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Recidivism - Its Causes and Cure
By John Dewar Gleissner, Esq
Published: 04/30/2012

Arrested For many decades, the U.S. recidivism rate - the rate at which released prisoners return to prison or get convicted again - has hovered around two-thirds or 70%. In other words, our correctional methods don't rehabilitate very well. A wise prison warden in 1912 set forth the requirements of a good prison system, but our society has not listened to his advice. Instead, prisoners get worse over time by learning sick prison values, the process of "prisonization." The gang culture thrives in prison, sometimes recruiting new members there or simply continuing previous gang membership. Our prisoners do not always receive drug rehabilitation or psychiatric counseling and only a minority learns valuable trades or skills or obtains a GED in prison. The mentally ill should be in mental institutions, not prisons; 16% of prisoners have significant mental problems. Inactivity and boredom take a toll, punctuated by violence and sometimes rape. Responsible conduct is not encouraged; we do not trust our prisoners to act responsibly. Their conduct in prison is judged by whether they have obeyed prison rules, not whether they are capable of navigating in the outside world. Because U.S. laws inhibit and discourage prison industries, relatively few convicts work productively while behind bars. In the federal and many state systems, determinate sentences release prisoners on a set date whether they are ready for the free world outside or not. After release, ex-cons are denied food stamps, welfare benefits, public housing, student loans and most jobs, and they are perceived as poor marriage, employment, housing and business prospects. Prisoners lose contact with family and friends, especially during longer sentences, and invariably find that things have changed while they were gone.

Recidivism will never disappear. There is no certain cure. Felons tend to be losers, and only some of them straighten out. So, recidivism is not going to hit zero, not in our lifetimes. But it can drop significantly with fundamental changes:

First, prisoners should support themselves in prison through industry in anticipation of supporting themselves outside prison, without interference from outside businesses and labor unions. By manufacturing goods now made exclusively in foreign countries, the age-old objection to prison industries will be eliminated.

Second, indeterminate sentences are required, making prisoners earn their release with constructive behavior, not just the passage of time. If released prisoners would clearly poison the outside world, they should not be released.

Third, education should be provided. Education in this context should include schooling in trades, job skills, GEDs, drug and alcohol rehabilitation or counseling, and even college degrees for those capable of performing college-level work.

Fourth, religious culture should be imparted. The government cannot get involved in propagating religion, so private religious organizations must play a significant role. The foundation of secure workhouses or work communities will facilitate religious activity, because those enterprises can be sponsored, owned or managed by religious organizations.

These changes are not my idea, but the culmination of 50 years of prison service by Zebulon Brockway, the father of rehabilitative penology. He figured it all out a long time ago. In the last 100 years, we lost our way.

Editor's note: Corrections.com author John Dewar Gleissner, Esq. graduated from Auburn University (B.A. with Honor, 1973) and Vanderbilt University School of Law (1977), where he won the Editor's Award and participated in the Men's Penitentiary Project. In addition to practicing law in Alabama for the last 33 years, Mr. Gleissner is the author of the new book "Prison and Slavery - A Surprising Comparison", he is available for speaking engagements.
Reprinted with permission from ezinearticles.com.

Other articles by Gleissner:


  1. Jeff on 05/09/2014:

    I don't know who the other commenters are, but I can tell that this page neglects to understand the concept of "walking in another's shoes". Yes, the prison system is not designed with rehabilitation in mind. There are some spots in the system that people find niches, for a fighting chance to become someone else and develop a new lifestyle, but for most that isn't available. When I say walking in another's shoes I mean to say that there has to be understanding of the life changes one has to make in order to not be a statistic of recidivism. In most cases, a person has to give up everything they have ever known. Family, friends, "hangouts", are things subject for upheaval if a person is going to make the change necessary. If a person is willing to do that, they have to have somewhere else to essential belong. This is where I believe the issue truly is. Society, as a whole, sees criminals as criminals. It is the manifestation of story: The Scarlet Letter. Society cannot see past the criminal to the person. They cannot and will not judge a person on their merits, but only on their failings. A person that wants to go "straight and fly-right" has to live a life that is likely lonely, is likely and often facing financial struggles coinciding with long periods of unemployment between jobs. The list could go on, but the point is made that their is a strong disincentive by society to stack the deck against these people. These people are discriminated against in housing, employment, and even in public places; which is very similar to pre-civil rights of 1964. There are so many laws that are arbitrary and exist to make it more difficult for criminals to make a living for themselves, let alone the idea that it would be a good one. So what chances do they have? Why would they be a statistic of recidivism? The reality is, even if the system gives them everything under the sun, and they do make the conscious decision to turn their known world upside-down to get out of that lifestyle, their isn't much chance for them in society because society has pre-rejected them. I say all this from experience. When I was 19 years old I committed a felony. It was the biggest mistake of my life, and I was willing to change everything I knew to become a better person. I voluntarily submitted myself to drug rehabilitation and have been clean and sober for 9 years as of 7-6-14. I completed probation without any violations, and in the same year that I quit smoking cigarettes. I have graduated from college at the top of my class with honors, and was even the Vice President of my Student Congress. I have won awards for innovation, entrepreneurship, and innovation; and I have even been honored by several organization for my volunteer work and activism in my community. I have been given tens of thousands of dollars in scholarships, and was even accepted into Columbia School of General Studies with a scholarship for being a member of Phi Theta Kappa Honors Society. However, even with all of the accolades that I have achieved in my personal, educational, and professional life, I am still actively discriminated against. I am not judged on my merits, but on the F I carry on my chest that stands for Felon. The best example I can give of this discrimination is this: In 2007 (2 years later, while on probation) I rented my first apartment by myself (no roommates) in Grandville, MI. I loved that apartment very much, but in August of 2009 (4 months after being released from probation) I moved to Phoenix, AZ to be with family and to pursue a job opportunity as a Store Manager for Movie Gallery. Aside from the fact that the company went under in May of 2010, I returned to Michigan in August of 2010. When I returned, I reapplied to the same apartment complex, but was denied solely because I had a felony on my record. There was nothing that I could do about it. When I had applied years earlier they never asked if I had a felony, but now they do. Even though I was a previous tenant with a great rental history and no problems as a tenant, I was discriminated in housing from my own apartment community. This discrimination has occurred to me countless times in housing, and in employment. Most recently, the best job I have ever had in my life working for LAX is about to be taken from me because of an arbitrary rule saying that my felony has to be 10 years before I can get security clearance. I was literally even told that in 1 and a half years I can reapply and be approved. I finally have a job that I love, and feel that I belong, and know that this is where I want to be, but I can't because society and the government has stacked the deck against me. The worst time I was discriminated against, that actually made me cry and as a man I don't do that very often, was when I volunteered to help feed the homeless. I was publicly shamed by organizers by being told in front of everyone including coworkers and classmates, whom looked at me with absolute shock and awe, I could not volunteer my time to help feed the homeless because I had a felony on my record. I was yet again discriminated against not because of a judgment made by society on my failings as a teenager rather than on my merits as a 27 year old adult (I am 28 now). So I conclude, why would anyone want to straighten their life out? What kind of life is this to be had? Don't blame the criminals by saying they just are lacking in this area such as psychiatric counseling or job training because the finger should be pointed at society. Society is so hung up on knowing what a person has done in the past instead of judging a person on their merits.

  2. CognitiveEmergenceProgram on 05/09/2012:

    I agree that recidivism is a continuing problem with costs rising all the time. We now know that the human brain can be rewired through the process of neurogenesis, developing new connections throughout the brain through cognitive stimulation. Just trying to teach inmates with limited connections, results in limited outcomes and very little change in their behavioral thinking patterns. Many have heard that a person only used approx. 10% of their brain; however, now it has been identified, through fMRI technology, that a person does use all of his or her brain. BUT, those connections may be very weak and not well developed or damaged due to traumatic brain injuries, strokes, or drug abuse. The challenge to reduce recidivism is to strengthen those limited neuropathways through stimulating cognitive tasks that kicks in the process of neurogenesis. Each new neuron that is generated out of the hippocampus of the brain can make 30,000 new neuropathways throughout the brain...and these new neuropathways accelerate the cognitive processing in the brain so the person can think more quickly, more clearly, and make sound decisions. Over time and use, a person can build up their cognitive processing abilities, forming a Cognitive Reserve that acts like a back-up hard drive in a computer or like a 2nd gas tank in a truck...lasting a lifetime even at 70+ years of age, overcoming dementia and other brain-based anomalies. To reduce recidivism, we have identified 3 major elements that can reduce recidivism significantly. In the women's correctional facility in Oklahoma (Mabel Bassett Correctional Center [MBCC] where some 1,200 females are incarcerated, the recidivism rate for those 222 inmates who have completed the Cognitive Emergence Program (ave. time = 3-6 months) is 1.8% as documented over a span of 6 years. And, of those 222 ex-offenders, 25 were repeat offenders (ave. 3.5 times)with only 1 of the repeat offenders returning to prison during this period of time. The 3 major elements are: 1. Spiritual Development 2. Academic/Vocational Development (Literacy, ABE, GED, Job Skills) 3. Cognitive Development (Cognitive Emergence Program - In-House System) If anyone is interested in this report/research document, contact me at 405-706-6950 or e-mail: teletherapy@gmail.com Dr. John N. Hatfield, Ph.D.

  3. jamestown0509 on 05/01/2012:

    I do agree with you that recidivism is not going away, in fact it is increasing in many areas of the country. For example where you said 70 percent recidivism our county is over 90 percent. On top of a poor economic environment former inmates have little if any coping sills needed to be successful in normal society. They go right back to the same area, the same criminal friends and criminal enterprises. It's a vicious cycle of arrest, conviction, sentence, release and then a repeat of those elements. I have continually said you cannot rehabilitate an alcoholic or a drug addict if they are not willing to change their attitude to make a commitment to quit the habit they are stuck with. Yes you can re-train former inmates into different skills but will those who are interested really be able to compete in this heavily unemployed society? The only bright spot in recidivism that I have seen is young juveniles who obtain a GED while incarcerated and who are dedicated to staying out of jail to the best of their abilities.

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