We Know What Works: The Key to Prison Reform

By Christopher Zoukis

There’s been much talk about prison reform in this country, but to date not a lot has changed.

While prisoner education programs and other reforms are slowly making ground, the U.S. still has the world’s highest prison population, with nearly a half million more in the prison system than China, which ranks second in the world’s most populated prisons. The U.S also has the unenviable statistic of having a near-80 percent recidivism rate, and an obvious issue of racial discrimination skewed toward locking up more people of color over their Caucasian counterparts.

Yes, prison reform is clearly needed. That is a fact most can readily agree on, so perhaps it’s time to stop nodding our heads in agreement and take a good look at what’s working, and doing more of the things that will help get the justice system to a better place.

Some, however, have the notion that prison reform isn’t needed because those that break the law shouldn’t be treated to a nice, cushy stay behind bars. What is punishment without a little suffering, after all? Well, let’s look at the $40 billion Americans pay to maintain a broken system, as evidenced by a joint study conducted by the Vera Institute of Justice, an organization working to tackle the causes and consequences of mass incarceration, racial disparities, the loss of public trust in law enforcement, the unmet needs of the vulnerable, the marginalized, and those harmed by crime and violence; and the Pew Center, a nonpartisan fact tank that informs the public on issues, attitudes and trends in the U.S. and across the world. This joint study shows that across 40 states, prison costs were nearly 14 percent higher than those states’ entire corrections budget. So if the thought of an overburdened prison system due to profit making, poor planning and inequality is not enough to spur action, the specter of wasted money and wasted tax dollars might hopefully do the trick.

So that’s the bad news. Now here’s what’s actually working in the system. The U.S. Department of Justice’s research paper titled The Use and Impact of Correctional Programming for Inmates on Pre- and Post-Release Outcomes, along with other research, has found positive outcomes for prisoners with access to substance abuse treatment programs, cognitive and behavioral therapy, sex-offender treatments, prison education, prison jobs, and employment skills training to prepare for jobs outside of prison.

Prisoners that are in facilities that lack education and behavioral programs are more likely to go back to jail within five years due to the lack of resources they’ve been given to make it on the outside. A lack of money and job skills often leads to repeats in offending behavior in order to survive. Low self-confidence can lead to abusive and aggressive behavior. The formula is very simple — prisoner education and targeted behavioral programs make a huge difference in successful rehabilitation.

Our bloated prisons overrun with nonviolent offenders would do well to reduce prison populations and free up dollars for rehabilitation programming. The long-term vision is to get prisoners back into society as functioning, skilled, community-focused citizens, thereby breaking the cycle of prison-release-prison-repeat.

Change is happening, but it’s happening slowly. By advocating for real change using proven programs that actually work, we can hope for a better prison system in the future. For now, it’s just one frustratingly slow step at a time.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.comPrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com.