Want to Reduce Recidivism? Stop Overcrowding Prisons: Researcher

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Improving prison environments can help cut recidivism rates, according to a study of facilities in Colombia.

A comparison of two prisons between 2009 and 2016, one of them newly built and the other an older facility, showed the probability of returning to custody for those incarcerated in the new prison was between 33 percent and 40 percent lower than for the older one.

The study results show that “more severe prison conditions increase the risk of recidivism,” said study author Santiago Tobón, an economics professor at the Universidad EAFIT in Medellín, Colombia.

“The results suggest that it is mainly the extent of unsupervised criminal contact—as opposed to the participation in rehabilitation programs—[that is] the relevant mechanism linking more severe prison conditions with recidivism outcomes.”

Tobón said the study, published by Colombia’s Centro de Investigaciones Económics y Financieras, is the first to “exploit quasi-experimental assignment of inmates to prisons to study the effects of prison.”

High recidivism rates are a major issue in Latin America, the author said, noting the region hosts 43 of the 50 most dangerous cities in the world, and accounts for more than one-third of the world’s homicides with only 8 percent of the population.

Tobón looked at general statistical trends of recidivism and cross-referenced them with the care individuals were receiving while incarcerated in Colombia. He measured recidivism by looking at whether or not inmates returned to prison within one year after being released.

One trigger to his study was the launch of a new prison construction program during the period.

Data from the National Prison Institute of Colombia (INPEC) showed that the quality of resources between newer constructed prisons far outpaced the quality of resources inmates were receiving in older built prisons.

A big part of this discrepancy has to do with prison capacity, Tobón explained.

For instance, the overall prison population in Colombia grew by one-third over a three-year span.

In 2016, the older, more run-down, prisons held a prison population that was six times larger than capacity. In those older prisons as well, 20 percent fewer inmates enrolled in rehabilitation programs when compared to enrollment in newly constructed facilities, Tobón found.

In the new Colombian prisons, Tobón found that cells held fewer inmates with less crowding, and provided more access to programs. In older prisons, on the other hand, “many inmates have repeated, unsupervised contact with other criminals, and have poor or no access to health, education or rehabilitation services, clean water or food, or even enough physical space,” Tobón wrote.

For the study, he focused on two prisons in Medellín, Colombia’s second-largest city. Both prisons receive generally the same support from the city budget, but they receive different levels of funding from the National Prison Institute of Colombia (INPEC).

The first prison, “Bellavista,” built in 1976, is very old by infrastructure standards. In 2016, Bellavista held about 6,000 inmates, despite having a capacity of 2,400.

The second, newer, prison, known as “Pedregal,” opened in 2011 and has only 3,400 inmates with the same capacity of 2,400.

Tobón found that the Pedregal prison had structured rehabilitation programs, where inmates received “intense training in personal finance, entrepreneurship, non-cognitive skills management, and many other skills.”

Bellavista inmates didn’t have access to any of those programs.

After looking at data that detailed individual information regarding inmate intake and cross-referencing that to see if the inmate had been in prison within the year, Tobón concluded that more severe prison conditions increase the risk of recidivism.

The main conclusion Tobón drew was the need for more investment in prison infrastructure to improve conditions in older facilities.

He also suggested releasing those who are at a lower recidivism risk, namely individuals with low sentences and no prior criminal or violent history.

Many U.S. researchers have called for dramatically transforming prison environments to improve inmates’ chances for rehabilitation. Many point to prisons in Scandinavia and Germany as examples, but critics say the costs of overhauling American prisons—much less building new ones—is prohibitive for state corrections budgets.

“The crisis of mass incarceration is architectural as well as moral,” Jeffrey Mansfield, design director for the Mass Design Group’s Restorative Justice Lab, told a conference at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in February.

Mansfield joined other speakers in arguing that better and more “humane” design will not only reduce the harm caused by the industrial-style, “warehouse” facilities built to house the growing incarcerated populations of America during the 1970s and 1980s, but can play a role in cutting recidivism.

The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections is currently involved in a pilot program to remodel a housing unit at the Chester State Correctional Institution, based on the Scandinavian model. The unit will house prisoners in single-cell units containing a fridge and TV, and will resemble a sparsely furnished study.

Staffing in the unit will also change from one corrections officer to 125 inmates to three officers per 64 inmates over three shifts.

Marirosa Lamas, the prison warden, told the conference that she hopes the project will prove that design changes can make a difference to environments that are as unhealthy for corrections officers as they are to inmates.

“We’re failing miserably,” she said. “We can go nowhere but up.”

Tobón said his findings show that even investing more funds in existing prison infrastructure can produce good results.

“This alternative is especially important in settings where budget constraints leave fewer policy levers for governments, or where institutions make it too difficult to implement broader changes in the prison system, (such as building new prisons).”

The Colombia study can be accessed here.

TCR staff writer Andrea Cipriano contributed to this summary.

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