How to Turn Around the High Rates of Prison Recidivism

Posted: May 28, 2014 in Criminal Justice
Tags: , , , ,


Numbers are tricky. Studies are done. Reports are written. Statistics released. And then people take the numbers and run with them, waving them like protest placards claiming how the numbers prove or disprove some long held “truth.” The Right does it. The Left does it. We all do it. Maybe there’s a tiny toggle in the human genome that manipulates us to manipulate the numbers. That’s why I’ve never liked numbers, never trusted them.

I saw this all play out in a recent Boston Globe OpEd piece about the high rates of recidivism in US prisons. Using the most recent data from the Bureau of Statistics, the numbers roll out: Within six months of being freed 28% of former prisoners were arrested for a new crime; three years, 68%; five years, 77%. 29% of the returnees had been arrested for violent offenses; 38% for property crimes; 39% for drug offenses; 58% for public order crimes. I think everyone would agree that the numbers paint a pretty bleak picture.

But this is where the numbers get tricky. The article insists that these statistics prove that efforts at prison reform and rehabilitation don’t work. Criminal justice experts have been searching for the “holy grail of rehabilitation” for years—40 according to one expert quoted—and nothing has worked. The article then goes on to suggest that since this holy grail is so elusive, since so many criminals leave prison “only too ready to offend again,” we have no option but to continue our present practice of mass incarceration, thus maintaining the US’s global position of locking up 25% of the world’s prison population while being only 5% of its general population.

This is why I don’t trust numbers. In these studies and reports people are treated as mere chits in the final count. No one notices that each one of those hatch marks is an individual, a real person—prisoner, inmate, offender, criminal, con, whatever you want to call them—living a life behind bars that few of us can imagine. That is the real story behind those numbers: a man or a woman, young or old, trying to survive in a prison culture that is designed—in the name of justice—not to nurture change but to demean; a system that punishes by deprivation: lack of proper nutrition; of adequate medical and mental health care; of physical, sexual and psychological safety; of meaningful work and education.

So where’s the mystery to recidivism? It is obvious—basic Social Science 101, basic parenting or human interaction. How you treat people is how they will act. Living under present day prison conditions, day after day, for years, can only foster more bitterness, anger, and despair; can only result in more crime fueled by vengeful feelings upon release.

And that “release” is another crushing blow to the ex-offender’s chances of making it. Many find themselves barred from public housing, food stamps, certain jobs and the right to vote. In some cases Federal education loans are denied for certain crimes. None of these punitive restrictions are an incentive to becoming a productive member of society.

There’s not much forgiveness in American culture. It seems that ex-offenders can’t suffer enough or repent enough for our Puritan tastes. The shackles of restrictions and prejudices that they as “free” men and women drag around may be silent compared to the ones they wore in prison, but those chains still rattle loudly not only in their own ears but in the ears of the communities that continue to shun them.

The roots of recidivism are not that elusive and never have been. Things won’t change until we are willing to define our penal system not as a social solution but as a social problem, one that we tackle with the same determination and vigor as we do other social problems such as addiction, sexual and physical abuse, and inadequate education. What’s our choice: the sacrifice, cost and efforts of true prison reform or the continued warehousing of human beings and the waste of their potential? Look at the numbers.

Originally appeared on Huffington Post


  1. jaillibrarian1 says:

    You are amazing! I always knew you as a wordsmith but now a master at numbers, too. You are so right–numbers can lie when they are being manipulated to obscure the truth. Incarceration, more or less, removes all sense of human dignity and release does little to restore it. Former felony convictions follow people forever in states like New York where felonies are never expunged. Housing, employment and education are all limited even after “you’ve done your time.” If you serve two years in prison, justice should demand that that number remain at two. Unfortunately, for many, that number increases over time. As you so insightfully point out, the system doesn’t provide the support that so many people need. The individuals who do make it only do so with the support of family, friends and other support systems like churches or groups. And from one wordsmith to another–that verb, recidivate, from Latin, to fall down again, means having someone there to help you back up. The justice system hasn’t figured out how to do that yet.

    • David Chura says:

      I sometimes have the optimistic view that if we can just get out into the public what exactly happens in prison and then after release that people will begin to see that each individual in the system and coming out of it has dignity and rights. However I keep bumping up against the counter-thought that we Americans are an unforgiving lot. But like you I won’t give up trying.

  2. The problem with the services provided to prisoners in most countries in the world is that they don’t provide a type of assistance that will see them throughout. Prisoners leave prison but do not receive any guidance of some type after that. Furthermore, temporary housing and very little money can only go so far. This in itself speaks the hard facts that once you are out it won’t be long before you are in again. Prosper believes that if one is to help prisoners you have to have a good understanding of the prisoner which can only be achieved successfully if you were once a prisoner yourself and used what you’ve done to stop re-offending to put inmates on the right track.

    • David Chura says:

      I agree. The needs of prisoners leaving prison are limited and inadequate for what they face when they are released.This lack of programs, resources and support only reflects society’s views–and value–for these individuals.

  3. febepoet says:

    Reblogged this on Where Social Work Meets Criminal Justice… and commented:
    Penal system: social solution or social problem? This article highlights the problems with looking at numbers.

  4. Janet says:

    Hi All,

    No need to comment on David’s writing–always incredibly eloquent…

    I have to kick this problem around by coming at it from another direction. Why is it that when good options and support IS provided, such a high percentage of inmates DO NOT take advantage?

    Marybeth, in your book, “Tales of a Jailhouse Librarian” you mention in one of the last chapters how (was it 1 out of 10?) of the kids you set up with an interview never showed upon release? David, in your book, “I Don’t Wish Nobody to have a Life Like Mine” also in one of the last chapters, you mention how it was not uncommon for your students to actually run a GED diploma through the paper shredder before release? I too have seen juvenile offenders like this, AVOID free college tuition, free job corps training, and much more. Do you think we need to place greater focus on the reasons why this happens as we improve the support network?

    • David Chura says:

      Thanks for such a thought provoking comment. I’d like to share my reactions and my thoughts about your remarks. And I apologize for their length. 🙂

      In the last chapter of “I Don’t Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine: Tales of Kids in Adult Lockup” I do talk about the “purge” that many young offenders go through in the ill-conceived, somewhat superstitious belief that by getting rid of any sign that they had ever been in prison, including their GED diploma, they would not come back. (By the way, their GED scores are always on official record and accessible to graduates after they leave by supplying their social security number.) I won’t defend the irrationality of this ritual, but I do think it is important to point out (and I had hoped to make clear in that chapter) how deeply damaged these young people were by what happened to them while they were incarcerated, so wounded that they would destroy something they worked so hard for, and were so proud of. I don’t see it as avoidance of making progress but as much as a deep distrust that anything could ever work out for them. (I’m also not aware of any programs that give ex-offenders free college tuition; if anything all Federal loans are denied them for certain offenses. Just one more stumbling block to their success.)

      I can’t speak specifically to Marybeth’s statistic stated in her well-written and well-researched book about the high percentage of kids not showing up for arranged interviews. I do know that in the program in which I worked our social worker would often arrange community college interviews or job interviews or make appointments to get benefits only to have the student be a “no show”. When she got in touch with them and explored the reasons for their not following through she learned that many of them didn’t know how to take the bus, or had no idea what they were supposed to do once they got there, or even where they were supposed to go. Their fears (despite their loud bravado other times) came through loud and clear. It was obvious to the social worker that they needed a mentor on the outside to walk them through the steps, to give them support, even to role play. And she did just those things including meeting them in a comfortable, familiar place and then bringing them to wherever they were going. (For which, I might add, she was reprimanded by her supervisor who told her, “It’s not your job.”) These young people had no adult to offer any of these supports. When you think of all the support that parents ordinarily give to their teenage children as for example when they get ready for college and then finally go off to school, how can we expect kids just out of prison going back to the same environment to do alone what we would never expect a child the same age to do?

      I think it’s very hard for us as adults who have had even minimal supports in our lives to realize how profoundly disadvantaged these young people are and have been from a very early age. I, for one, can’t imagine surviving what they experience and have experienced on a daily basis. Society has yet committed itself to what must be done to change the circumstances of these kids’ lives.

  5. Janet says:

    Hi Dave,

    Never worry about a long comment! You are right. Even having had experience with the incarcerated kid crowd, I probably under-estimate the almost constant support they need. It is so odd how they can deal with unbelievable stresses at home, and with the law, but panic during a discussion of crime free employment and college education. I see that tolerance for great stress and high cortisol levels do not always transfer to new untried situations. That doesn’t mean that these coping skills can’t transfer–maybe that is the answer?

    PS The free college tuition opportunity was via VESID

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s