Reforming and Rehabilitating Prisoners:
Communicative and Consequentialist Challenges

face of a prisoner

Reasoning about criminal punishment and reformation is challenging. Despite the Age of Enlightenment’s great influence on Western civilization, the eighteenth-century foundations of economic analysis haven’t brought enlightenment to actual practices of punishment and reformation. Penal policy seems to be formed in other ways.

Mass persuasion and folk wisdom are alternatives to progressive reason. Late in the twentieth century, Robert Martinson argued for the importance of mass communication:

here is the public demanding some substantive knowledge about how to reduce crime and all it gets from Palmer is the dry crust of “middle base expectancy” and interminable intramural bickering about the esoteric mysteries of research design and significance tests and such-like oddities. … My neighbors in the 20th precinct are mystified by Palmer’s obscurantism. … Correctional research must get out of the sandbox and speak straight to the American people.^

More recent scholarly research has advocated an common-person attitude:

we offer an attitude rather than an algorithm: one that trusts collective, commonsense judgments, and is humble in the face of uncertainty, steadfast in confronting urgent problems, and committed to fairness within and beyond this generation.^

Formal learning’s contribution to that attitude is probably small, if not negative. Moreover, that attitude probably wouldn’t inspire a difficult program of new intellectual work. It tends to encourage conservatism and a “precautionary principle.”^ Popular interpretation of a precautionary principle in the field of crimes and punishments tends to discourage mercy and second chances. A precautionary principle favors preemptive, discriminatory state control and mass incarceration.

Another alternative to structuring punishment and reformation is credentialism. In a scholarly article entitled “Beyond Correctional Quackery – Professionalism and the Possibility of Effective Treatment, ” three university-based authors forcefully advocated “evidence-based corrections.” They identified “four sources of correctional quackery”: “failure to use research in designing programs,” “failure to use effective treatment models,” “failure to follow appropriate assessment and classification practices,” and “failure to evaluate what we do.” According to the authors, fostering evidence-based corrections requires more appreciation for duly credentialed authority:

To move beyond quackery and accomplish these goals, the field of corrections will have to take seriously what it means to be a profession. In this context, individual agencies and individuals within agencies would do well to achieve what Gendreau et al. (forthcoming) refer to as the “3 C’s” of effective correctional policies: First, employ credentialed people; second, ensure that the agency is credentialed in that it is founded on the principles of fairness and the improvement of lives through ethically defensive [sic] means; and third, base treatment decisions on credentialed knowledge (e.g., research from meta-analyses).^

Ordinary persons typically have a sense of fairness and seek to act ethically, or at least in an ethically defensible way. More insights into the importance of credentials come from “eight principles of effective correctional intervention.” The third principle concerns “management/staff characteristics”:

The program director and treatment staff are professionally trained and have previous experience working in offender treatment programs. Staff selection is based on their holding beliefs supportive of rehabilitation and relationship styles and therapeutic skill factors typical of effective therapies.

Professional training, previous experience, supportive beliefs, and “skill factors typical of effective therapies” all separate credentialed persons from a random sample of ordinary persons. The description of “core correctional practice” describes in technical terms patterns of human interaction:

Program therapists engage in the following therapeutic practices: anti-criminal modeling, effective reinforcement and disapproval, problem-solving techniques, structured learning procedures for skill-building, effective use of authority, cognitive self-change, relationship practices, and motivational interviewing.^

Caring, empathetic persons committed to helping prisoners and who have passed courses of such practices undoubtedly help prisoners. The contribution of credentialed techniques themselves to that effectiveness is far from clear. Credentials and credentialed techniques, in this field as in others, create barriers to entry and raise costs of caring for prisoners. They also devalue prisoners’ ordinary communication with their families and friends.

Correctional experts world-wide in the nineteenth century promoted complete suppression of prisoners’ communication. Competitive fields of knowledge and authority, like markets for goods, can fail badly.

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