Harsh and Frequent Prison Discipline Fuels Recidivism: Study

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Illustration courtesy Prison Policy Initiative

If correctional authorities want to reduce the odds that former incarcerees will return to prison, they should avoid “frivolous or harsh” punishments while they are behind bars, according to a study published in Criminology & Public Policy, a journal of the American Society of Criminology.

The study found that high rates of recidivism are associated with the frequent use of severe disciplinary sanctions, such as solitary confinement, that “ensnare” inmates in an anti-social environment that in turn makes it difficult for them to benefit from post-release counseling once they are out of prison.

Prison chiefs use a wide variety of sanctions to control or deter unruly behavior inside correctional facilities, ranging from administrative segregation (solitary) to the removal of privileges.

But the often reflexive use of such measures can be counterproductive, wrote study authors Ian A. Silver and Joseph L. Nedelec of the School of Criminal Justice at the University of Cincinnati.

“These punishments could have a detrimental effect on post-imprisonment recidivism because the sanctions generally result in the removal of prosocial opportunities for the inmates,” they observed.

“For instance, by removing inmates from treatment opportunities, correctional agencies could be diminishing the ability of inmates to develop meaningful behavioral change or generate interpersonal relationships with prosocial actors upon release.”

The authors based their findings on data collected during an evaluation of Ohio’s prison programs conducted by the University of Cincinnati Corrections Institute (UCCI), and incorporated earlier research suggesting a close link between prison punishment and recidivism.

By focusing on the frequency of punishments experienced by Ohio inmates, regardless of psychological or other factors that might have an influence on the kinds of sanctions or their severity, the authors found that the cumulative amount of disciplinary measures—a situation they described as “ensnarement during imprisonment”— was a critical factor in re-offending within one to three years of release.

The study, in effect, called for a dramatic change in the “punishment culture” that prison reformers and former inmates say characterizes most correctional facilities in the U.S.

“Considering that both the frequency and severity of negative life events could result in ensnarement within the antisocial lifestyle, correctional departments could limit ensnarement, and potentially recidivism, by avoiding the use of frivolous or harsh sanctions,” they wrote.

The authors cautioned that they were not advocating that correctional authorities avoid disciplinary measures altogether.

“At no point do we recommend endangering staff and (other) inmates to avoid the recidivistic effects of within-prison ensnarement,” they wrote.

But they recommended that sanctions be used in a “judicious and targeted manner to reduce potential system effects on future offending.”

That would include, for example, providing inmates with “evidence-based rehabilitation programming” even when they were being punished.

“Given that ensnarement results from reduced access to prosocial opportunities, correctional departments can redesign their sanctioning policies to maintain or increase pro-social opportunities while disciplining inmates,” they wrote.

They pointed out that repeated exposure to sanctions means inmates will have less consistent access to in-prison rehabilitation programs as well as reduced visitation rights—which in turn make it less likely that formerly incarcerated individuals will develop the social skills or behavioral control that are critical to becoming law-abiding citizens.

“Although the severity of sanctioning is important, the ensnarement hypothesis would argue that the frequency of within-prison sanctioning could influence subsequent antisocial tendencies to a higher degree than the severity of a single sanction,” the authors wrote.

The complete study can be downloaded here.

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