Scott Benowitz writes about programs which have been proven to assist prisoners with preparing for their lives beyond prison.

In a previous article, I had mentioned that in the housing units in a number of state prisons throughout the U.S., wardens segregate prisoners based on gang affiliations and that this effectively results in a system in which prisoners end up being segregated by race.  

I’d also mentioned that in many jails, inmates opt to select beds in areas which they themselves define by ethnicities. During the hours that inmates are permitted to exercise, they frequently will only interact with people from their own races.

While this does not violate civil rights laws, it does nothing whatsoever to prepare inmates for readjusting to life beyond prison once they’ve completed their sentences. Hiring more guards could be one possible potential solution for creating a prison system in which inmates can safely interact with inmates of other ethnicities. Inmates opting to interact only with people from their own ethnicities is the result of a climate of mistrust and fear, and that this also effectively perpetuates a climate of fear and mistrust, thus leaving inmates no better off in terms of finding a job and readjusting to the pace of day- to- day life when they leave prison than they were when they’d first entered into the prisons that they are serving their sentences in.

Rehabilitation programs for inmates

One of the sources of prison programs which has been proven to assist prisoners with preparing for their lives beyond prison are rehabilitation, educational and vocational training programs.

The administrators in prisons offer various rehabilitation programs for inmates, some of which are optional, and some of which are mandatory, depending upon the crimes that the inmates had been convicted of.  All prisons offer narcotics and alcohol recovery programs, counseling for people who have committed crimes involving child abuse, domestic abuse or sexual abuse. Optional psychological counseling is also available to all inmates in most prisons in the U.S.

Educational programs were first introduced into prisons in the U.S. in 1876 when the warden at the Elmira Correctional Facility, which is located in Elmira, New York (formerly called the “Elmira Reformatory”) first introduced educational programs for the inmates.  The program in Elmira was a success, and gradually an increasing number of prisons throughout the U.S. began to offer optional educational programs for the inmates.

Educational programs in prisons throughout the U.S. always include the option for prisoners to acquire their GED’s, and some prisons offer programs in which inmates can earn associate degrees, bachelors degrees, and in a handful of prisons, program are offered in which prisoners can earn master’s degrees while they are incarcerated.  

Vocational programs are also available in many prisons in the U.S.  One of the most famous examples of vocational programs is the programs in which prisoners stamp vehicle license plates. These programs tend to be among the most popular vocational programs because prisoners learn how to operate industrial drill presses, which is a skill that will enable them to work in a variety of industrial jobs once they’re released.  

Prisons are prohibited from operating any programs which would produce a monetary profit, so all items that are manufactured in prisons are required to be items that will be used by government agencies. (Most license plates will end up on vehicles which are privately owned, but because license plates are issued by the state DMV’s, they are considered to be the legal property of the issuing agency until the plates are issued to vehicle owners.)  

Other prison vocational programs involve inmates learning to work with animals, to grow vegetables, to train as firefighters, to work in roadside maintenance, to learn how to teach CPR classes, as well as to work as commercial saturation divers.  Prisoners also work in prisons’ cafeterias and laundry rooms.  In some states, prisoners also have the opportunity to work on repairing and maintaining vehicles that are owned by various state agencies.  

In some labor programs, prisoners also manufacture components of uniforms for various Federal agencies, including the military. Prisoners also manufacture road signs and highway signs, and prisoners work in recycling numerous materials.  In all of these programs, prisoners learn to operate various kinds of industrial machinery, which can enable them to work in a number of industrial jobs after they complete their sentences. Prisoners also earn minimal wages for working in the prison industries, which they can save up for when they’re released.

The administrators of prisons usually only offer vocational programs to inmates who are not likely to pose a risk of violent behavior for obvious reasons. The staff at prisons do not want people who are likely to start fights to have access to tools that can easily be used to manufacture improvised weapons.  

As I mentioned earlier, many of the inmates who are listed as behavioral risks would likely no longer pose potential behavior risks if prisons were able to employ more counselors on their staff.  If prisons were able to employ better-trained psychologists, psychiatrists and counselors on their staffs, then the psychologists, psychiatrists and counselors could work closely with each inmate.  Many inmates who pose behavior risks will only learn to behave differently when they have the opportunity to converse with counselors about why they behave the ways that they do. Again, this has been studied closely in a number of countries throughout the world for many years.  The techniques that counselors use when conversing with prisoners vary between countries as do success rates in terms of reducing incidents of violence within prisons. By allocating further funding so that prisons could employ more counselors, the prisons would have fewer inmates who pose behavioral risks, and then more inmates would be able to participate in vocational training programs.

Of course, no programs will ever have a 100% success rate.  Vocational training programs within prisons have been studied closely, and people who have participated in vocational programs do end up having higher success rates finding as well as keeping jobs after they’ve completed their sentences.  People who complete vocational training programs also have a lower rate of committing crimes again after they’re released from prisons.

Wardens and guards also need to use common sense too. In recent years, the staff at prisons in some states have attempted to reintroduce chain gangs which are used to clean roadside litter. Cleaning roadside litter is a form of job training; these people are learning a skill which would enable them to work as maintenance workers in parks after they complete their sentences.  However, chain gangs are in fact a civil rights violation, that’s why chain gangs were outlawed in the U.S. in the 1950s. Unlike the chain gangs of the 1800s and the first half of the twentieth century, today’s prison chain gangs are sometimes bound with plastic ties instead of iron or steel cuffs, but the basic concept is the same- the guards know that plastic ties are a very low-cost means of preventing the prisoners from escaping.  Regardless of whether ties are made of plastic, iron or steel, the use of ankle ties in prison labor programs constitutes a civil rights violation. It does make sense for guards to use ankle ties when transporting prisoners, but not during labor programs. The idea behind labor and vocational programs is to prepare inmates to readjust to life after they complete their sentences, and excessively humiliating people will not accomplish this.

The administrators who oversee prison staff also need to be careful too.  Merely hiring more counselors, psychologists, social workers and psychiatrists alone will solve notably little.  It is important that the administrators within each state’s bureau of prisons (or departments of corrections) as well as within the Federal Bureau Of Prisons are careful to hire only well trained and highly competent counselors, psychologists, social workers and psychiatrists.  In the article which I wrote which appeared in the June 26th, 2016 issue of The Pavlovic Today in which I discuss the need to enact legislation in every state which would require that the state governments reimburse people who have been determined to have been wrongfully convicted for crimes which they were not involved in, I mention that in recent years, advocacy groups such as The Innocence Project have found that overzealous, poorly trained and incompetent counselors, psychologists, and psychiatrists in some prisons have been pressuring inmates to confess to crimes which they had no involvement with.

Federal Prisons Compared With State, County And City Prisons

There is no system of parole within the Federal prison system, by contrast, parole does exist within all of the state prison systems.  Therefore, if someone is sentenced to a life term in the Federal prison system unless they’re successfully able to appeal their case and have their conviction overturned, they probably will spend the rest of their life in prison.  By contrast, if someone receives a life sentence as a result of a trial in the state courts, unless the sentence specifically states that there will be no parole option for a particular criminal (“life without the possibility of parole”), then chances are that they may actually end up being released back into society after serving a lengthy sentence.

Therefore, even prisoners who have been given life sentences who are incarcerated within the state prison systems could benefit from being able to participate in educational and vocational training programs because many of them may be released back into society again.

Even death row inmates could potentially benefit from vocational and educational programs. Many prisoners in the states’ as well as the Federal prison systems do successfully get their death sentences overturned on appeals. Because prisoners who are on death row may realistically have their death sentences overturned, they’ll likely end up serving very lengthy sentences, and some of them may eventually become eligible for parole.    

Scott Benowitz

Scott Benowitz is a staff writer for Afterimage Review. He holds an MSc in Comparative Politics from The London School of Economics & Political Science and a B.A. in International Studies from Reed...