Prison inmate rehabilitation: a debate

Reader skidmark (yes, that’s a small ‘s’) sent me a long and very interesting e-mail after he’d read my latest book on my experiences as a prison chaplain.  With his permission, I’m going to reproduce his e-mail here, then give my response below.

Skidmark writes:

I’ve literally just finished reading your book and feel a very strong compulsion to share a few observations with you.

I retired after 16 years with the Virginia Dept. of Corrections, having worked in inmate classification, inmate case management, inmate social work and counseling, and managing a system-wide drug counseling and treatment (yes, they are different) program that also trained staff to qualify as drug counselors to meet state certification standards. I’ve worked in facilities ranging from max security to work release centers.  Just letting you know I might, on a really good day, know some of what I’m talking about.

For the most part I agree with your plan to reform the correctional system – not just the prisons but everything that comes before and follows after time inside.  Whether it was an oversight or intentionally not addressed, I am firmly convinced that none of your notions will have the chance of the proverbial snowball unless one more area/issue is addressed.  That is the social response to an ex-con.

I know easily half a dozen tricks to get an ex-con past the job application screening process and into a face-to-face interview.  But unless you, me, and the ex-con can overcome the almost universal abhorrence and distrust of ex-cons they are never going to get a job above menial labor.  And you and I know that some of them are both highly qualified and very capable, and deserve jobs better than that.

On a very limited basis I used to be able to sell (yes, that’s the correct and appropriate term) inmates approaching release to employers using both the Targeted Jobs Tax Credit and the fact that they came with their own surveillance/monitoring system (parole officers).  That program no longer exists and there is too much competition from folks with lengthy, clean records of employment who are willing to undercut the “going rate” just to get employed again.

Nurses and EMTs have some very high moral turpitude barriers due to their access to drugs.  Some of those barriers preclude ex-cons even if their crime was not drug related or even embezzlement or theft.

Plumbers, carpenters, electricians and the like have the apprentice/journeyman/master path that can keep an ex-con from advancing, and should they get to journeyman status becoming licensed again runs up against moral turpitude issues.  A person can make it (barely) as an apprentice all their life, but it is frustrating to know how to do all the “good” stuff but not be allowed to do it.

I have no answer to overcoming the social stigma of being an ex-con except to make hiring one so financially lucrative that an employer would be crazy to turn down the money.  As I said, there are enough unemployed/underemployed folks already out there that will work “cheaply” that the employer can decide between someone with a high risk factor or someone with probably better experience and little to no risk factor.  I’m sure you know how that decision is going to be answered most of the time.

Your plan for true rehabilitation – or what probably should be called habilitation because most cons never got it – are excellent as suggestions.  I just want to know where you intend to find the experienced staff to fill all the slots needed to pull that off.  As mentioned, I ran a system-wide drug counseling and treatment center.  I needed to convince The Powers That Be to hire ex-cons who were already counselors or therapists working on the outside.  I also had to create an in-house program to train staff to qualify for certification as counselors and therapists because if every qualified person in my state came to work for the program we would still be over 40% short of the necessary staff.  That meant that while they were in training the participating staff had to both do all their regular work and the work needed to get trained and then certified.  In the meantime, I had to lobby to get additional positions created that they could then move into.  Additionally, I had to lobby for the administration (both at HQ and at the individual facilities) to both make room for the new staff and their program needs, and to release cons to attend/participate in the programs.  The best candidates were also the best of the population and already assigned to jobs that required a great deal of trust/confidence on the part of the administration.  And there I was wanting to take them away for as much as three hours a day!  (I’m sure you have seen pregnant elephants pole vaulting that went over better than that situation.)

To be quite honest with you, I do not see even unicorn farts and the good- idea-fairy’s wand being able to solve either of these issues, let alone both of them, until the system reaches collapse.  And when that happens it is just possible that the population of folks who should have been incarcerated will become suddenly and violently reduced, thus making the lifetime incarceration plan much easier and less expensive than you have suggested.

As I have said, I do not have answers – yet.  But knowing what the problem is, rather than knowing that the answer is “42” (see Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe) is probably a better condition.

Thanks, skidmark.  Excellent points, and well argued.  I have to admit, you’ve raised a very important issue.  Many people (myself included) have a visceral distrust of former prison inmates.  It’s a knee-jerk sort of reaction to them, not intellectual, but emotional.  I’ve learned (through working with so many of them) to control that reaction;  but it’s still present, and I daresay it will never leave me.  Put it down to a well-developed instinct for self-preservation!

The reforms I proposed in my book would seek to at least partly address this, not by ignoring that reaction or trivializing it, but by trying to reduce the number of criminals who put themselves in that situation.  I wrote about trying to stop the ‘revolving door’ justice system before offenders progressed from minor, trivial crimes to more serious felonies. One example that I mentioned in the book is the problem of juvenile offenders being slapped on the wrist, no more, for multiple offenses, only to be hit with a significant jail term as soon as they turned 18 and committed precisely the same offense as an adult.  The juvenile court system is monumentally flawed, and desperately needs reform.  If we want to stop young delinquents growing up to be adult criminals, we must discourage them as delinquents – not later.  Later will be too late.

Another is the almost endless stratification of offenses.  When you have misdemeanors classified as Class A, or B, or C, and then each class is sub-divided into 1, or 2, or 3 . . . you end up with an utterly incomprehensible situation.  As Winston Churchill said, “If you have ten thousand regulations you destroy all respect for the law.”  Our criminal justice system has become just that – thousands upon thousands of regulations about crimes and how they are to be classified, assessed, ranked, and prosecuted.  It’s not a system – it’s a maze!  We need to simplify the entire thing.  Let’s by all means have misdemeanors and felonies;  but let’s have no more than two or three categories under each of those headings.  Jail time would be for felonies only – if it’s a serious enough offense to merit a jail sentence, it’s serious enough to be a felony.  Misdemeanors could be punished by many different means, which I discussed in my book.  Briefly, they included:

  • Boot Camp
  • Community Service
  • Electronic Monitoring
  • Fine
  • Non-custodial confinement
  • Probation Supervision
  • Restitution
  • Suspended Sentence
  • Treatment

Any of them, or a combination of them, can be made onerous or unpleasant enough that they may deter a small-time criminal from proceeding to more significant crimes – particularly if he or she can see that true felons are punished more harshly, and get many fewer breaks, as their offenses get worse. That was also discussed in the book.

Basically, as long as the present flood of former felons pours out of our prison gates, month in and month out, year after year, I agree with you that the problem is insoluble – and, what’s more, because the system is overwhelmed by their sheer numbers, many of those former felons will return to crime because they can find no other way of making a living.  However, I submit that at its root, the problem isn’t finding jobs for them.  It’s fixing the criminal justice and corrections systems overall, so that there are less of them in need of such assistance.

An approach I’ve seen in some parts of Africa to providing work for former felons is to offer them the opportunity to be trained in small business skills specific to their local, less developed economies.  For example, one felon learned how to make mud bricks similar to cement blocks, using mud, cow dung and straw, mixed with water and a little cement, then pounded into simple molds and sun-dried.  He was able to set up a small business employing a number of other former inmates, all producing these by hand to sell or barter to locals for use in their simple, self-built homes.  They made enough to eke out a living – not an inconsiderable achievement, in those parts.  Another took an old, broken side-loading washing machine, rigged up an old bicycle with a belt drive running from the rear wheel to the drum, and offered his human-powered laundromat to local housewives.  They brought their washing and laundry detergent;  he provided the water and the muscle power, and charged the equivalent of a nickel or a dime (or the equivalent in bartered food or what have you) to turn the drum for ten minutes;  and they saved a lot of back-breaking labor pounding their washing on rocks in the local river.  He made a living, too, and over time expanded until he had half a dozen of his human-powered washing machines, with other former inmates pedaling away at them.

I’m not sure what sort of small businesses might work in America for such people, but I can’t believe we couldn’t think up something, if we put our minds to it.  Cleaning roads or mowing lawns for municipalities as a contract business?  Garbage collection?  Cleanup for businesses and the EPA on Superfund sites and the like?  Basically, we’d try to get small businesses going that would offer entry-level positions to help former convicts get back to work.  What they did from there would depend on how well they made the transition to employment.  For hard workers who weren’t afraid to get their hands dirty, the sky would be the limit – but those who want an easy job without hard work wouldn’t prosper, I’m afraid.  Former convicts who are already qualified in various trades, as the result of prison education programs (also discussed in my book), could be encouraged to set up their own small businesses, or join co-operatives of former convicts running such businesses.

Small businesses often complain about the regulatory burden that makes it difficult for them to operate, so that’s another thing we’d need to take into account. The problem is similar to that of professional trades, which (as you mentioned) regulate who may proceed beyond apprentice level to journeyman or master craftsman status.  We’d probably have to get those trades to develop a career path for former felons, recognizing the need for them to foster a greater degree of trust among their peers as the result of their former crimes, but allowing them, upon completion of a more rigorous training and certification process, to proceed to higher-status positions.  We’d have to do the same with bureaucracies that hinder the growth of small businesses through over-regulation.  Who knows?  We might do some good for all small businesses while we’re at it!

If we could make this approach work, it would help to overcome the problem of corporate attitudes to ex-cons.  If the ‘corporation’ is owned and/or run by ex-cons, or is a co-operative of ex-cons, it simplifies matters.  (That begs the question of potential customers’ attitudes, of course, but no-one said this would be easy!  If, for example, a plumbing business is owned and/or staffed by former convicts, would it have to inform its customers of that?  What if they allowed its employees to enter their residential premises, only to suffer a theft or assault at their hands?  They’d surely sue the business for not warning them about its employees’ former criminal status, so that they could make an informed judgment whether or not to allow them to enter their homes.)

What do you think, readers – particularly those of you who’ve read my latest book?  Please join the discussion in Comments.



  1. Where I grew up the county is very small, your always turning around and bumping into someone you know.

    That said, most of the ambitious young men that I grew up with in high school who most would have tagged as possible business owners are now ex-cons. They got bored in school or found themselves in a position that they needed more money than they could make thru legal ventures (pregant girlfriend, needing/wanting things, etc.)

    So I would say part of addressing this problem, at least in my area, would be offering vocational schools as an alterative to standard education. Or something for our ambitious youth, if we have ambitious youth any more.

    Just saying my two cents

  2. I truly enjoy reading your commentary. One place that is making a difference is Cafe Reconcile in New Orleans. Unfortunately they can't reach all the at risk youth. It started out as a project for parolees. It now sees that it's better to get these youths involved before they are incarcerated. Take a look. Whenever I'm in NOLA. I visit the restaurant. Great food.

  3. In AZ we had a program training inmates for construction and then getting them jobs with a construction company when they got paroled. It was hard work, but the guys could more than hold their own with the illegals. That program stopped with a high profile rape/murder.
    We still have some agricultural tie-ins that will use inmates and hire the good ones after they're out, but that's miniscule in comparison.
    One possibility is a variant of Google Glass. If you are always recorded, it's easier for folks to hire you (and the recording can also protect the ex-con from false accusations). Heck, some jobs I have had I wished I had a recorder running.

  4. As a policy matter, one also wants to avoid the problem of perverse incentives — if it gets out that committing a felony is a fast-track to getting training and capital to run your own legitimate business….

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