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Why we incarcerate: Rehabilitation

The distinction between treatment and rehabilitation is often so vague that it sometimes leads to confusion

By Dr. Bruce Bayley, Laura Gutierrez, Karen Stringham, Jean Kapenda

In the third and final segment of this three part series, this article examines some of the research surrounding the primary reason we incarcerate those who violate our laws – rehabilitation. 

Please keep in mind that these reviews are not position pieces, but simply an overview of the current research that addresses each topic.  We are not supporting one ideal over another, but instead hope to continue the dialogue on the central issues that relate to the fundamental question - Why do we incarcerate?

The rehabilitation of offenders into law-abiding citizens is often viewed as the ultimate goal of incarceration. However, the distinction between treatment and rehabilitation is often so vague that it sometimes leads to confusion. 

To this end, the first part of our final segment will address this confusion by reviewing the various definitions and ultimately providing a working explanation of the term “rehabilitation.” 

The second part is more descriptive and will cover the main rehabilitative programs, whereas the last segment will discuss the importance of pre-reentry services in the rehabilitative efforts aimed at delivering fully functioning individuals back to society.

To begin, once an individual concludes treatment, he or she enters rehabilitation. The assumption that treatment and rehabilitation are the same is often mistaken because the primary goal of treatment is to initially manage a behavior or condition, whereas the purpose of rehabilitation is to prepare an individual to successfully reintegrate into the society. 

As with treatment, there are several definitions that attempt to characterize the term “rehabilitation” and, like treatment, these descriptions will often vary depending on the specialty.

The American Board of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (ABPMR) defines physical medicine and rehabilitation as the diagnosis, evaluation, and management of persons of all ages with physical and/or cognitive impairment and disability.

The aim, according to the ABPMR, is to restore or develop physical, psychological, social, occupational and vocational functions in persons whose abilities have been limited by disease, trauma, congenital disorders or pain to enable people to achieve their maximum functional abilities.

The field of Penology, on the other hand, goes beyond the “idea of curing” and defines rehabilitation as the actual provision of professional services and an array of programs aimed at restoring the offender to useful life and well-functioning condition while reducing the risk of recidivism in the future.

The assumption is that individuals are not criminals all the time and that it is possible to reform them through appropriate intervention and programs provided in a confined and insulated environment.

Regardless of the definition used, there exists a core of general concepts that are prevalent in the majority of rehabilitative programs.  In addition, it’s also important to acknowledge that like treatment, the success of any rehabilitation program centers on its ability to address specific offender needs.

As any therapist will tell you, a basic education is vital to the success of an inmate’s reentry into society.  For example, obtaining ones GED (General Education Development) has been shown to lower recidivism rates upon release.  For those who are incarcerated, there is not only the potential and resources to earn this basic standard of education, but they may also attend college, and in some cases even move onto graduate school. 

Entry-level job training, in the form of vocational rehabilitation, is another rehabilitative outlet that gives inmates actual job skills they may use upon release.  Without work, they may find it difficult to pay for rent, food, and other basic necessities.   Research by Eric Jensen and Gary Reed has shown that inmates that obtained some form of education (a GED or adult education for example) or vocational training routinely displayed reduced rates of recidivism. 

In addition, some prisoners require assistance in learning the fundamentals of social interactions and as such, these concepts fall under basic life skills programs.  Life skills programs introduce key communication skills, empathy, parenting techniques, budgeting, as well as elementary household skills (cleaning, laundry, etc.). 

These programs help facilitate alternative ways of thinking and acting, and while doing so, impart a variety of methods that incarcerated individuals can use to diffuse potentially frustrating and ultimately violent situations. 

The goal is to help inmates learn pro-social ways to deal with frustrations or even daily household struggles, without turning to criminal behavior or violence.

Another popular type of rehabilitation are cognitive/behavioral programs.  Cognitive/behavioral programs, in general, work to reshape an offender’s thinking processes, which in turn will hopefully change his/her behavior.  While these approaches may sound like the life skills programs previously discussed, they are not. 

The focus of these programs is on the development of self worth and the investigation of the thought processes involved with criminal behavior.  A common theme of this type of rehabilitation is the discontinuation of offensive actions such as violence, drug abuse, and antisocial behaviors.

Offenders learn to take responsibility for their actions, and gain the cognitive skills necessary to refrain from making the same choices over and over again.

A final element central to rehabilitative efforts is the concept of prerelease service. Prerelease services become the focus of rehabilitative efforts typically during the last six months of incarceration.

During this crucial stage, prison management conducts a final assessment of rehabilitation programs for each inmate scheduled for release and participating in pre-reentry activities and establishes partnerships with outside key partners whose inputs and roles are decisive in the planning and delivery of these tailored prerelease programs.

The importance of rehabilitation assessment is two-fold. On one hand, the evaluation allows administration to gauge the effectiveness of its reformation programs and, on the other, it provides the offender with the opportunity to subjectively measure his/her preparedness to reenter society as a law-abiding citizen. 

Another advantage is that self-evaluation helps the inmate set new rehabilitative goals to fill the gap while in prison and upon release.  Finally, the assessment is a golden opportunity for administration to include external stakeholders in the last phase of incarceration.

The inclusion of outside partners is fundamental in rehabilitation, especially during the pre-reentry period. In a study submitted to the U.S. department of Justice in 2002, Byrne et al mentioned that “for most categories of crime, particularly the types of crime that lead to incarceration, offenders and their victims live and/or work in the same neighborhood”, including same street and even the same home or housing complex.

Therefore, family members, role-modeling acquaintances (friends, former co-workers, neighborhood leaders, etc.), victims, victim advocacy groups, the police, communities of faith, and other social control institutions must be involved in the design, planning, delivery, and monitoring of pre-reentry rehabilitative programs.

The rationale is very simple: considering that between 90 and 97 percent of offenders will be released at some point in time, the stronger the social control from external forces the inmates already feel behind bars, the lower the risk of recidivism upon release.
In conclusion, rehabilitation does not mean the same thing for everybody. Therefore, it is important that prison management reach a consensus on the concept.

This will help to articulate a mission and a vision for the entire rehabilitation program and its segments, set clear goals, and define strategies and tactics to reach those objectives. Rehabilitation programs are not offered just for the sake of entertaining inmates or keeping them busy. For each of the programs described, there is a rehabilitative goal that prison staff must monitor.

Finally, a more systemic approach is needed in the pre-reentry phase as external partnerships are built and involved in the rehabilitative efforts. Their inputs and active roles are crucial in the design, implementation, and monitoring of pre-reentry services to ensure that only reformed and fully-functioning individuals are delivered back to society.

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