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What ‘Progressives’ Get All Wrong About Prison Rehabilitation

prison yard with inmates
Image CreditVICE News/YouTube

We should not give up on rehabilitating prisoners, but we should have no illusions about the likelihood of success.


A recent book by journalist Bill Keller asks, “What’s Prison For?” The author never answers the question, but, as the book is almost entirely about rehabilitation, the implication is that prisoner reform is, or at least should be, the main goal.  

It is a worthy aspiration, even a noble one, but one that seems out of reach for most of the prison population. And this is even true in Scandinavia, which has been touted as a model of progressive incarceration. 

Criminologists differentiate rehabilitation and specific deterrence. The former is internally driven by a positive desire to remake one’s life, engage in legal work, raise a family, and most importantly, obey the law. Deterrence may have the same effect, but it is driven by fear: a negative desire to avoid the pains of reincarceration. 

The significance of this distinction is that, as Keller recognizes, prisoners do not truly reform until they are ready to change. They must internalize the rehabilitation mentality; they must want to live clean. This is extremely difficult to achieve in prison. As places built around security and suspicion, they are hardly a therapeutic environment.  

Some European countries have sought to redesign the prison by reducing the mistrust between guards and inmates, providing dorm-like facilities, and offering work and therapeutic interventions. Keller says the prisoner treatment there is “mind-blowing.” 

But it is doubtful that we can replicate it in the United States. We have many more prisoners than European nations because we have many more violent offenders. Europe had, in the first 12 years of this century, only 1,500 gun homicides per year, whereas we had nearly 12,000 — an eightfold difference.  

Norway has only 2,900 prisoners, overwhelmingly convicted of nonviolent crimes, in the entire country. New York State alone has 30,000 prisoners convicted of violent felonies

Given the huge and violent U.S. prison population, it would take a massive investment to create Euro-style facilities. Germany has two guards (and they are more like social workers than guards) for every inmate; Norway has a near 1:1 ratio. The United States, by contrast, has five prisoners for each employee.  

Plus, our inmate populations, especially in the big states, are dominated by racial and ethnic gangs, which makes it difficult to deliver rehabilitation programs. The Europeans do not have our gang problem. 

But just how successful are European prisons? The best metric is recidivism: the percentage of released inmates who commit crimes after release. We usually measure recidivism by rearrest rates, but the Europeans, where they provide data at all, tend to look at reconviction, which is invariably a lower figure than arrests since not everyone arrested is convicted.  

Our reconviction data is spotty, but here is what we know. Two years after release, 36 percent of prisoners in California and Oregon are reconvicted. In North Carolina, it is 26 percent. But 60 percent of federal offenders (nearly half sentenced for major drug crimes) are reconvicted within two years of discharge. The Europeans perform hardly any better. Here is a sample of their figures, mostly showing results for two years after discharge. 

Country % Reconvicted Time from Release 
Austria 26% 2 years 
Denmark 63% 2 years 
Finland 36% 2 years 
France 40% 2 years 
Germany 46% 3 years 
Iceland 27% 2 years 
Ireland 45% 3 years 
Netherlands 35% 1 year 
Norway 20% 2 years 
Sweden 61% 2 years 
U.K. 48% 1 year 

If we use California’s 36 percent reconviction rate after two years as a benchmark for the U.S., then the following European nations can claim no greater success: Denmark, Finland, France, Sweden, and the U.K. It is especially noteworthy that three Scandinavian countries, with their vaunted progressive prisons, do not do any better than California. 

This probably occurs because some people never develop the rehabilitation mentality. They are hardcore criminals. Unfortunately, we cannot identify them until it is too late — that is, after they have committed multiple offenses. American prisoners, on average, are arrested nearly 11 times each before finally being imprisoned. 

So, are we reduced to warehousing prisoners, caging them for a year or two (the typical time served), then turning them loose?  

Keller points out that some prison interventions, such as cognitive behavioral programs that teach prisoners to deal with anger, seem effective. Likewise, according to a 2018 Rand study, inmates who do educational programs in prison are 28 percent less likely to return. The hitch is that most inmates are unprepared for school; they are semiliterate because they never completed high school. In addition, they must want to learn. Only voluntary programs with committed prisoners will be effective. 

We should not give up on these young men. We should give them the chance to turn their lives around. But we should have no illusions about the likelihood of success. 

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