From: "Nathan Goralnik" <rhizome85@xxxxxxxx>
Date: Sun, 20 May 2001 15:10:59 -0700
Apparently a bunch of states are emphasizing career skills in prisons...I'd
be really interested to hear people's thoughts on this. The below article
explains what's going on, mentioning the relationship to 19th-century penal
reform (but with no analysis).
What of this?!?!
Inmate Rehabilitation Returns as Prison Goal
By FOX BUTTERFIELD (NYT 5/20/01)
Todd Ragsdale is serving a 10-year sentence for assault in the
Oregon State Correctional Institution in Salem, but he still
considers himself lucky.
Mr. Ragsdale is in an advanced computer class, building customized
computers for state agencies, and says he expects eventually "to
walk out into the world with a real job," making more than $50,000
a year. It is something Mr. Ragsdale could not have dreamed of
before he was sent to prison.
Mr. Ragsdale is part of an Oregon program to deal with a serious
problem confronting the criminal justice system - the high and
growing rates at which released inmates end up back in prison.
Oregon and Missouri, followed more tentatively by several other
states, have each begun a comprehensive effort to remold offenders,
requiring them to work, study or undergo drug and other treatment
sessions full time.
"The bottom line is, we want inmates practicing on the inside what
works on the outside," said Steven J. Ickes, an assistant director
of the Oregon Department of Corrections, "to try to undo all the
bad crime- inducing habits they learned in the years before they
In a sense, these new programs represent a major shift in thinking
about how to run prisons - a return to the old notion of
rehabilitating prisoners, the idea behind the very term
"corrections" that lay at the creation of American prisons in the
Rehabilitation was discredited and largely abandoned decades ago
in most state prison systems, said Todd Clear, a professor at John
Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan.
"With the huge expansion of prisons starting in the 1980's, most
prison systems gave up believing they had any responsibility for
changing offenders or what happened after offenders were released,"
Professor Clear said, adding that some academic research
contributed to this by concluding that nothing could be done to
"The objective became that prisons should be just for punishment,"
he said, "and politicians competed to see who could make prisons
more unpleasant, by taking away things like television and
recreation and education classes."
But the pendulum may be swinging back again, in what prison
officials like to call re-entry or transition to the community. And
states like Oregon give the process a modern twist. For it was an
Oregon voter referendum in 1994 mandating that prisoners work as
hard - 40 hours a week - as the taxpayers who provide their upkeep
that supplied the impetus for putting inmates to work. Given this
mandate, prison officials called on Oregon business executives for
advice about how to run prisons more productively.
And so Oregon turned from historical vocational training for
low-paying jobs to comprehensive inmate training for jobs that
companies have open, like telemarketing and using computers to map
water and tax districts from aerial photographs. To ensure
accountability, inmates are tracked by computer 24 hours a day, and
are offered what amount to small monthly bonuses for good work or
study. Many inmates now leave prison with a professionally printed
résumé, including a record of classes passed, and letters of
recommendation from prison officials.
"For guys whose lives have been way out of control, a résumé puts
them back in control of their lives," Mr. Ickes said.
In Missouri, which has a similar program, Dora Schriro, director
of the State Department of Corrections, sums up the new approach
this way: "People ask, `How much time is enough?' But they should
ask, `How do you want them when they come home?,' " because 97
percent of inmates are eventually released.
As the movement to revive rehabilitation has spread, Pennsylvania,
Ohio and Washington State have also begun programs, though less
Texas, which has the country's second-largest prison system, with
150,000 inmates, has also made rehabilitation a central goal since
1995, said Glen Castlebury, a spokesman for the Texas Department of
Criminal Justice, with a requirement that every inmate do a full
day's work. Mandatory schooling is required for inmates with less
than a seventh- grade education.
Many Texas inmates still work in old-style prison jobs, like
stamping license plates, and the state's program does not emphasize
inmates' success on the outside as much as Oregon's does. But, Mr.
Castlebury said, "What we hope is that we are teaching the work
Inmates who refuse to work are not allowed to watch television or
buy items in the canteen, he said.
The Oregon program, for men and women, begins upon an inmate's
arrival with a battery of tests to identify the mental, social or
educational barriers the inmate may face. A detailed plan is then
worked out to help the inmate overcome these troubles through
literacy programs, drug treatment or job training.
"We try to be outcome-based, like a good business," Mr. Ickes
The 1994 measure specified that the work by inmates reduce the
cost of prisons to the state government. So, for example, 16
inmates sitting like telemarketers in office cubicles are answering
callers' questions to the Department of Motor Vehicles or the
secretary of state's office, saving the cost of state employees.
"What makes this so phenomenal," said Mr. Ragsdale, the inmate, as
he assembled a computer, "is that a few years ago a guy walking out
of here had nowhere to go and no job skills, so they often ended up
coming right back to prison.
"At least here they had everything they needed: food, clothes, a
bed and their friends."
Now, he said, "There is a waiting list to get into the class, and
when guys are accepted, they have to make a commitment to be on a
team, or they are out, permanently, even for playing a computer
Signs already suggest that the Oregon program is working, state
officials say. The percentage of inmates admitted to Oregon prisons
in 2000 who were returning parolees was only 25 percent, down from
47 percent in 1995.
Inmate behavior in Oregon's 13 prisons has also improved, prison
officials say. Because a disciplinary report can lead to automatic
expulsion from the most coveted work assignments - like the
computer program - there has been a 60 percent reduction since 1995
in major disciplinary reports, including for fighting or attempted
Also, because admission to some of the best prison jobs and
classes requires a high school diploma or its equivalent, Oregon's
inmates are now completing G.E.D.'s after an average of only 1.5
starts, down from 8.5 starts before 1995. Over all, Oregon prisons
have a higher rate of G.E.D. completion than the 17 community
colleges in the state that offer the instruction, Mr. Ickes noted.
But Oregon has not yet found a way to gauge perhaps the most
important measure of the success of its new program - how quickly
inmates find jobs and how long they hold them. It has been
difficult getting money from the State Legislature to set up a
tracking system, prison officials say, though they hope to have a
system in place soon.
Finding ways to ease the return to society and reduce recidivism
"is the hot topic in the criminal justice system, because of the
huge costs and numbers involved," said Michael Jacobson, a
professor of criminology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice
and a former director of New York City's Department of Correction.
About 614,000 people will be released from state and federal
prisons this year, said Allen J. Beck of the Bureau of Justice
Statistics, the statistical arm of the Justice Department. Within
three years, based on studies he has done, Mr. Beck said, 62
percent of them will be arrested again, and 41 percent will be sent
back to prison.
In California alone, Professor Jacobson said, about 70,000 people,
75 percent of the state's total number of parolees, are sent back
to prison each year for parole violations, like failing drug tests,
for periods averaging five and a half months. These inmates take up
about 20 percent of all the state prison beds each year, he said,
costing California $1 billion.
In the 1990's, when the economy was hot and tax revenue high,
politicians could ignore these costs, Professor Jacobson said. But
tax revenue is down, and voters want more money spent on education,
"So there is a new environment for looking at how to save money on
prisons," and one of the easiest ways, without having to soften
popular tough sentencing laws, is to reduce recidivism, he said.
Since the prison boom began in 1980, quadrupling the number of
inmates in jails and prisons to two million, the recycling of
criminals through prisons has gotten worse. The percentage of
inmates admitted to prison who had been there before rose to 36.4
percent in 1998, from 18 percent in 1980, Mr. Beck said.
Still, some prison guards view rehabilitation programs as taxpayer
money wasted on criminals, and some labor leaders worry that
inmates are taking union jobs.
But in Oregon, even some people in the tough-on-crime camp say
they like the state's new approach. Steve Doell, the president of
Crime Victims United of Oregon, whose 12-year-old daughter was
killed walking home from a school bus stop, said:
"The thing people need to know is that most of these folks in
prison are eventually going to come out again. So we think it's
smart policy to try to change them while they're locked up, so that
when they return to society there will be fewer victims on the
"The living body is a loving body, and the loving
body is a speaking body. Without love we are nothing
but walking corpses. Love is essential to the living
body, and it is essential in bringing the living
body to life in language." ~Kelly Oliver