Almost half of the people released from prison in California are convicted of new crimes within three years. Based on such figures, it would be easy to become discouraged about the prospects for the rehabilitation of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals. Indeed, during the 1970s and 1980s, criminologists and policymakers used to think “nothing works” in corrections, and we should give up on rehabilitation. Yet more recent research shows that well-executed and intensive drug treatment, cognitive behavioral therapy and other programs in prison do reduce recidivism.
And many of the people who have been to prison do go on to make important contributions to their communities. For example, here on the UC Berkeley campus, a growing number of formerly incarcerated and system-impacted students known as the Berkeley Underground Scholars have become advocates for greater access to higher education in California for people with criminal records.
Why, then, are recidivism rates so high? Part of the answer is that few prison inmates actually receive high-quality programs, but our new study — which followed the lives of individuals for three years after they were released from prison — also shows that rehabilitation efforts should focus on the transition home from prison and the process of social and economic reintegration into the community. We identified four lessons for successful rehabilitation.
It is crucial to capitalize on the “re-entry moment.” Our study found that most individuals leave prison with new goals for their lives and a determination not to return. They are eager to work, support their families and make a fresh start, but the challenges of re-entry quickly become overwhelming. Struggles with meeting basic needs for food and stable housing while complying with parole requirements are all too common, eroding one’s resolve.
Consider Randall, one of our research participants, who left prison with nine felony convictions for auto theft, drug selling and weapons possession. With little family support, he shuffled between homeless shelters, drug treatment programs and couch surfing while enduring hunger, occasionally living on the streets and walking for miles multiple times a week to meet his parole officer. After months of unsuccessful job searching, he turned briefly to selling marijuana again. Then, a distant relative took him in, and later, a new partner helped him land a job as a short-order cook.
Capitalizing on the optimism and determination of the re-entry moment requires building a foundation that meets one’s basic material needs; this need not be cash assistance to the formerly incarcerated themselves but instead could be subsidies to their families to help with the costs of feeding and housing their returning loved ones.
It is also important to use prison time to prepare for release. Prison rehabilitation and education programs have long waitlists, and many of our research participants reported that they were released before they could take advantage of them. Instead, they spent their prison time in make-work jobs. New efforts to train prison inmates for middle-class jobs after release such as The Last Mile, a coding school in nearby San Quentin State Prison, hold great promise but currently reach only a small fraction of prison inmates. Few of California’s mostly rural prisons are close to major population centers like San Quentin, so providing programs staffed by volunteers and community organizations is especially challenging.
Yet effective rehabilitation also requires “continuity of care,” a term used in medicine to emphasize the importance of coherence and continuity of services received in a hospital or rehab facility after release. In such facilities, social workers help patients plan for and maintain treatment regimens after discharge. In our study, individuals returning home from prison typically left with only a few weeks’ supply of their prescription medications and a list of service providers in their local area, many of whom used different program models from those they experienced in prison.
Rehabilitate institutions as well as individuals. While the term rehabilitation typically implies changing individuals, we need to rehabilitate our criminal justice as well. Dehumanizing and damaging prison conditions such as solitary confinement are all too common. Prisons are typically located far from major population centers, challenging efforts to build or maintain relationships with the family members who will be critical to reintegration after release.
Our system of parole supervision needs to be reoriented toward reintegrating the formerly incarcerated. Currently, parole is largely concerned with monitoring, compliance and returning individuals who violate parole conditions to prison. Indeed, our research shows that prison’s revolving door is generated in part by the parole system itself through prison admissions for parole violations rather than new crimes. Most of our research participants reported little help from their parole officers with maintaining substance use treatment, enrolling in job training and education programs or securing stable housing. Decades ago, parole officers were social workers as much as law enforcement officers. Improving rehabilitation and reintegration requires a shift back to a social work orientation.
Continue downsizing prison to improve rehabilitation. It costs more than $80,000 per year in California to incarcerate one prison inmate. We will not have the resources to improve the quality and reach of prison rehabilitation programs, reform parole and improve reintegration after release without shifting resources from incarceration to rehabilitation. California has led the way in reducing the use of imprisonment as a punishment, particularly for nonviolent offenders, but California’s incarceration rate is still high relative to wealthy democratic countries around the world.
More than 600,000 individuals leave prison in the United States every year and attempt to create new lives for themselves. By shifting our focus to reintegration, we can improve their prospects for changing their lives for the better — the essence of rehabilitation.
David Harding is a professor of sociology at UC Berkeley and the author of “On the Outside: Prisoner Reentry and Reintegration.”