A New Prison Formula: Retribution + Rehabilitation = Reform

In Arizona we pride ourselves on being tough on crime. That’s Sheriff Joe’s motto, after all, and people in this state eat it up. From the infamous pink underwear to jailhouse tent cities, Sheriff Arpaio has made a name for himself as someone shameless about shaming criminals.

But recent headlines about major security lapses at state and privately-owned prison complexes as well as gay migrants abused at a Pinal County detention center and MCSO’s failure to properly investigate more than 400 sex crimes, including crimes against children, should cause us all to take pause about our attitudes and policies on crime and our correctional system.

I can understand why many Americans believe criminals should suffer and don’t mind when a local sheriff causes them embarrassment. Do the crime, pay the time. That’s what jail and prison are about, right?

Well, to some extent, yes. Individuals convicted of a felony are sentenced and sent to prison as a means of punishment. Most people convicted on a lesser charge, a misdemeanor, will end up on probation or in a county jail. Felons generally leave victims in their wake, and victims understandably want retribution.

But rehabilitation is also part of the correctional equation, and as much as we’d like to believe inmates could rot in prison and then magically and seamlessly assimilate back into the community, we know that’s not reality. We know that not everyone is sentenced to a life behind bars and most will eventually be released. And sadly, many will reoffend.

Finding a way to balance punishment with rehabilitation though, isn’t as difficult as people on the right or the left would lead you to believe. Many on the far right are strict punishment advocates who have little room for sympathizing with criminals and little room for the idea of reform. Punishment advocates believe they are on the side of victims and refuse to see any benefit in trying to rehabilitate offenders. They rarely wish to hear the reasons behind the crime and often oppose funding for programs aimed at reducing recidivism.

Those on the far left tend to go overboard in their protection of felons’ rights, advocating lighter sentences that downplay personal responsibility and leave the real victims in the cold. Some put more stock in the unfortunate life of the criminal than in a victim’s suffering of a heinous crime.

I have some firsthand knowledge of what it’s like to be stuck in the middle of those dichotomies. I am a firm believer that we should do all we can to try and rehabilitate juveniles. But as a crime victim, I also understand the need for retribution.

It would be difficult for me to imagine my husband’s murderer living a comfortable life in prison while I spent thousands on therapy for my children. I’m fortunate in that I don’t have to worry about that scenario since my husband’s murderer is dead, but I do know quite a few individuals who are not as lucky.

For those criminals who are sentenced to life behind bars, the choice is easy. These individuals are not expected to return to society and hence, rehabilitation isn’t necessary nor prudent. It’s fine for pastors or priests or rabbis to minister to this population, but do not ask taxpayers to pay for the salvation of those souls.

But for those who will be released, it’s a different story. The last thing any of us want is a criminal who serves his/her time then goes out into the community and reoffends and leaves yet another victim in his/her path.

However, when prison reform is discussed in the media, particularly prison costs, we hear the tired claim that prisoners shouldn’t be living in upscale hotels with free medical care and recreational activities and access to educational degrees. But let’s be realistic here, do we really think we have prisons modeled after hotels? Do we really think prisoners are living the high life?

It’s great PR to see a sheriff feeding bread and water and green bologna to criminals, but it’s a horrible policy to focus solely on punishment. Punishment alone will not deter criminals, especially those who know little beyond the life of crime.

Many argue that a combination of low education and poverty are what lead the majority of individuals to commit crimes. I state this not because I think we need to sympathize with criminals or forgive their mistakes because of poor upbringing but rather because if we wish to lower crime as well as recidivism rates, we need to understand its causes first.

One of the biggest complaints I hear when people discuss prison living conditions and rehabilitation is the idea that inmates are allowed to obtain a high school, or even worse, college degree. People decry the “free ride” criminals receive while hard-working Americans must pay for their education. But I like the idea of educating inmates. I’d rather pay for prisoners to spend several hours per day in class than several hours per day in front of a television or on a basketball court.

The informal educational system in our correctional facilities is what we really need to be worried about. This is the system that teaches low-level criminals to become hardened criminals by supporting the survival of the fittest, or rather survival of the cruelest. Where inmates learn the tools needed to survive prison gangs and rapes rather than the tools needed to survive in a civil society.

California’s San Quentin State Prison has taken a different approach by allowing inmates to earn an associate’s degree through the non-profit Prison University Project. The program is staffed by volunteers and uses no state or federal funds. The goal of the non-profit is simple: provide higher education to people incarcerated. But the reasoning is more complex.

Expanding a criminal’s mind teaches him/her to think of a life beyond what he/she is accustomed to and gives convicted felons a means of survival beyond the prison walls. It also creates an atmosphere that’s safer for prison guards by keeping inmates occupied instead of idle. But the most desired outcome is teaching an inmate how to become a contributing, law-abiding citizen.

If we combine this type of education with hours of hard work, we end up with a system that manages to both punish and reform. And isn’t that the ideal model?

The United States incarcerates almost five times as many people as Britain, which is the leader in incarceration rates in Europe, and ten times as many people as Norway. Britain, upset with rising incarceration and recidivism rates, has been working to reform its correctional system by providing educational opportunities, drug intervention and job training to make inmates productive members of society. This is expected to provide a huge financial savings for its government, something we, as Americans should consider while debating ways to ease our rising national debt.

We do not need to forgo punishment in order to rehabilitate nor do we need to give up on reforming inmates in the name of punishment. We do, however, need to realize that what we are currently doing is not working. We may find it satisfying to humiliate prisoners, but expanding their minds and teaching them to become something other than a criminal seems like a much better plan.


  1. Wendy White

    My son is in prison in az for 3.6 years for taking stuff out of peoples cars. He has 5 children that I am taking care of as his wife left. I know that my son would have never committed these crimes if he hadn’t been doing drugs at the time. My son signed up for all classes available but to this day has never been offered any. My son was incarcerated on 12/09/2009 & he is to be released on 04/11/2013. I pray everyday that some kind of prison reform happenes soon. My sons children need him & he has one child with a fatal disease & needs to spend as much time as possible with her.

    1. Suz

      Taking stuff out of peoples cars is called stealing! Thats part of the problem people are down playing their crimes. Part of the problem is lack of space in prisons.

      1. Post
        Julie Erfle

        Recent figures actually show the opposite is true and that the prison population is shrinking. I think we all understand what stealing is, and I don’t recall anyone saying stealing is okay. It’s not about down-playing crimes but rather about looking at what we hope to gain out of prison sentences. The article is meant to show that both punishment and rehabilitation are important.

  2. truthseeker

    Arizona “prison state” in a culture of cruelty, turning humans into commodites for $$’s, “Sunbelt Justice: Arizona and the Transformation of American Punishment – Mona Lynch

    Corrections means to “correct”. Arizona needs “restorative” justice, not “punitive” justice but under this administration there have been more deaths then under any other. Warehousing of human beings is all that is being done in Arizona along with 5,000 more prison beds on the way, to what has been a failure – the mass incarceration of Arizona’s people and visitors. Tens of millions of Federal stimulus money is going to Arizona’s prisons building Arizona’s mass industrial prison complex, while education is being slashed. So where does that leave rehabilitation while the prisons create even more criminals?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *