Sunday, April 26, 2020

From Behind Bars - Ending Mass Incarceration - Part 5

Slide 1
HMP Dovegate, from the Serco website.
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.


Remunerate Correctional Officials and Employees Based on Results, i.e., Reduced Recidivism
          “There aren’t very many occupations where the more an organization fails to achieve its overarching objective the more its employees stand to make.  Corrections is one of them.  As the system is presently designed, the earning potential of those who work in our nation’s prisons is tied directly to high prison populations and high rates of recidivism.  And so long as that remains the case, society will continue to see the kind of abysmal results it has witnessed since the advent of the modern correctional era.
          “Prison systems should be structured in a way that incentivizes reductions in recidivism.  Presently they are not.  Politicians and corrections officials may pay lip service to the importance of reducing the number of offenders returning to our nation’s prisons, but the fact is the system is set up in a way that encourages high prison populations.
          “Whether prisons are operated by government officials or privately run, the incentive is to maintain or increase prison populations.  Not only do substantial incarceration rates mean increased earnings for correctional officers and other rank and file institutional staff  (who are beneficiaries of significant amounts of overtime) [but] private prisons get paid on a per inmate per diem basis.  So the more inmates they house, the higher the profits for shareholders.  By contrast, lower recidivism means lower earnings for most of those directly involved, regardless of whether it is a publicly or privately-run institution.
          “To be clear, we are not suggesting that high rates of recidivism are a consciously pursued goal on anyone’s part.  We don’t see the problem as a nefarious conspiracy.  To ascribe intention to any of this seems to us to grant too many people entirely too much credit.  What we are saying is that people respond to the way in which things are incentivized, and that the present arrangement is tantamount to disincentivizing the development or implementation of meaningful strategies to reduce the rate of recidivism.  Stated a bit differently, the present design inadvertently rewards inaction.  Simply put: When one is likely to make more money from doing nothing than he is from doing something – especially something as challenging as trying to motivate offenders to undertake the work necessary to change – it isn’t hard to guess which path he is going to take, i.e., the path of least resistance.

          “In short, the policy of paying prison staff regardless of results breeds apathy.  Imagine for a moment if car salesmen were paid even if they never sold any cars.  How hard do you think they would work to make sales if they had job security and a steady income stream even though they didn’t get positive results?  Well, when it comes to corrections, the practice is even worse because the arrangement actually promotes behaviors antithetical to the public interest.  To pay prison staff regardless of the results they produce is ultimately to endanger public safety…
          “High prison populations are obviously much easier to achieve than low ones.  All the former requires is that institutional staff be uninterested in the behavior of offenders, unwilling to offer correctives or encouragement, unconcerned with how their own behaviors impacting the process, and un-invested in outcomes.  The rest will, of course, take care of itself.  Under these conditions, a correctional culture will more or less evolve that contributes to offenders coming in and out of prison, unable to figure out how to break the pernicious cycle.
          “Now that’s not to suggest that criminal offenders are casualties of correctional apathy.  Criminals are always and only casualties of their own refusal to think.  The choices they make are theirs and theirs alone.  But that doesn’t mean that society would be justified in throwing its hands up in the air and decrying that nothing works.  Efforts should still be made to get through to criminal offenders and to provide them with the knowledge and guidance they need to effectuate positive changes.  Glenn Walters put it this way: ‘Thus, while I am steadfast in my belief that offenders cannot legitimately use societal injustice as an excuse for their criminal actions, neither can we as a society realistically escape our responsibility by putting everything off on the offender.’
          “The only real way to change the correctional culture in a fundamental way is to change the way in which those who operate the system are compensated.  Adding directives to the pile of directives already ignored will accomplish nothing at all levels.  The incomes that DOC (Department of Corrections) employees are capable of earning ought to be tied directly to three primary goals; one, preventing escapes; two, maintaining safety and security in the institutions; and three, reducing the rate of recidivism.
          “Of course, linking employee remunerations to the attainment of an organization’s goals is not a radical idea.  Indeed, it is how the vast majority of people earn their living, i.e., by producing positive results for their employers.  In the private sector, employees who fail to contribute to their company’s bottom line soon find themselves out of a job.  And by the same token companies that fail to turn a profit soon find themselves closing their doors.  Applying private sector principles to the running of our nation’s prisons is basically what we are recommending.  The primary difference is that whereas the goal of private companies is to make profits, the goal of the DOC should be to reduce prison populations, and ultimately crime itself.
          “Given that we advocate an incentive structure that is results-based in the way it is for private companies, it may be thought that we are advocating privatizing the prison system.  Absolutely not; at least not based on the model of private prisons that currently exists.  Under the present model, private prisons are perhaps even worse than those run by the state. [Remember, in the U.S., private prisons get paid based on how many prisoners they house]…
          “Some studies have indicated that the way private prisons generate revenue has led to offenders housed in them serving even longer sentences than they would if they were housed in state-run institutions.  For example, a study conducted by Anita Mukherjee, an assistant professor of actuarial science, risk management and insurance at the University of Wisconsin – Madison’s Wisconsin School of Business, found that ‘prisoners in private prisons are likely to serve as many as two to three more months behind bars than those assigned to public prisons.’  And importantly, Mukherjee notes that ‘despite industry claims to lower recidivism rates,’ those housed in private prisons are ‘equally likely to commit more crime after release.’
          “According to Peter Kerwin, the longer prison terms served by those in private prisons are fueled by the ‘widespread use of prison conduct violations.’  In summarizing Mukherjee’s findings, Kerwin notes that ‘prisoners in every demographic, offense and sentence-length category accumulated more infractions if they were assigned to a private prison.’  On whole, inmates housed in private prisons ‘received twice as many infractions as those in public prisons.’
          “Although the evidence suggests that the present American model of prison privatization is a failure from the standpoint of reducing offender recidivism, Mukherjee states that ‘pay for performance’ contracts have met with some success in the United Kingdom.  In other words, reductions in recidivism have been achieved among those inmates housed in private facilities paid on the basis of results.
          "Ultimately, pay for performance is the basic model we are proposing.  However, we are not suggesting that prisons have to be privatized in order to implement this format.  There are a number of ways this format could work for government-run institutions.  And although all the details would need to be eventually ironed out, the central issue is that the compensation structure would have to directly reward the men and women who work in prisons for positive results. Perhaps bonuses could be awarded over an employee’s base level pay for reductions in recidivism; the lower the rate, the higher the bonus. Additional vacation days might be earnable as well to help reduce employee burnout.
          “Initially, this may sound expensive, but consider that ‘it is estimated that each chronic offender costs society about 1.3 million dollars over the course of the offender’s lifetime,’ and that the U.S. presently spends $70 billion a year on corrections.  Certainly it makes sense, given the present state of affairs, to alter the way this money is allocated, if for no other reason than to reduce the human costs that are inevitably associated with unchanged offenders.  In truth, however, changing the way the correctional workforce is compensated would likely save money as well as lives.
          “What pay for performance necessarily would do is fundamentally alter the way prison employees approach their jobs, thus changing the prevailing correctional culture.  The knowledge that the successful reform of inmates was tied directly to one’s personal earning potential would make correctional employees much more conscientious about how their actions or inactions might be impacting results.  Accordingly, they would be more apt to be responsible and invested in the process …
          “Of course, pay for performance would have its limitations.  Given that a certain percentage of the offender population are incorrigible sociopaths, resistant to virtually all correctional treatment, the rate of recidivism would bottom out somewhere well above zero.  And this would need to be taken into account.  The remuneration of correctional employees should not be adversely affected because recidivist rates could only be reduced so much.  Which is to say, so long as recidivism continued to decline or remained at some yet-to-be-determined low point, those responsible for the low rates should be financially rewarded …
          “[The idea of remuneration based on results is of course merely an inchoate recommendation.] There is much to work out, and many difficulties to overcome before [it] could be effectively implemented. And no doubt one of the main difficulties would be resistance from those with a vested interest in the status quo.  The loudest protests would likely come from the correctional unions themselves.  They will most certainly deride [this idea] as impractical, undoable, and implausible.  But it seems to us those are adjectives that more accurately describe sustaining the present state of affairs.”
(The forgoing quoted material is from “Down the Rabbit Hold: How the Culture of Corrections Encourages Crime” (proof copy), Ch. 6 “Reforming the Reformers” pp 329 – 337 by Brent McCall and Michael Liebowitz (2017).)
          Subsequent to the publication of “Down the Rabbit Hole”, while reading “Incarceration Nations” by Baz Dreisinger, I came across “Serco”, a corporation based in Great Britain that runs two private prisons in Australia.  (I would later discover that Serco has prisons in other countries as well).  Contrary to America’s private prisons, however, Serco’s contracts include incentives to reduce recidivism.  They are also cheaper to operate than government prisons.
          Given that McCall and I advocated this concept in our book, I was highly intrigued.  This was especially so because Dreisinger, a critic of prisons who is perhaps particularly hostile to those which are privately run, seemed to reluctantly approve of Serco’s institutions.  Among other things, she writes, “Serco’s London-based think-tank arm presents a series of seemingly attractive arguments.  Treating people more humanely ultimately costs less, and private prisons are more accountable than government-run prisons because contracts specify financial penalties for not meeting standards of health and educational services.  Private prisons are cheaper, Serco claims, because of sound management, efficient staff levels, and flexible practices.“  I had to find out more, so I had a friend get me some information about Serco off the internet.
          The information with which my friend provided me came from two sources.  The first was an article published by the Brennan Center for Justice, and the second was Serco’s official website.  Like other sources I’ve seen, the Brennan article mentions how private prisons in the U.S. get paid more for housing more inmates, have roughly the same recidivist rates as government prisons, and aren’t paid based on results.
          The article notes that with Serco things are different.  They award bonuses based on reductions in recidivism, and the author writes of a Serco-run prison in New Zealand.  “Men who follow the rules, complete educational and vocational programs, and keep a positive attitude can move from the more traditional housing units into six-room cottages to prepare them for life outside prison.”
          From Serco’s website I learned that in addition to Australia and New Zealand, Serco also “operate[s] six adult prisons (with a capacity to hold more than 5,400 prisoners) for the Ministry of Justice’s National Offender Management Service and the Scottish Prison Service.  “They also claim to have had “outstanding successes in reducing prisoner re-offending”, although they don’t cite the numbers.
          The website goes on to say that “By pursuing a rehabilitative approach to justice, with a focus on addressing individual criminogenic needs, all with the key outcome of reducing re-offending, we make offenders less likely to return to the criminal justice system, helping to rebuild lives, reduce demand on governments and lessen the financial and wider costs of crime to the communities we serve.”
          While the bulk of what I’ve read about Serco has been positive, it hasn’t all been so.  For instance, a workers’ union has threatened to sue Serco over pay and conditions.  There have been riots in Serco’s prisons, and an inspection by the Australian government claimed there was overcrowding and poorly trained staff.
          Ultimately, I don’t know enough about Serco to determine whether its prison model is one I’d entirely endorse.  However, despite the few instances of negative publicity noted above, the majority of what I’ve seen seems promising.  At any rate, I am absolutely convinced that a prison system which pays based on results would be vastly superior to the one we have currently.

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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