Social services and prisons: is there a cause-and-effect relationship?

I was struck by two articles, written on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean, that I came across within the past few days.  I think that in isolation, each is self-explanatory;  but when read together, the synergy between them is clear.

The first article is from the New York Post, and is titled “Social services used to build character — now they blame society“.

“Those who have much to do with plans of human improvement,” [Charles Loring Brace] wrote, “see how superficial and comparatively useless all assistance or organization is which does not touch . . . the inner forces which form character” … [he described the approach] as “to avert rather than cure.”

This philosophy was practiced throughout much of American history through non-governmental groups we today call civil society. New York’s Henry Street Settlement, for example, not only taught English but how to manage a healthy household. Indeed, my own father was placed in foster care and looked after by a purely private, philanthropic enterprise, Philadelphia’s Juvenile Aid Society. A wealthy volunteer would visit him and emphasize the importance of such virtues as “honor, confidence, trust, self-control, truth, honesty and good manners.”

The common thread in all this? A focus more on the formative than the reformative.

Some today denigrate such values as “bourgeois norms,” but they were actually values promoted to the poor by established, affluent Americans who understood they were the keys to upward mobility and life satisfaction.

. . .

We have come to neglect the promotion of these values. This is largely because our civil society has been changed, drawn into an embrace with a vast social-service state on which government spends tens of billions of dollars — even as the country struggles with an opioid crisis and a retreat, by prime-age adults, from work and purpose.

We are good at funding programs and paying social workers to help “clients” whose lives have gone awry, whether because of substance abuse, teen pregnancy or domestic violence. At the federal level, the Administration for Children and Families disburses some $53 billion annually on such programs, which is more than the individual budgets of the departments of Justice, Treasury or Interior.

. . .

Today, our independent sector, which once promoted constructive virtues and values, has become a propaganda machine, preaching the structural failings of the American system, rather than counseling the poor on how to succeed within it.

There’s more at the link.

The second article, from Britain, is titled “Prison governor attacks ‘fantasy’ that criminals can be rehabilitated behind bars“.

Rehabilitation of criminals is a “fantasy”  as the prison system cannot be expected to undo a lifetime of troubles in a few months, a leading official has said.

James Bourke, the governor of HMP Winchester, said Britain’s prisons may work in scaring white, middle class people, but for others they can simply become a “place of refuge”.

He suggested the main purpose of custodial sentences should be punishment – because no other form of sentence seemed to have an effect on offenders.

. . .

He told an audience in central London: “People quite understandably want to see people punished if they have caused harm in their lives.

“Unfortunately, everything else we have tried so far has not worked. Imprisonment works in the sense it does punish people.

“They arrive with me after years of (problems) with their family, their education, their social services system, their healthcare for a sentence of four or five weeks and I’m going to rehabilitate them? It’s a fantasy.”

. . .

Mr Bourke continued:  “I think the reality of prison is that it is designed by nice, white middle-class people and it works for nice, middle-class people.

“For any one of us in this room to go to prison would be a disaster, but what we have created is a group of people, a section of our community, who go to prisons and it is not a personal disaster – in fact it becomes a place of refuge for them.”

He claimed the rising cost of housing and higher education risked leaving behind swathes of the population to whom the prospect of prison offered stability, rather than punishment.

Again, more at the link.

If you read the second article in the light of the first, it makes scarily good sense.  If the social support networks and organizations we’ve built in our society don’t actually lead people to take responsibility for their own lives, but instead keep them dependent on those networks (in the process creating jobs for millions who are employed to keep them dependent), personal responsibility and “standing on your own two feet” go out of the metaphorical window.

I saw this during my service as a prison chaplain.  The “system” (certainly as far as most state and local prisons and jails was concerned, and often the better-funded federal system as well) was designed to warehouse offenders, rather than do something constructive and positive with them.  The message was “Stay out of trouble, do your time, and you’ll get out of here and back to a normal life”.  Few, if any, staff members thought about what the normality of such a life might be.  For all too many of our inmates, it was right back into a dependency network where they were provided with support without having to exercise any personal responsibility to obtain or keep it.  They went from being dependent on prison staff for everything they needed, to being dependent on outside support networks . . . and came right back into the prison support network when they reoffended.  They were never challenged to change themselves.

I tried to do that as a chaplain, based on spiritual beliefs.  I had very limited success.  I’m afraid the stories of “jailhouse conversions” are largely true.  Many people will pretend to believe, in order to get additional benefits behind bars, but abandon their pretended faith as soon as they’re back on the street.  Perhaps one in ten “converts” was genuine . . . but the only way to tell was to watch what they did, rather than what they said.  It’s striking how many convict converts went right on lying, stealing, cheating and being violent after their “conversion”, even when they knew I was watching.  Somehow, they thought they could persuade me this was an aberration.  (They didn’t.)

I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but reading these two articles in rapid succession reminded me of many years’ work with the allegedly “downtrodden” of society.  In many cases, they were downtrodden because they refused to get up and walk on their own – and the social service and support networks and organizations available to them never tried to make them do so.  Instead, they kept them as dependent as possible.

Makes you think, doesn’t it?



  1. None of this is new. We just keep ignoring reality and human nature.
    Want movie references?
    Clockwork Orange 1971
    West Side Story 1961

  2. My stepfather was a psychiatrist who did a fair amount of forensic work in the state prison system in the 1950s.

    Speaking of jailhouse conversions and the like, I remember him saying "they don't call them 'cons' for nothing."

    He had been a merchant seaman before medical school. I also remember him observing that somebody had one, maybe two tattoos, they had probably gotten drunk in port, on leave, or when out with a bunch of buddies. More than that was usually a sign of psychopathology and/or being a criminal.

  3. Ah, the service and support folks' jobs depend on having people to take care of. They are positively motivated to keep their clientele dependent on them. A vicious circle, isn't it? It goes hand in hand with modern medicine treating the symptoms instead of the disease.

  4. We have been fighting the 'Reform' movement in prisons since the Quakers got involved in it, back in the early 1800's. Before then, it was strictly punishment.

    After the Reform movement, long term studies show…

    That, actually, recidivism is less in a 'Punishment' system than in a 'Reform' system.

    Quel Surprise, Non?

    The attacks on personal responsibility is the base of most of our behavioral problems, those not linked to mental illness, that is.

  5. I had a chance meeting "on the outs" with a young man whom I had met after he had been released from incarceration.
    He approached me, called me by name and said," What you told me changed my life."
    No clue. Total blank.
    I did not remember ever seeing him or talking with him prior to that day, and of course, I have no knowledge of what I specifically said to him.
    It is a mystery.

    I was an advocate of the idea that the behavior modification programs we ran were temporary control methods that became ineffective open release from custody, but what we needed were character modification programs and the quickest way to that was a true conversion to Christianity..
    I saw a few jailhouse conversions, but only one that I think was the real deal. Except he struggled with the idea that since he had found Christ he should not have to face the consequences for holding down a rival gang member while his co-defendant stabbed him seven times. /s.

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