Not all inmates are ready for rehabilitation

Is the ‘one size fits all’ approach to correctional rehabilitation inhibiting — rather than facilitating — change? Do we need a new program model?


By Harold Goldstein, Ph.D. and Dana Gabriel, Psy.D.

Ms. Smith is facilitating the third session of her Anger Management group. There are approximately 30 inmates in her program. Most of them appear disinterested, they arrive late, are distracted throughout discussion and some are blatantly disruptive. There are a select few that seem genuinely interested, but their voices are drowned out by the majority. How can we target those who are ready for more intensive treatment and give them the attention they seek?

The traditional philosophy of correctional rehabilitation has been to spread the net of treatment widely and provide programming to as many inmates as possible. The thinking appears to be that many offenders, particularly those convicted of drug offenses, languish in prison while their time could be more usefully spent participating in programming. The term ‘treatment’ in this context has a medical connotation, so that inmates are viewed as having a problem akin to an illness that can be cured with proper intervention. Participation in treatment programs is expected to reduce inmates’ potential for engaging in criminal behavior. 

To deprive an individual of this opportunity is considered overly punitive and misguided, if not unethical. Access to programs is dependent on the availability of staff and institutional resources, but an inmate is typically viewed as entitled to programming as if it is a right rather than a privilege.  

An Alternative Model
An alternative approach to inmate rehabilitation is patterned on an educational model used to select students for honors and advanced placement classes. Students must meet grade requirements and are recommended by faculty for these classes. They must demonstrate educational achievement and the necessary motivation to handle the increased work load. These classes are reserved for the select few because they are considered capable of benefitting from an educational experience that most students are not.  

A similar merit based approach is advanced in the current article. Specialized, insight oriented correctional programming, as differentiated from standardized, didactic programming (behavior modification, cage your rage) is viewed as a valuable but scarce resource that cannot be used efficiently if it is offered on an egalitarian basis to all inmates regardless of their suitability or readiness to profit from the experience. This requires a shift away from reaching as many people as possible with specialized programming, thereby diluting the product, and movement toward a model that places greater emphasis on screening and selection of qualified participants. 

Rather than a ‘one size fits all’ approach, programming should be set up in a pyramid model where inmates move through programming in a step-wise fashion from most basic to increasing levels of sophistication, commensurate with their maturity and level of motivation. It should be emphasized that maturation and motivation are subject to change, particularly if one is in an environment where rehabilitation is respected and encouraged. Thus the correctional institution should promote rehabilitation as a value, not as something that is given away but as something worthwhile that is strived for and earned. 

Standardized didactic programming represents an introductory level where basic concepts are taught. The experience of participating in a group where prosocial values are presented in a classroom setting has the potential to awaken a dormant desire for self-improvement, in addition to offering participants an opportunity to experiment with novel ways of relating to each other. It is not necessary for inmates to buy into the message from the outset for it to broaden their interpersonal repertoires and to plant the seeds of change. Inmates who graduate from these introductory programs are then eligible for more advanced treatment experiences, although eligibility should not guarantee inclusion in the higher level programs. 

Civilian staff running the introductory programs would be tasked with identifying potential inmates for referral to the more advanced programs, ideally creating a flow of referral from bottom to top. The advance treatment opportunities should involve both individual and group therapy where inmates are challenged to explore the nature of their familial relationships, self-concept, attitudes and values, and a host of other emotionally laden topics requiring self-reflection. Not everyone is ready for this kind of insight oriented work, whether in prison or in the community. 

Identifying Candidates
It is necessary then to establish an objective, reliable approach to screening based on the specific abilities necessary for an individual to profit from the experience, as well as those that prevent an individual from getting enough out of the treatment to justify their inclusion in the program. The goal is to find individuals who are ready for the treatment experience and who will justify the expenditure of resources by committing to the change process.

Many inmates will never progress beyond the basic didactic programming during their prison bid. Because each inmate is on his own individual developmental trajectory, factors such as age, length of sentence, and history of criminal behavior contribute to the inmate’s readiness for change at any given time. There also may be times during a prison sentence where an inmate is more open to self-examination and so the challenge would be to identify people when they are ripe for change. 

Correctional institutions have both a punitive and rehabilitative mission, but there needs to be increased awareness of individual differences in the inmate population. Not all inmates require the same level of punishment and not all inmates benefit from institutional programming. 

With this alternative treatment model, the inmates who were genuinely interested in learning from Ms. Smith’s Anger Management class, discussed at the beginning of the article, would be referred to an advanced course. Ms. Smith would run her current group at an introductory level, planting seeds for the inmates not yet committed to change. The advanced group would allow the selected inmates to explore more sophisticated and intensive topics, thereby tailoring treatment to the offender’s needs and abilities.


Harold Goldstein received his Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology at Fordham University. He has 29 years of experience as a mental health clinician in correctional institutions and is currently the clinician supervisor at a Local State Facility. 

Dana Gabriel has a Psy.D. in Clinical Psychology from American School of Professional Psychology. She has eight years of correctional experience and is currently working as a clinician at a Local State Facility.

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