Why America’s Prisons Need ‘Systemic Change’

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Illustration by DonkeyHotey via Flickr

Last month marked the 10th anniversary of the federal Second Chance Act, which has provided aid for state and federal prisoner reentry programs. President Trump declared April “Second Chance Month” to bring attention to programs that “provide opportunities for people with criminal records to earn an honest second chance.”

To assess the state of prisoner reentry in 2018, The Crime Report spoke to Stefan LoBuglio, who recently completed a three-year stint as director of the National Reentry Resource Center at the Council of State Governments Justice Center. LoBuglio, a former corrections administrator in Massachusetts and Maryland, will speak in Kigali, Rwanda, next week at the Eighth International Conference on Human Rights and Prison Reform.

The Crime Report: Prisoner reentry became a public issue in the 1990s when then-Attorney General Janet Reno called attention to the fact that more than 600,000 prisoners are released back into society every year. What is your recollection of that era?

Stefan LoBuglio

Stefan LoBuglio

Stefan LoBuglio: There were earlier milestones in this field. One was the early-1970s publication of the review by sociologist Robert Martinson, declaring that “nothing works” in inmate rehabilitation. In the 1970s, we saw suspicion of the corrections system amid the large growth of in-prison population that continued roughly until the year 2000. There has been enormous energy, research and support of the prisoner reentry field, starting at least with Jeremy Travis at the National Institute of Justice near the end of the Clinton administration, and continuing through the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations. When I began working in corrections in 1992, the job was usually defined by the mantra “care, custody and control.” When you asked a corrections administrator about recidivism, you’d be told, “That is not my responsibility.”

In the 25-plus years since then, there has been a sea change. When you go to meetings of corrections administrators now, there is talk about adding “community” to the mantra, and there are hundreds of programs under the Second Chance Act and other laws to improve prisoner reentry. It was once called “reintegration,” but the lexicon did change to “reentry” in the 1990s. One question people were asking is why inmates should have the opportunity to get things like college degrees when people in free society didn’t have that access? Reentry was framed not as a question of what inmates deserved but of necessity—they were going to be released and we had to prepare them.

TCR: Another, different, anniversary related to the issue of prisoner reentry was marked this year: the “Willie Horton episode,” which many observers at the time believed was a factor in Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis’ loss to Vice President George W. Bush in the 1988 presidential contest.

Editor’s Note: William Horton, then serving a life sentence for murder, failed to return from a weekend furlough from Massachusetts during Dukakis’ term, and later was convicted of a 1987 rape, robbery and assault in Maryland, where he remains in prison. He was used then, and occasionally even now, as a potent symbol for those arguing that corrections reforms can endanger public safety.

LoBuglio: Horton was a violent and horrible case that had wide repercussions for the field and led to the retrenchment of programs and facilities that allowed individuals to be released gradually back into the community. There was widespread support at the time for such opportunities for people who were soon to be released. Horton was in a furlough program, but there were also many “work-release” programs that were very popular.

Inmates could get jobs, reengage with their families, and seek the support of those community institutions of interest to them. Those programs had become part of the corrections infrastructure, but they disappeared overnight in 1988, and even 30 years later, they are still absent. For 11 years, I worked in the corrections department of Montgomery County, Maryland,, where we ran such programs, and demonstrated the ability to transition violent and non-violent offenders back into the community for those who were soon-to-be released. In corrections, we are not making the sentencing decisions, but rather dealing with the reality that most individuals will leave at some point after serving their court imposed sentence.

campaign button

A campaign button from Michael Dukakis’ doomed 1988 presidential campaign. Photo by palemon escobio via flickr

More recently, in following this area for the Council of State Governments Justice Center, I was struck by how few jurisdictions maintain these release-transition programs. Thirty years after the Horton case, with our better technology and communications, we should be rethinking how to incorporate work-release for the people who are coming back to the community.

TCR: Were laws like the one that allowed Horton’s furlough common?

LoBuglio: Such programs were not unusual back then. What was so dramatic about the Horton case was that he was a convicted first-degree murderer. After it happened, there were wholesale cancellations of prison systems’ contracts with halfway houses, and those programs that remained were tightly restricted. The debate shouldn’t be focused on transitioning the most heinous criminals but rather whether the vast majority of people in the corrections system have the opportunity to be housed in places like work-release centers.

In my three years at the Council of State Governments, it was clear that programs in prison to prepare inmates for release are not yet robust. Our national conversation on reentry is focused on community corrections, probation and parole. We haven’t really talked much about re-instituting work-release programs in prison. Remember that well over 90 percent of state and federal prisoners are released at some point, and between nine and 12 million people cycle in and out of jails each year.

More people should have the opportunity to use community resources before their release, under strict supervision. Even programs that purport to provide pre-release service don’t. Years ago, I visited the Baltimore pre-release center that housed about 300 people, but only about 30 or 35 were going out on a regular basis for jobs.

TCR: We hear about prisoners who finish their terms just being loaded on a bus. Is that what really happens?

LoBuglio: It used to be predominantly true, and it still is too often true. They might be given just $40 in “gate money.” Much of the support for better reentry procedures in the early 2000s came from reports that people in solitary confinement literally went from being in shackles and chains to being released into the community. In a good corrections system, you want people to be properly classified, for example starting in medium security general population and being able to have their security classifications “stepped-down” to minimum, and to be placed in work-release programs as they neared their release date.

The retrenchment in pre-release centers and the use of halfway-house beds has had an effect of constricting the overall functioning of the corrections system, and having too many individuals “stuck” at medium classification. There should be opportunities for people in prison to behave well, and that if they play by the rules, they should get commensurate privileges. Behavioral change is most likely to happen when you have a clear set of rules to go by.

Years ago, economist Anne Morrison Piehl of Rutgers University interviewed inmates at the Montgomery County Pre-Release Center and found that most all of them could recite from memory what actions they needed to perform to even receive small benefits. Her paper for the conservative think tank Manhattan Institute called the “Powers of Small Rewards” is a reminder that good corrections involves setting up a clear and fair system of rewards and sanctions to encourage behavioral change. If you have the possibility of getting work-release status for a person serving, say, five to seven years, that is a powerful inducement.

Studies of causes of disturbances in prisons have put lack of programming and lack of fairness for inmates at the top of the list. We’re not running correctional institutions as safely as we could. Doing it well provides an element of safety for corrections officers as well as for inmates.

TCR: We’ve mentioned the Second Chance Act. Some people may not realize that it was proposed and signed by President George W. Bush and was pushed by conservatives such as the late Charles Colson.

Editor’s Note: The late Charles Colson, an aide to President Richard Nixon, served seven months in prison in the Watergate scandal and later founded the Prison Fellowship.

LoBuglio: Yes, the Second Chance Act was a bipartisan measure that was co-sponsored by Vice President Mike Pence when he was in Congress in 2008. The main sponsors were Republican Rep. Rob Portman, later director of the Office of Management and Budget and now a U.S. Senator, and Senator Patrick Leahy from Vermont. There was a remarkable bipartisan consensus for Second Chance, supported also by faith-based organizations.

The law was an acknowledgement that the federal government has a role in determining what works to reduce recidivism. There was a recognition that recidivism rates of people who had been in prisons and jails was too high. Also, states and localities didn’t have the ability to do the research and development. The Second Chance Act helped establish research in this area. The correction system consumes an enormous part of state and local budgets, and almost all of that goes to staffing, building and health care.

The federal system used to be the gold standard in corrections systems, and one part of that was setting the bar high. The National Institute of Corrections [in the Justice Department] plays a role in raising the professionalism in the field. In 2008, there was a recognition that states and localities didn’t have enough information, knowledge and resources to do the experiments to figure out what works in corrections. The legislations provided the funding mechanism for the federal government to seed prisoner reentry of different types across the country. More than 800 programs have been funded.

About $500 million has been spent under the law since 2008. To help create and spread new knowledge, the National Reentry Resource Center was created in the Council of State Governments Justice Center, which has run it since 2009. The spending under the law is a relatively small figure, but it is significant because corrections is an $88 billion annual enterprise – this part of it represents the R&D. Without it, there would be nothing. The law plays the role of a catalyst in reentry. There are about 5,000 total correctional institutions in this country including 3,000 county and municipal jails. Not many states have had a major commitment to rehabilitation. In some states there has been a tradition of good corrections systems. Many states have not been able to keep up.

The federal prison system used to be known as the gold standard in corrections. It’s quite startling to see now how denuded the system has become. That has been true in state after state – a wholesale retrenchment in programming. We now have the ability to rebuild the programming infrastructure based on sound evidence. We are much smarter in 2018, knowing much better what we should see in corrections.

The Council of State Governments Justice Center held a “50-state summit” on corrections last November, when Georgia Supreme Court Justice Michael Boggs talked about significant reforms that the state has taken through Justice Reinvestment but he recognized that almost all of them to date dealt with nonviolent offenders. He explained that the next chapter of this work will need to address violent offenders. In 2018 we should be talking about what we can be doing regarding interventions with violent offenders who will be released. That subject needs a dramatic review. We are risk-averse because of Willie Horton-type cases.

As corrections populations nationwide have declined, we need better research to develop a full panoply of correctional innovations, especially because a large proportion of inmates in some correctional facilities are higher-risk people. Those people present generally more complex and more challenging cases.

TCR: The overall recidivism rate is often summarized as two-thirds to three-fourths of former inmates being rearrested in the three years after they are freed. Do we know if that general picture has changed?

LoBuglio: Some states have been able to reduce their recidivism rates. One way it happens is through changes in sanctioning policies so that there are intermediate steps before someone on probation winds up in custody. We have demonstrated that we’re able to reduce recidivism first and foremost through administrative action (changing revocation policy), but also through behavioral change.

Possibly the best study was done by the Urban Institute of Allegheny County, Pa., which found that participation by one group of inmates in a reentry program reduced recidivism by 30 percent.

What concerns me is that the national evaluations have not been very helpful in providing us with good advice. The challenge is to determine whether there are programs with sufficient quality and substance to make a difference. It is very challenging to maintain high quality programs with sufficient dosage. Some discussions with inmates, for example, may devolve into rap sessions. There are many implementation challenges. It’s difficult to give a probationer or parolee sufficient content to make a difference. People have many demands on them, such as maintaining a family. It’s much easier to help them if they are in a correctional setting.

TCR: Some experts have suggested that we should start preparing inmates to leave prison on the day they enter custody. Is that a worthy goal, and does any place actually try to do it?

LoBuglio: I agree with the theory. Some people even say that reentry preparation should begin when someone is arrested. Ideally, there should be a risk-need assessment of someone as soon as they enter custody and a programmatic plan developed. The best implementation of this that I’ve seen was done by Michael Ashe when he was sheriff of Hampden County, Massachusetts.

There used to be a belief that you can’t start the rehabilitation of individuals until 10 or 15 years down the line. Others say you can’t do much if the person is going to be in jail for only a week. What is the ideal period? This used to be referred as the Goldilocks problem: Is the period to short or too long for rehabilitation, and what is the “just right” period? Well, the answer is “do something” in every case, and recognize that it will be necessarily different based on resources and time remaining.The answer is an individualized treatment plan that takes into consideration sentence length and victims. Some people might have 10 years remaining to serve, but need lots of education and substance abuse treatment. You might have only 50 slots in a program and have to choose between a prisoner who has 20 years to serve and one with six months.

TCR: Where would you say that the U.S. stands generally on prisoner reentry?

LoBuglio: There has been dramatic change in some corrections systems that are paying attention and are focused on change. There have been great gains in the reduction of jail populations, but that can mean more challenges dealing with the people who remain in custody, who are much more difficult to deal with. We shouldn’t be surprised if those people have high rates of failure.

I think we need to look at systemic changes rather than programmatic ones.

We need to change the conditions of confinement, for example, so that some people don’t need to stay in prison so long on the front end, and we can focus on the high-risk individuals who remain there. We need a new type of facility that will wrap in medical and mental health treatment, and we must improve the collaboration between other agencies. We need more businesses as stakeholders. More businesses are rethinking their policies and hiring ex-offenders. It’s new and different to have them at the table—an important part of the conversation on reentry.

We also have more formerly incarcerated people taking part in reentry programs, bringing a level of reality to them.

There are many social service providers involved in prisoner reentry, but the quality of services is very uneven. If there were a rating service like “Yelp” in the social service area, that would be very helpful. It would be good to strengthen the social service community with a smaller number of providers with better quality services.

TCR: Have programs funded under the Second Chance Act been evaluated?

LoBuglio: The National Institute of Justice has published some, including one on recidivism last year, an October, an evaluation of seven programs.

TCR: What do you make of the Trump administration’s interest in prisoner reentry?

Ted Gest

Ted Gest

LoBuglio: They changed the name of the interagency council established during the Obama administration, to add the term “crime prevention.” It makes sense to have federal agencies working in concert on this issue. The important thing now is for Congress to reauthorize the Second Chance Act, which I’m hoping will happen with all of its bipartisan support.

Ted Gest is Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report and president of Criminal Justice Journalists. He welcomes readers’ comments.