21 Nov. 26
The Problems of Recidivism
Many ex-convicts return to prison because they are not prepared to re-enter society and deal with life. Many pitfalls can get in the way of their chance at having a new beginning, including: their inability to conform to life outside of prison, drug addiction issues, mental health issues, homelessness issues, and rejection of possible employment.
Recidivism is known as the act of returning to prison over and over again. The ex-convict is free to begin a new life once released from prison, however, many often return to a life of crime. The reasons are varying; they may be homeless on the first day of parole, or the individual may have a drug habit which was not addressed during incarceration. If the individual had mental health issues before entering jail, there may not be any continuing support available once they are released. Also, rejection from potential employers because of a “record” contributes to these citizens not having a successful transition back into the community.
Law makers may argue that the people, who return to prison over and over again because of a disregard for the law, should have a longer prison sentence. In spite of law makers’ efforts to reduce crime in the future, or to send a message out to those who return to prison; inmates may in fact prefer prison life and feel that it is more attractive to serve out their time because they feel comfortable in that setting. The word “prison” brings forth negative connotations for most people who envision: gangs, violence, drugs, rape, murderers, or even Charles Manson. Prison inmates may not associate the word “prison” in this negative manner. However, inmates may associate the word with a life far more comfortable and predictable than the life they experienced out in the real world. They may have been living on the streets, not knowing when their next meal would come, and in jail they experience amenities such as daily exercise, regular meals, a warm bed, table games, entertainment, outdoor sports, regular access to books, academic schooling, vocational training, work, and a regular social life.
Although society may associate prison life with negative images and thoughts, many ex-convicts may view prison as a comfort zone. Adjusting to prison life and making decisions while in prison is fairly easy and convenient. Once on the streets, decision making is more difficult. Many complex skills are required to deal with life on the outside, and there are no set routines to count on to make living easy. In an interview with Raphael D., an ex-convict, he stated, “I was safe from crack and hurting myself, and I didn’t have to think about food, shelter, clothes, which contributed to me having a low sense of self worth, not fending for myself, sort of wheeling me in the direction of drug use to escape.” Attainable goals with baby steps needs to be in place for those who parole, because it’s unreasonable for that person to just pick up where they left off. Also, that person is still being punished for crime already paid for.
Many would agree that a repeat offender who continues to break the law should pay for his crime. The question is, once the felon has served out their sentence how and who is going to hold the felon accountable and provide the proper support to ensure a successful transition back into society? There seems to be a wasted effort of valuable resources to address drug use and homelessness by passing out longer prison sentences. An active addict’s sole purpose is to get a hold of drugs, which almost always means breaking the law. Society’s goal is to punish the criminal for not being a law abiding citizen. Confinement is the punishment which has been established. However; the rehabilitation to prevent further crime has not been addressed, therefore the point of incarceration would seem meaningless.
Again, prison time without providing support for people once they are released, is a waste of valuable resources, particularly if the individuals are suffering from addiction issues. The ex-con most likely will be in and out of prison until some kind of intervention is introduced to stop this cycle. Some prisons have Narcotics Anonymous, and Alcohol Anonymous meetings, however, it appears that they are not very effective for a number of reasons. The coordinators of such meetings may not show up or the prison may be on lock down for a couple of days to a couple of months. Peer pressure in a prison setting can cause individuals to be dishonest in disclosing information that may be a critical part of the treatment program to be effective. Also, many of the behaviors that are learned while incarcerated are simply adaptive behaviors designed and used to survive in that setting.
These same behaviors may not be healthy or serve these individuals once they are released into society. In order to decrease the recidivism rate, prisons must teach appropriate life skills and behaviors to transition and help ex-convicts be successful once they are released. In addition, the ex-convict must see recovery and movement into society as being more attractive in order for them to actively live outside of prison.
It seems likely that the general public is uneducated and unaware of the real issues and realistic solutions for dealing effectively with repeat offenders. The general public allows the media and law makers to educate them and make decisions about this important area without using their own resources and critical thinking. This is dangerous and invites the possibility of harsher and most likely ineffective treatment of repeat offenders.
The mentally ill, like those addicted to drugs, also suffer from a lack of support once they try to return to society. In her book, “When Prisoners Come Home”, Joan Petersilla discusses the fact that mental state hospitals began closing in the mid 1950’s because new drugs became available that were able to stabilize people termed “mentally ill”.(37)
However, an on going problem is, “Without the medication…mental illness returns…these people then begin committing crimes, and come to the attention of law enforcement. There are now fewer mental health hospitals…Prisons aren’t the place for seriously mentally ill criminals.”(37). The mentally ill are often the outcast of a prison and live isolated away from the general population. The correctional officers treat them as a threat as well as the inmates. In the long run, the goal of confinement is not met. The mentally ill may be incarcerated or in a transitional program and may never realize what their being held accountable for until their illness has been addressed.
Besides conforming to prison life, drug addiction issues, and mental health issues, there are homelessness issues. Homeless people who go to prison most likely have no other way of supporting themselves. They go to prison with skills adaptive for survival on the streets and these same skills most likely will be applied while incarcerated; but again, in the long run is justice doing what it intends to do? Justice is the service for violating societal norms, but society will not be better off when someone who was homeless paroles.
The homeless will parole without skills to land them a great job and a sense of belonging in their community? They are going to parole back into the community with a notion to survive. According to the Encyclopedia of prisons and Correctional Facilities, Mihael Cole writes, “A … goal of North American culture is to obtain economic wealth and stability. Proponents of this perspective would suggest that people will use illegitimate means to attain goals when they are denied legitimate ways of achieving them.” (1) With this view in mind people know they are breaking the law, but if they are unable to take care of themselves with basic essential needs such as food, water, bathing, and clean clothes, then they are forced in a corner with their back against the wall to do what needs to be done in order to survive.
In addition to reintegrating back into society, ex-convicts need to move with the flow of technological advances, “If offenders cannot adjust to the new norms of an ever-changing society, they may engage in illegal practices in an attempt to satisfy their needs.” The unsuccessful reintegration back into society would be due to no comprehension of how to get back in society and start living anew.
The social cry for change can be heard in the laws, Three Strikes Your Out. It can be heard in the news with youth and gang violence on the rise, and it can be seen in dilapidated neighborhoods where crime, homelessness, and drug addiction is high. The mentally ill are often associated with being homeless or drug addicted, or suffer from both.
As mentioned earlier, going to prison is to teach a person a lesson, but nothing can be gained by incarcerating people who are highly influenced by factors the person may not even be aware. Another problem existing in recidivism stems from the common belief that welfare recipients are weak or lazy.
Providing state assistance is cheaper than clothing and housing someone in state prison. State assistance programs can also assist individuals in finding work and educational opportunities. Tax payers should be delighted that ex-felons parole and take advantage of this state system, but economic stress exist in this system of support due to other people thinking something is not right with a person for needing help. According to D. an ex-convict who was caught up in the vicious cycle of recidivism, “Emotional support is definitely needed to survive in the real world especially after paroling. Some of the things I had to go through to get to where I’m at today made me want to quit, but I talked about it and had strong emotional support, I mean I just felt degraded.” D’s security company works with young youth and their parents, at a club called, The Down Low, located in Berkeley. He doesn’t allow any mischief and he supports the parents when they have concern about what their child is doing late in the weekend evenings. His big theme is that a person must have emotional support ex-con or not, it’s a big key to being successful.
Recidivism is a complicated issue and the answer, again is more laws or longer sentences and these arguments law makers make over and over seem to win the favor of public opinion. The public are inclined to listen and believe those that are in government. According to Cole, “…offenders are beyond reform, and as such, most sanctions, will not deter them from future offending…. They argue that offenders make a rational choice to commit crimes and will re-offend if they are not severely punished enough.” (1) Society deserves retribution from anyone who violates society’s norms, but longer sentences can’t be the answer for all who fall victim to recidivism. It’s cheaper to support returning inmates with positive resolutions because laws don’t make people behave.
It’s expected that inmates returning from a stay in prison get a job and leave the old life behind. The expectation is reasonable that when paroled, an ex-con will double or triple their efforts to conform. This again is not reality. Most jobs now today have applications on line and if a person goes to Safe Way, Block Buster, or even Best Buy to fill out an application. The computer will go blank if the ex-felon decides to be honest about his past. So a small part of the menial job work force is closed off, as well as other jobs that may require a degree, transportation, or no felony in ones back ground.
Again, facing problems once paroled, such as rejection day to day in the work force can compel a person to return back to the life of crime that landed them behind bars in the first place. In an interview with Detective Robert Priebe, he states, “The only thing typically to help someone is if they have a support system on the outside and their willing to take it and they really want to change. You have to net work. Typically you have to be relocated somewhere else.” So, again the issue of support comes up.
To lock someone up and parole them back into the community without a strong net work is its self insanity. Society wants change and pays top dollars for court cost, housing cost, and the man power cost when programs by large would be cheaper. The goal of a program is to reintegrate people back into society to be part of the community and share in those goals. It seems people go to prison and confer with other criminals about how to break other laws. According to Priebe, “they get out of jail, they got to eat, they have to live and they can’t work. What are you going to do? What you use to because at least you know you can make some money.”
As a result of the social system failing the public and the ex-con society will not be well protected by laws or law makers. In other words going to prison to serve a sentence and then just being released back into the public with no proper guiding skills is its self insanity, as stated earlier. The support needed for some to make a successful transition back into society takes some willingness from the community. The community has invested in the prison system, but may be now the community should invest in the ex-con by having successful programs available.
The program’s goal could focus on harm reduction, slowly introduce institutionalized inmates back into the real world, have some psychology help for those who are mentally ill, help the homeless as opposed to paroling them back underneath a bridge, and to help them gain successful employment. The program most definitely could focus on emotional issues and drug addiction issues. This idea of reform is a better idea than sending some to prison and then paroling them again and them breaking into a car, a store, or someone’s home in order to gain basic needs. The public at large is not safe in the long run until more emphasis is placed on reform!
Cole, Mihael. "Recidivism" Encyclopedia of Prisons and Correctional Facilities. Ed. Mary
Bosworth. Vol. 2. Thousand Oaks: Sage Reference, 2005. 822-826. 2 vols. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Thomson Gale. St Marys College - SCELC. 17 Nov. 2006
Dow, Raphael. Personal interview. 13 Nov. 2006.
Petersillia, Joan. When Prisoners Come Home. New York: Oxford University Press Inc.
Priebe, Detective Robert. Personal interview. 11 Nov. 2006.