William Cottringer

“Men simply copied the realities of their hearts when they built prisons.” ~ Richard Wright.

I do not want to offend all the good people who have devoted their entire careers to positive prison reform, but the very nature of the prison business is conservative, and so changes for the better are necessarily slow in coming. But let’s consider a few reasons for the current, somewhat bleak state of affairs.

First of all, people much smarter than me, have confidently predicted that if we suddenly released all of the 2.5+ million incarcerated offenders we have locked up today, there would not be any significant spike in the crime rate. This sad reality reflects a system failure: Incarcerated offenders are only a very small detected part of the offender group caught by the police, prisons don’t really reform that well and some offenders learn better ways to avoid getting caught. Secondly, we know than anything we do can be improved somehow and someway, with thoughtfulness, heart and hands.

So what are the reasons why prisons don’t work as well as they could and what can we do about these things? Here are 7 likely reasons in a nutshell

1. First, prisons are already way behind the learning curve when they start a convicted offender’s incarceration. That is because the offenders have already developed the character, thinking and habits that lead to offending. So, the typical attempt at rehabilitation involves an entire brain, personality and lifestyle make-over from an unskilled, anti-social, disobedient person to a skilled, pro-social, obedient one. Is that really realistic?
2. Prisons are based on the one thing that people want least—control; at the same time they do not offer opportunities to get the one thing people want most—personal freedom. This reversal of such basic needs is diametrically opposed to what has to happen to transform a person’s character in thinking and behaving.
3. Under this same prison control model that society uses to control people to comply with the standards that have been imposed on us all, the same right behavior is rewarded and wrong behavior is punished. But the choice for offenders is not a free one at all. The consequences of their choice, which are to conform and obey or rebill and disobey, have already been predetermined and so society’s conditioning of bad choices just continues. That is because there are no good choices for offenders to make with the one before them. Both are punishments without any rewards.
4. Prisons do not operate to demonstrate the right values for offenders to consider, such as responsibility, optimism, positivism, and inner-directedness. Instead they inadvertently teach all the things that encourage criminals to remain criminals—irresponsibility, other-directedness, useful survival skills under adverse conditions, making lose-lose decisions and how to cleverly avoid getting caught for wrong-doing.
5. When offenders are finally at the end of their ropes and can no longer deny that they have failed in life and are not really where they want to be—the necessary level of misery that prompts the necessary willingness to try something new—the required level of needed support has already fizzled out.
6. My own studies on the effectiveness of prison rehabilitation programs show a few important things: (a) talk therapy alone is rather useless, because you simply can’t talk yourself out of a situation you behaved yourself into (b) any theory or treatment program can be successful if it is delivered consistently within the culture of the prison, the values that are lived and demonstrated day-to-day; reinforced by all the employees on all the shifts; and reflect how the prison operates when no one is watching. The other factor is that certain rehabilitation programs—If there is a good matching between the particular offender and the professional staff delivering the treatment—have a better chance of succeeding in changing behavior and thinking, by doing rather than talking. These evidence-based and experiential programs include mental health and substance abuse therapeutic communities, organized recreation, religion, cognitive-behavior therapy, and drama therapy. These programs orchestrate viable opportunities for the offenders to develop valuable empathy, critical success factors, and needed insights for a most meaningful transformation ahead.
7. Most of us learn the hard way that we can’t manage or change others, until we master self-management and become more open to change ourselves. And so, every positive change by prisons is likely to be met with a positive change by offenders.

Decades before, I had the refreshing opportunities in progressive prisons in Kentucky, Australia and Nebraska to experiment with small positive changes that got big results. These good experiences included: Changing the traditional name of “inmates” to “residents;” organizing the prison into self-governing pods under the unit-management concept; giving offenders a free choice in a menu of treatment options they felt would be best for themselves; teaching advanced mathematical solutions to offenders which gave them legitimate power; and using technology to help predict what offenders needed to change most to be more successful upon release from prison.

So, I am hopeful for at least gradual change for the better; and, maybe if we consider the value of making an important paradigm shift from focusing solely on results (and not getting any) to focusing on what we need to change to get those results, positive change will occur more rapidly. Finally, if we want anyone to live more responsibly, we need to provide opportunities for them to make more informed choices from their inside compass, instead of the external control system, where the choices aren’t really free and the consequences have already been put into play.

“Outcome is not in your control. What’s in your control is your effort and your intentions.” ~Amit Sood.

Author's Bio: 

William Cottringer, Ph.D. is Executive Vice President of Puget Sound Security in Bellevue, WA, along with being a Sport Psychologist, Business Success Coach, Photographer and Writer living on the scenic Snoqualmie River and mountains of North Bend. He is author of several business and self-development books, including, Re-Braining for 2000 (MJR Publishing); The Prosperity Zone (Authorlink Press); You Can Have Your Cheese & Eat It Too (Executive Excellence); The Bow-Wow Secrets (Wisdom Tree); Do What Matters Most and “P” Point Management (Atlantic Book Publishers); Reality Repair, (Global Vision Press), Reality Repair Rx (Publish America); Thoughts on Happiness (Covenant Books, Inc.) Bill can be reached for comments or questions at (425) 652-8067 or ckuretdoc.comcast.net.