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Rehabilitation for Criminals

Updated on July 31, 2014
The Melting Pot of Crime
The Melting Pot of Crime | Source

by Amber Maccione

The Melting Pot of Crime

According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, their mission is to protect “society by confining offenders in the controlled environments of prisons and community-based facilities that are safe, humane, cost-efficient, and appropriately secure” as well as “provide work and other self-improvement opportunities to assist offenders in becoming law-abiding citizens” (Federal Bureau of Prisons). This statement is two fold. The first thing that the government longs to do is protect society from the harms that certain individuals could cause if left to themselves and not punished. The second thing is that our government also wants to be proactive in helping these misguided individuals to understand their wrongs and learn how to be productive citizens. So how does a government protect society by punishing but at the same time reform the guilty so that they can be released and no longer a threat to public safety? The answer comes from evaluating where prisons came from and where they are today as well as taking a hard look at the programs within the walls and the results of such programs when the prisoners come out from behind those walls.

William Penn
William Penn | Source

History of Prisons

Crime has been around since the beginning of time really. Adam and Eve would have been the first to violate per se a “law” that God had given – Do not eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. And all through history, punishment has been a means to deter people from committing crime – an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. But as time progressed and people advanced, how crime was handled also changed. By the 1700’s, punishment for crimes had become brutal, extensive, and even inhumane. William Penn was one of the first people to rethink the idea of recidivism when he revamped the current system into one that treated prisoners in a more humane way by only allowing capital punishment for homicides, making prisoners work hard labor instead of receive corporal punishment, and provide food and lodging for each prisoner within houses of detention (Seiter 2011).

Dr. Benjamin Rush
Dr. Benjamin Rush | Source

From Penn, came Dr. Benjamin Rush who took Penn’s Quaker code and created the first prison called the Walnut Street Jail, which relied on “a regimen of hard work and doing penance for […] offenses” (Seiter 2011 p. 21). Inmates had their own cells and absolute silence was expected. They were given work to do within their cell, encouraged to read the Scriptures, and to ask God to forgive them of their transgressions (Seiter 2011). His idea of lowering recidivism and building rehabilitation was through work, discipline, solitary, and religion (Seiter 2011).

From Rush’s idea of what would work to change a criminal into a productive member of society came two systems: the Pennsylvania System and the Auburn System. The first prison (Walnut Street Jail) operated on the Pennsylvania System, which came known as the “separate and silent” system because it focused on “reformation and avoidance of criminal contamination” by keeping inmates from communicating and interacting with each other (Seiter 2011 p. 22). The Auburn System on the other hand made a change to the Pennsylvania System because of the numerous problems trying to keep inmates separated had caused. Instead of inmates working in cells by themselves, the Auburn System allowed for inmates to come out during the day to work and then return to their cells at night. This system became known as the “congregate and silent” system because of its allowance of inmates to come together for a purpose during the day and be put in solitary at night to keep with the focus of reformation and avoidance of criminal contamination (Seiter 2011 p. 23).

Captain Alexander Maconochie
Captain Alexander Maconochie | Source

During the 1800’s, two men arose to create a new prison system called the Irish penal system: Captain Alexander Maconochie and Sir Walter Crofton. They desired to see inmates prepared to leave the prison and re-enter society. Hence they created this four stage system, which gradually moved inmates from the solitary confinement introduced through the Pennsylvania and Auburn systems to less and less restricted confinement until it was determined that they were ready to re-enter society (Seiter 2011). This system had a greater focus on rehabilitation than the previous two systems.

Because of the Irish system, reformation of the criminal justice system leaped forward. The emphasis went from brutality and suffering to reforming individuals so that they could be released and become productive members of society. The first era that sprung up from the Irish system that was in place was the Reformatory Era, which focused on education and vocational programs and helped the inmates see that they could still have a future outside the walls (Seiter 2011). From the Reformatory Era came another turn by the Industrial Prison Era. Because running a prison can become expensive, the Industrial Prison Era brought with it an opportunity to use inmates as a means to create materials that would create a profit. Prisons began to have inmates work and produce products that could be sold or keep the prison self-sustained (Seiter 2011).

The Great Depression (History Channel)

As the Great Depression seeped into America though, a new era in the history of prisons came into play – the Period of Transition. The Great Depression forced the work that was going on in prisons to stop and prisoners became idle with their time. Programs were eliminated to save on funds and overcrowding became a problem. Violence crept into prisons because of the poor conditions and lack of activities available to keep inmates busy (Seiter 2011). Eventually, with the flood of requests from inmates to make changes, the Rehabilitative Era sprung forward. This new era focused on both the staff and the imprisoned. It called for professionalism from staff and provided training to make sure all staff was trained in what was expected of them. Also from this era came the idea that all understood that those entering a prison were sick and in need of help (medical model). It was the staff’s job to act professionally and provide programs that would help heal inmates so they could be released back into the community to live productive, crime free lives (Seiter 2011).

But all this came to an end when research began to show that the medical model was not reducing recidivism. The efforts of rehabilitation began to decline and a new attitude emerged: criminals need to be held accountable for their actions and do the hard time that comes with doing the crime. The new era was called Retributive Era because it focused on “being tough on criminals” by “keeping them isolated” from the community so they could “serve hard time” (Seiter 2011 p. 26).

Director Charles E. Samuels Jr.
Director Charles E. Samuels Jr. | Source

Where Prisons Are Today

Today, “prison theology” is taking once again another revamping. Charles E. Samuels Jr. is the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. In a letter to all staff and inmates within our criminal justice system, he states that his job is to “ensure the safety, security, and good order” of all prisons (117), all staff (38,000), and all inmates (217,000) as well as provide opportunities for self-improvement (Samuels 2012). He goes on to say that there are also core values that he expects all to abide by as they interact with each other and visitors: respect, integrity, and correctional excellence. Everyone (inmate and staff) is to treat others with dignity and respect (Samuels 2012). By doing this, he ensures that it will help keep the correctional facilities safe and also help foster an atmosphere receptive to rehabilitation. He reminds inmates that all prisons offer things such as education, work, recreation, health services, psychology, religious services, career resource centers, and mentor coordinators to help inmates learn skills, get treatment, and build resumes so that they will be prepared for their release back into society (Samuels 2012). He ends by encouraging all inmates to take advantage of these opportunities.

Unfortunately, Director’s Samuels’s vision and mission is going to take some work. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, inmate population has been on the rise. Out of all fifty states, inmate population has increased by sixty-four percent. Out of 100,000 citizens, 445 are incarcerated (Przbylski 2008). This increase in population leads to overcrowding. With more people inside, violence erupts, disease spreads easily and faster, and the cost to tax payers rises. Government has been seeking to solve the issue of overcrowding and the issue of cost by looking to private corporations to run some of the prisons. One issue that has come up in our communities is if privatization really works. Based on seventeen studies, fifteen of those have shown that the quality in these private prisons is just as good as or even better than the quality found within state prisons (Segal 2005). The American Correctional Association (ACA, an organization that measures the quality of prisons and accredits them to show that they are nationally accepted as facilities that offer quality in the areas of operation, management, and maintenance) has accredited 532 prisons out of the 5,000 prisons in the United States. Out of the 532, 465 are state and 67 are private, which means that only ten percent of state prisons are accredited verses the forty-four percent of private prisons (Segal 2005).

Punishment or Rehabilitation?

What do you think: focus more on punishment or rehabilitation?

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Punishment or Rehabilitation?

But why are our prisons so jammed packed? If the point of putting criminals in prison is to make our communities safer as well as reduce recidivism, than how come the prison population isn’t going down? The issue of that comes from an ongoing debate over whether punishment or rehabilitation is key to reducing recidivism. Some say that we need to just keep these individuals locked up, which costs tax payers more money. Some say the focus needs to be on rehabilitation, which at first will be costly to tax payers, but eventually will reduce costs because it will reduce recidivism and lower the population within the prison walls (McKean & Ransford 2004). Director Samuels would agree with this.

Out of those that are released from prison, two-thirds of them return to prison within three years from their release (McKean & Ransford 2004). In order for rehabilitative programs to work, research needs to show that they reduce this ratio of recidivism. Programs being offered today are ones that address educational and vocational needs, mental health needs, addiction needs, physical needs, and spiritual needs. The ones that have shown to reduce recidivism have been substance abuse treatment, education, employment services, and faith based (McKean & Ransford 2004). These types of programs work because they address the diversity of inmates and understand that there are multiple barriers that would cause a person to come back if not addressed while within prison and continue to address these barriers when out on parole (McKean & Ransford 2004).

Puppies Behind Bars

What Should Rehabilitation Look Like

There are three things that need to be done for any program to be successful: accountability, availability, and follow-up (McKean & Ransford 2004). Those involved need to be held to certain standards. Each inmate should be screened and evaluated upon entering and given a plan based on that evaluation. There needs to be room in every program to accommodate those that need it. And there needs to be follow-up when an inmate is released. Parole needs to offer the same kinds of programs so that high riskers can continue their rehabilitation plan while living in the community (McKean & Ransford 2004).

With knowing that rehabilitation is the answer to reducing recidivism (thirty plus years of research has shown this), that is where the focus needs to be (Przbylski 2008). Research also shows that effective intervention will be intensive and target behavioral change, will target multiple needs, will offer different levels of treatment, and will foster responsivity (Przbylski 2008). In order for someone’s behavior to change, you have to change their way of thinking. Cognitive-behavioral programs foster this through therapy, training, treatment, and counseling (Przbylski 2008). High risk offenders will need to be in these programs longer than someone who is low risk. That’s where screening comes into play and creating a plan for each individual that addresses their needs based on their personal problems, their learning style, and their personality (Przbylski 2008). If we take the time to understand the background of the criminal, than we can reduce recidivism by increasing responsivity because the plan created for the individual addresses their specific needs so that they can change and become productive citizens.

So how do we go about making sure each inmate that walks through the doors of a prison is rehabilitated and given tools to continue their rehabilitation once on parole? The first step needs to be screening. Once someone is convicted of a crime and given a sentence, a psychologist needs to evaluate the individual and come up with a plan for him to follow while incarcerated. He needs to be placed in a prison that offers and has availability for each program that he may need whether it is counseling, schooling, or job skill training. We need to make sure that the staff is trained in each area of every program that they work in. Both the staff and the offenders need to be held accountable. Then upon release from prison, the individual should have to go through anther screening to re-evaluate their needs. Another plan should be created for him to follow while on parole. Most offenders will need help with obtaining employment and housing. On top of that, we need to make sure they get plugged into community programs that will continue to help them with their treatment for mental or addiction issues.

It is also time for us to think outside of the box. As said before, each inmate is different – different learning styles, different personalities, and different needs. We need to be creative in what programs we offer. Some may do well with steps. Others may need creative outlets such as theatre, art, or writing. Some programs that have come about from people thinking out of the box are Puppies Behind Bars, which gives puppies to inmates to raise and eventually become service dogs, entrepreneurship programs, which place inmates such as gang leaders and drug dealers into MBA-level classes to inspire them to change and give them a greater sense of purpose for leadership, art and theater classes, which help with cognitive behaviors and help inmates release emotions in a positive outlet, and yoga classes, which help inmates deal with stress, anxiety, and depression (Tecco 2009). Cathrine Rohr (a former business woman on Wall Street who gave up her high paying job to help run a prison entrepreneurship program) states, “The real success comes from turning a tax consumer into a taxpayer, a deadbeat dad into a supportive father, a societal terrorist into a community contributor, an influence of evil into a positive role model, a waste of talent into a man of realized potential. You can’t argue with those results” (Tecco 2009). And that is why it is time for us to turn our focus more so on rehabilitation rather than punishment taking time to put our judgmental attitudes aside and think outside the box on how we can turn a criminal around into a productive member of society resulting in the lowering of recidivism and creating a safer environment for the next generation to grow up in.

Think Outside The Box
Think Outside The Box | Source


As a former teacher, there were two things that were instilled within us when handling and teaching students: differentiation and creativeness. Both of these concepts required one to think outside the box. The same applies to the rehabilitation of prisoners and making sure that recidivism is reduced. Not all things work for everyone. We all have different ways of processing information, different ways that we learn new things, and different wants and needs than the next person. Then you add different upbringings and personalities to the mix, and we have a melting pot of inmates that require different modes of punishment and refinement. It is time for our justice system to stop thinking within the black and white and start thinking creatively on how it can not only ensure public safety but also help rehabilitate its jaded community.


Federal Bureau of Prisons. (2012). “Protecting Society & Reducing Crime.” Retrieved from

McKean, L Ph.D. & Randford, C. (2004). “Current Strategies for Reducing Recidivism.” Center for Impact Research. Retrieved from

Przybylski, R. (2008). What Works: Effective Recidivism reduction & Risk-Focused Prevention Programs. RKC Group. Colorado Division of Criminal Justice. Retrieved from

Samuels, C. E. Jr. (2012). “Memorandum for all Bureau Inmates.” Federal Bureau of Prisons. U.S. Department of Justice. Retrieved from

Segal, G. (2005). “Comparing Public & Private Prisons on Quality.” Reason Foundation. Retrieved from

Seiter, R. (2011). Corrections: An introduction (3rd ed.). Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.

Tecco, H. (2009). “Prison Programs Take Innovative Approach to Reducing Recidivism.” Huffpost. Retrieved from

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