Sunday, April 19, 2020

From Behind Bars - Ending Mass Incarceration - Part 4

Collective Punishment Inside U.S. Prisons Must End! Mumia Abu ...
Image from Global Research Center
By Michael Liebowitz

A Connecticut prisoner for nearly 25 years, Liebowitz is currently housed at Osborn Correctional Institution in Somers, CT.  He is also co-author of "Down the Rabbit Hole: How the Culture of Corrections Encourages Crime", available at Amazon.  Liebowitz is also a regular guest with Todd Feinburg on WTIC AM 1080.  Podcasts of Todd's segments with Liebowitz can be heard, here.



Widespread Implementation of Core Correctional Practices


          Implementing evidence-based programs, while necessary, won’t be enough.  This is because even the best programs have little chance of succeeding in correctional environments that are not conducive to offender reform.  Whatever lessons offenders learn in their programs will be undermined by the dysfunctional milieus in which they live.  Unfortunately, this is a far more common problem than you may think.  Consider “… Anthony Flores and his colleagues (Flores, Russell, Latessa & Travis, 2005) asked 171 correctional practitioners to identify three criminogenic needs, none could.”  Given the importance of targeting criminogenic needs when trying to reform offenders, this is more than a little disheartening.  And this refers to practitioners.  Imagine how bad the case is for “front-line” staff!


          Also, “Gendreau and Goggin (1997) report that only a minority of correctional agencies - perhaps as few as 1 in 10 - function in such a way as to satisfactorily deliver effective treatment programs.”  They identified such problems as “ … employing program directors and staff that have little professional training or knowledge about effective treatment programs; the failure to assess offenders with scientifically based actuarial risk instruments; the targeting of factors … for change that are weakly related or unrelated to recidivism; the use of treatments that were ‘inappropriate’ or delivered with insufficient ‘dosage’ or ‘intensity’; the failure to include aftercare in the treatment; and a general lack of therapeutic integrity.” 

Amazon.com: Down the Rabbit Hole: How the Culture of Corrections ...
Available at Amazon
          In our book, “Down the Rabbit Hole: How the Culture of Corrections Encourages Crime”, Brent McCall and I identified several of these factors, as well as others.  These include staff modeling inappropriate behavior, lending support to criminal values, not enforcing nor following the rules and rewarding bad behavior and punishing good behavior.
 Despite what many may believe, punishment and rehabilitation need not be antithetical to each other.


         Overcoming these problems will require significant structural and cultural changes.  This is a daunting task that will no doubt require Herculean efforts to achieve.  After all, those who benefit from the current system are unlikely to embrace the necessary changes.  In the next section I’ll offer a suggestion of how to overcome the serious problem of entrenched interests.  For now I’ll limit myself to discussing the types of correctional environments necessary to promote offender reform.
          In order to facilitate positive changes in offenders, correctional environments must be punitive while at the same time providing them with the necessary tools for rehabilitation.  Despite what many may believe, punishment and rehabilitation need not be antithetical to each other.  In fact, employing one without the other is unlikely to make a dent in the recidivism rate.


          Think about it.  If they don’t face an unpleasant environment, what incentive do offenders have to put forth the arduous effort that reforming themselves requires?  Of course, loss of liberty is itself a punishment, but if that loss results in living conditions where offenders can spend the lion’s share of their time watching TV, listening to the radio, playing video games, playing cards, etc., what effect is it likely to have?  It is precisely the discomfort of punishment that will initially provide them with the motivation to change and to participate in the types of programs that will help accomplish this.


          However, punishing offenders will only teach them how not to behave.  It won’t show them how to live responsibly.  Furthermore, if the punishment is too harsh it will create resentments and a backlash, thus undermining reform efforts.  The major challenge we face is how to create environments that are punitive enough to inspire change in a pro-social direction, while not being so punitive as to impede that aim.

Put simply, people tend to repeat the behaviors for which they are rewarded and discontinue those for which they are punished.


          Ultimately, what needs to be implemented in correctional institutions are behavior-management systems, the express goal being to turn offenders into responsible people.  Social Learning Theory (SLT) provides the appropriate foundation for such systems.  According to SLT “All behavior, criminal or not, is under the control of rewards and costs that come either prior to the behavior or after it.  In any situation, the contingencies of rewards and costs are responsible for the acquisition, maintenance, and modification of human behavior.”  Put simply, people tend to repeat the behaviors for which they are rewarded and discontinue those for which they are punished.  Thus, if criminals are to be reformed, they must experience a responsible lifestyle as rewarding and an antisocial lifestyle as punishing.


          Also, SLT emphasizes that we learn from watching others.  If we witness someone get rewarded for behaving in a certain way, we are likely to emulate them.  On the other hand, if we see someone punished for how they conduct themselves, we are unlikely to employ the same behavior.  Importantly, the more a person is liked and respected, the more likely their behavior is to be copied.


In order to be effective, correctional personnel need to understand and be able to recognize behaviors that are indicative of criminality.


          The first step in implementing a behavior-management system will be to decide what rules to put in place.  As it is criminal behavior we wish to alter, the rules we establish should reflect this fact.  In addition to banning behaviors that are explicitly criminal, such as fighting and extortion, for instance, behaviors indicative of criminality should be prohibited as well.  A lack of consideration for how their behavior affects others, for example, is a common characteristic shared by offenders.  Thus expressions of this trait, such as yelling, slamming dominoes, cutting in line, etc., should be banned.  On the other hand, bringing a bowl to chow, or tucking in one’s shirt, or giving soup to a friend have nothing to do with one’s propensity to commit crimes, therefore rules prohibiting these actions make little sense.  They also put undue stress on staff, whose time would be better spent focusing on more relevant behaviors.


          In order to be effective change-agents, correctional personnel, need to understand and be able to recognize behaviors that are indicative of criminality.  There are a number of good sources for obtaining this knowledge.  I recommend “The Criminal Personality”, a three-volume set by Doctor Samuel Yochelson and Stanton Samenow, “The Criminal Lifestyle” by Glenn Walters, and “The Psychology of Criminal Conduct” by James Bonta and D.A. Andrews.


          Once the system is in place and staffs have the requisite knowledge, they need to enforce the rules in a firm, fair and consistent manner.   Consistency is absolutely vital.  If rules are not consistently enforced, offenders will get the message that they can sometimes get away with behaving badly, which they already believe.  They are also likely to be confused about what’s expected of them.  And if behavioral expectations are unclear, how will they know how to conduct themselves?

. . . good behavior should never be punished, nor should the many be punished for the actions of the few.


          Punishments should be commensurate to the offense.  Thus a week in “seg” (segregation) for yelling would be inappropriate, as would an “informal” for fighting.  Also, punishments should be administered as closely in time as possible to the offense, and the reason for the punishment clearly explained to the offender.  Employing these two practices will help the offender to draw a clear connection between his actions and their consequences.


          Furthermore, good behavior should never be punished, nor should the many be punished for the actions of the few.  This may seem like common sense, but you’d be surprised how often they’ve occurred in the correctional settings in which I’ve been confined.


          Finally, when a system of punishment is first instituted the inmates may rebel a bit.  Remember, many of these people have never faced consistent consequences for how they behaved.  It should therefore not be surprising that they should chafe when held accountable.  The important thing is for the correctional agency to stay the course.


          As imperative as punishment is to a program of offender reform, it will not on its own result in significant improvements in offender behavior.  They must be taught how to behave appropriately.  This is where reinforcement comes into play. 


          Whereas behaviors targeted by punishment tend to decrease, those targeted by reinforcement tend to increase.  In layman’s terms, reinforcement is the rewarding of conduct.  That reward may consist of giving someone something desirable (positive reinforcement), such as praise, better food, or more recreation; or it may be the removal of something unpleasant (negative reinforcement), such as being moved out of a lousy cell, or early release from confinement.


          Reinforcements should be applied to the types of behaviors we wish to increase, i.e. pro-social, responsive actions.  For example, offenders should be rewarded for showing consideration for others or demonstrating a good work ethic.  As with punishment, to be effective reinforcement must be consistently employed and immediately follow the desired behavior.  While most people intuitively know that correctional staff should be looking out for rule violations, it is even more important that they search for pro-social behaviors to reward.  This is because positive reinforcement is more effective than punishment when it comes to altering behavior.

. . . perhaps just as destructive is something far more common than it ought to be: staff who model irresponsible and sometimes downright criminal behavior.


          Vitally, offenders shouldn’t be rewarded for bad behavior or for the good behavior of others.  Examples I’ve seen of the former are cutting in line without consequence, showering when they are supposed to lock up, and keeping jobs they lied to obtain.  An example I witnessed of the latter was everyone in an industries shop was given a commendation for the good work of one inmate.


          While inconsistent and inappropriate applications of rewards and punishments are sure to subvert the type of system I’ve been describing, perhaps just as destructive is something far more common than it ought to be: staff who model irresponsible and sometimes downright criminal behavior.  There are at least two ways in which these types of behaviors have the potential to undermine the effectiveness of behavior-management systems:


·        They lend support to antisocial behavior by providing inmates with a rationalization for it.  When criminals witness staff conducting themselves inappropriately, they may say something to themselves akin to “See, everybody’s a crook.  I just had the misfortune of getting caught.”  This is not the message that should be sent to offenders.

·        They lead to a credible charge of hypocrisy.  Think about it.  How likely is it that offenders are going to take seriously the admonitions of people who don’t follow the rules themselves?  “Do what I say, not what I do” is a well-known poor parenting practice and it’s just as ineffective when trying to reform offenders.


The type of system described above is captured pretty well by the concept of “Core Correctional Practices”.  This concept was originally developed by Andrews and Kiesling (1980) and consisted of five principles.  In 1989, Andrews and Gendreau increased that number.


The following is the updated list:

·        Anti-criminal modeling

·        Effective reinforcement

·        Effective disapproval

·        Effective use of authority

·        Problem solving

·        Relationship skills

·        Cognitive restructuring

·        Skill building

·        Motivational enhancement



          As with programming, to be effective this scheme will require a significant amount of training, as well as frequent monitoring to ensure compliance.  However, as important as these are, they are unlikely enough to achieve success.  In order to achieve the results we want, we will need a fresh approach to overcome the aforementioned entrenched interests.  Let’s see how it might be done in the next segment; “Remunerate Correctional Officials and Employees Based on Results, i.e. Reduced Recidivism”.

Typed from the author's hand written essay by Linda Johnson and edited by William Boylan, Editor-in-Chief.

Parts 1,2 and 3, along with the entire From Behind Bars series, can be seen, here.

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