By Christopher Zoukis
Like many states in America, Arkansas is plagued with the problem of recidivism. More than half of the people released from Arkansas jails – 51.8 percent – are back behind prison walls within three years.
The causes of recidivism are vast, but all have an underlying thread. Disenfranchised persons (through poverty, low social status, race, barriers to education, etc.) are disproportionately overrepresented throughout the prison system. When a disenfranchised person goes to jail, it becomes even harder for them to obtain higher education and a sustainable job upon release. This further marginalizes the person, leading to a pattern of behavior that sees the person in and out of the prison system. For some prostitution, theft, or selling drugs is not a vice, but the only way to make enough money to survive (and/or take care of one’s family).
To tackle the massive problem of recidivism, a multi-pronged approach is required in which the factors are addressed before the offender goes to jail, while in jail, and upon release. A major paradigm shift in the way Americans view race, gender, and socio-economic status, along with more equal opportunities for education and employment form the basis of the solution.
While this solution is a long way off, programs are being put in place to help tackle this problem. The prisons that provide pre- and post-secondary education courses and employee skills training are seeing a drop in their recidivism numbers – but there’s another piece to the puzzle.
Basic life skills are hard to learn when your life is about hustling to stay alive. Just having a college degree is not going to be enough if one cannot manage to affordably feed oneself, manage money, and act appropriately in social situations. For this reason, the prisons that combine both scholarly education courses with life skills training have the most success.
The Arkansas Department of Correction’s Wrightsville Hawkins Center is one such facility offering valuable life skills. Partnering with The Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance, a new program called Cooking Matters educates female inmates about nutrition. Cooking Matters is part of a larger re-entry program called Think Legacy, in which women are taught everyday life skills that will help them take care of themselves and their families.
“We want [the female inmates] to return [to society] a better person,” said Deputy Warden Billy Inman. “A person with more skills to better improve our communities and hopefully not come back to prison.”
In addition to learning how to prepare affordable, healthy meals, Cooking Matters teaches how to store food, read labels, and what ingredients are best for a healthy body and mind. For some inmates, it’s the first time they have cooked.
While cooking classes may seem like a simple matter, they are part of a much bigger picture. Learning and mastering a new skill gives the inmates confidence. Confidence is key in succeeding in the community. Cooking also helps the released offenders manage their money, as it is far cheaper to cook at home than to eat out. Nutritious meals also impact behavior; more rational decisions and fewer behavior issues are seen among those with good nutrition practices.
America will continue to work on its recidivism problem with policies, funding, meetings, studies and more. But let’s not discount the power of the simple solutions too, like learning how to cook. Sometimes the smallest steps make the biggest impacts. Just ask any women from Wrightsville Hawkins Center that leaves empowered with the skills to take care of herself and build a better life.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to New York Daily News, Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.