Can People Change for the Better in Prison?

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There is an abundance of evidence on the negative consequences of incarceration, but what is less understood is how individuals can thrive and change for the better in prison.

The scarcity of research in this area may be due to the concern that this type of work would be interpreted as an endorsement of imprisonment.

There are 2.3 million individuals held in our prisons and jails in the United States. Despite valiant efforts to reimagine justice and reduce our over-reliance on incarceration, the notable increases in imprisonment rates that occurred over nearly four decades are unlikely to be reversed overnight. For this reason, it is essential to turn (at least part of) our attention to the well-being of the men and women who find themselves behind bars.

Research and policies have particularly overlooked prisoners serving long or life sentences. Desistance from crime, broadly defined as the process leading to the abandonment of criminal behavior, has seldom been studied inside prison walls.

book coverFocusing solely on the negative repercussions of imprisonment helps us understand what not to do, but it does not tell us how can we do things better. More importantly, it offers very little guidance to the millions of men and women who find themselves locked up across the world.

In this spirit, a recent study I published sought to understand how some individuals succeed in achieving positive transformation over the course of a long prison sentence, and under seemingly impossible circumstances.

Here are some key takeaways from my longitudinal research of 50 long-term prisoners.

Prison misconduct doesn’t always indicate a heightened risk of recidivism

Desistance researchers have often argued that the process of desistance from crime is far more than the mere absence of recidivism. This is also true in the context of desistance from crime in prison.

While prison misconduct has been linked to recidivism and remains one of the guiding criteria in parole decisions, we often ignore the circumstances underlying the misbehaviors. Individuals may engage in disciplinary conduct to maintain social ties, or to access legitimate resources that would facilitate a smoother transition to the outside world.

Ironically, these infractions may also result in parole denial.

Given the restrictive nature of the prison environment, misconduct and rule violations tend to be ubiquitous, and may not provide the best indicator of desistance efforts.

The root cause of sustained violence is unresolved trauma and suffering

When we speak of prison and trauma, we often refer to the traumatic experience of imprisonment. However, individuals hardly enter prison with “clean slates.”

Many prisoners were exposed to significant adverse circumstances early in their lives. More than a third of the prisoners in the study were placed in foster care during childhood or adolescence. All participants experienced at least one victimization incident prior to prison. On average, they reported approximately eight different types of traumatic incidents, and most of these experiences occurred on more than one occasion.

These events have frequently generated fear, helplessness, or horror—indicating a particularly high potential for PTSD. Almost one-third of prisoners reported having been victims of sexual assault or attempted sexual assault before prison.

The legacy of pre-prison trauma is significant. Individuals who experienced physical and sexual abuse often grapple with anxiety and depression, feeling unsafe, a sense of discomfort with situations that are outside of their control (which are frequent occurrences in the prison environment), and troubled interactions with others.

Positive transformation in prison is possible, but it requires an inordinate amount of motivation, willpower and resilience

Individuals who make progress in giving up harmful behaviors (including crime) eventually cease to avoid their pain and dive deep into an exploration of their suffering.

They use past trauma and adversity as an opportunity to learn, heal, and grow. They acknowledge their share of responsibility in the harm that they have caused to others, and to themselves. They remain open to change. They do not postpone their process of transformation to after release. They largely rely on themselves to hold up their efforts to desist from crime and achieve growth, and proactively seek out opportunities that may support them in this process.

They are less inclined to wait for others to “save” them. They engage in the introspective work required to obtain and maintain social sources of support, including family relationships and employment opportunities. They anticipate and prepare for the systemic impediments that come their way, in prison and after release.

But the current prison system is not designed to promote positive transformation.

Prison causes harm. It perpetuates the inequalities of the outside world. It breaks some part of everyone who is exposed to it. Self-betterment and desistance from crime in prison require extraordinary resolve, especially for those who carry heavy burdens of trauma and unresolved suffering. When prisoners succeed in achieving positive growth, it is largely a result of individual volition rather than institutional support.

Mental health care, when available, is often ill-adapted to the needs of prisoners. Steps to prepare for release are frequently incongruent with the realities of the outside world.

There is a clear disconnect between what is expected of prisoners and the resources made available to achieve these behavioral changes.

This is not to say that nothing is being done to help prisoners. For instance, educational programs and therapeutic communities in prison show great promise. However, these resources are not easily accessible in all facilities, and to all prisoners.

Historical oppression and social marginalization play a key role in understanding the process of desistance from crime

Individuals belonging to socially marginalized groups are confronted with unique and overwhelming obstacles. The feelings of social exclusion and the perceived limited opportunities for growth arise long before setting foot inside of a prison, and persist upon return to the community.

To truly understand the contemporary criminal justice practices of a nation, we need to examine its past, particularly as it pertains to historical patterns of colonization, oppression, and immigration. It is vital to recognize the distinctive social realities and challenges of historically marginalized groups.

Lila Kazemian

Lila Kazemian, Ph.D.

We can no longer sweep these issues under the rug. A serious conversation is needed about how to repair these historical harms.

 It is our social responsibility to advocate for criminal justice reform. However, this does not preclude us from simultaneously promoting individual growth, and providing our prisoners with the tools to flourish and to redeem themselves, behind bars and beyond.

In the end, every human being has an inherent right to redemption.

Lila Kazemian, Ph.D., is an associate professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Readers interested in obtaining a copy of her book can get a 20 percent discount by using the following code on the Routledge website: FLR40. Prof. Kazemian welcomes comments from readers.