effort not to disrupt existing family ties should be a top priority.

Picture of an inmate making a connection. That connection, in the form of familial contact, will help preempt the development of a criminal identity.

Not only does this apply to telephonic modernization, but it should also include a less burdensome and arbitrary approach to visitation. A 2011 study conducted by the Vera Institute of Justice found that inmates’ family members cited unreasonably long waits and unclear rules as reasons they wouldn’t visit again.

The physical distance between family and inmates coupled with the stringent nature of visitation procedures makes contact by phone all the more important. Greater access and an emphasis on adapting to evolving telecommunications will be the challenge for correctional facilities going forward.

But, as we’ve seen across multiple studies for decades, providing inmates the opportunity to maintain familial connections helps lower recidivism and aids successful rehabilitation.

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Articles Recidivism

Former Inmates are Critical to Reforming Criminal Justice

“Within 3 years of release, 2 out of 3 people are rearrested and more than 50% are reincarcerated,” as noted by healthypeople.gov. This troubling statistic is evidence that our criminal justice system is broken, and while the causes for this are many, the input and participation of former inmates could be the key to unlocking better outcomes for inmates in the US.

Those inmates who legally escape the corrections system have something to offer: Perspective. They’ve seen the system from the inside-out, and they’re among the best to offer opinions to solve its problems. After a lengthy stint of incarceration, a former inmate has already lived through what’s right and wrong with the system, which should be invaluable material for policy-makers.

Former inmates can also do a wealth of good for the people who are still incarcerated in their former institution. Take for example, the story of Pastor Ron Smith. He was incarcerated for 6 and a half years before eventually turning his life around to become a preacher. Now, he returns to offer counseling and guidance to the young men who are in the same place where he used to be.

However, Ron can only visit so many correctional facilities. Former inmates may have valuable insights for the currently incarcerated, but they need a metaphorical megaphone for their message to truly have an effect. That’s where a technology like digital signage comes in. With digital signage, many facilities can easily disperse content to their inmates on a regular basis.

Imagine if this message from former inmate Tim Hurley was broadcast across jails nationwide: “The No. 1 ingredient required to make it is humility. When humble, I am teachable.” These are the kinds of messages that need to be amplified, and we can get more of them if we just listened to former inmates more often.

Encartele believes that inmates need to hear messages like this, so we regularly produce free rehabilitative materials for public use.

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Correctional Insights

The Importance of Rehabilitative Content for Inmates

The sheer number of people who pass through the correctional system on a daily basis is staggering. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, 77 million people in America have criminal records. Putting aside the fact that criminal justice in America is in need of massive reforms, our correctional institutions are missing out on a huge opportunity. Going to jail is a punishment, but it could also be an opportunity for every individual who passes through the facility. That’s why rehabilitative content for inmates is so important.

When an inmate enters a jail, they can still choose how they want to spend their time. They have fewer options, but choice is still a part of their daily existence. Frequently the choice is between escapism and self-improvement. For example, during rec time, a hypothetical inmate could either watch TV or do pushups. However, the options for rehabilitative content for inmates can be quite limited.

Many inmates (possibly even the majority) actually want to better their personal situations. They want access to group therapy, law libraries, and educational resources. Inside some institutions, rehabilitative content for inmates is in high demand, not only from inmates, but from staff members too. Content has the power to soothe, instruct and improve lives – of course correctional officers and jail administrators want inmates to have access to it. Content makes the facility safer.

The fact is, we are probably years if not decades away from reforming the mass incarceration epidemic America is currently facing. In the meantime, millions of people pass through institutions that could be offering rehabilitative content for inmates they house. Everyone benefits when this kind of content is dispersed, even the inmates who don’t need to be rehabilitated.

Where would you rather be: in a jail with other inmates who engage with positive content, or in a jail with inmates who have nothing to lose? Most people would probably prefer an environment of rehabilitation rather than senseless incarceration. By promoting rehabilitative content for inmates, we can make an immediate difference in the quality of life for millions of people.

Encartele believes rehabilitative content is critical, so we regularly produce free materials for public use. Click here to download them for free.

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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.