The correctional system, in many ways, is failing to rehabilitate inmates and prepare them to reintegrate into society. Given that 95 percent of state inmates will leave prison (that’s about 650,000 ex-offenders released every year), approximately two-thirds of them will likely be rearrested within three years of release. Therefore, it’s imperative that correctional facilities improve educational and skill-building initiatives to help individual offenders successfully reintegrate into communities so they can stay out of prison. But how?
In this podcast series, Correcting Corrections, In Public Safety editor Leischen Stelter talks with Robert Hood, the former warden of the Supermax, who has spent more than 35 years working to reform inmates and reduce recidivism. Listen to the podcast to learn how his background as an educator inspired him to institute individualized education plans, or IEPs, for inmates and how he believes this strategy could be applied on a larger scale to help individual inmates successfully reenter society.
Listen to the Episode:
Read a transcript of the interview with Warden Robert Hood:
Leischen Stelter: Welcome to the podcast, In Public Safety Matters. I’m your host, Leischen Stelter. We’ve recently started a series of podcasts focusing on criminal justice reform, specifically looking at the field of corrections. We’re calling this new series Correcting Corrections and interviewing subject matter experts who have innovative ideas about how our correctional system may actually be reformed.
Today my guest is Robert Hood, who had a 35-year career in corrections, during which he held several wardenships, most notably as the warden of the federal Supermax facility in Colorado. For those of you who may not be familiar with the Supermax, it’s the nation’s highest-security prison that houses some of the most notorious inmates, including Terry Nichols, the Oklahoma City Bomber, Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, and many other high profile and dangerous criminals. Bob, welcome to In Public Safety Matters, and thank you for joining me.
Robert Hood: Thank you, Leischen, and I look forward to our discussion.
Leischen Stelter: So Bob, you had a very lengthy and impressive career in corrections, but you started out with a very different career path in mind. Can you talk a little bit about what led you into the field of corrections?
Robert Hood: Sure. I initially planned on being a school teacher or an administrator eventually, so I completed the obvious requirements, receiving a Bachelor’s in education, a Master’s in special education, and even some certificates like certified principal and superintendent of schools, all that kind of background. But I never spent a day in public schools.
The reason and the segue over to corrections was that during my student teaching experience, the college I was going to—what’s now called Rowan University in Glassboro, New Jersey—they had a special program with the New Jersey State Prison in Leesburg, and the nice part for me is instead of going to student teaching in a public school, I went into a maximum security prison.
So as a young college kid, I’m going in there, a little scared at first, of course, but going in there and loving it. Truly seeing a bunch of people that perhaps needed to be there at that time in their life, but 95% were coming home and being our neighbors. So that kind of a background started my career path in correctional education, and thank goodness after finishing college, within a few days, I was able to get a full-time position as a teacher in the Bordentown Youth Correctional Institution in New Jersey. I spent about 13 years of my career in correctional education.
Leischen Stelter: So you started out with an educator background and then working in prisons. Can you talk a little bit about how that educator mindset really influenced the programs that you initiated when you came into leadership roles within a correctional facility?
Robert Hood: Sure. I moved 12 times within my career and during those times I picked up a little bit here and there, whether it be as a correctional educator or as a chief of internal affairs and then as a warden. So I moved a lot, I learned a lot. But coming in with that background—that educational background—helped me hone in on my beliefs about how to treat inmates.
My belief in inmates is a little bit different than the average correctional administrator. For example, my belief system included that we must believe in man’s capacity to change, to change their behavior. That there’s inherent value in self-improvement programs such as education, whether or not there’s any verification that it’s related to recidivism. I believe that enhancing an inmate’s self-esteem is a legitimate opportunity for us.
I think once you understand that, when you realize you’re starting to look at inmates as people, first of all, and as your neighbors knowing that 95% are coming out of prison, I guess I looked at the problem as a teacher and I thought, well, can I apply something, some toolbox, some skills or some tools that I have as a teacher and slide them into my belief system and the way I interacted with staff and inmates?
Leischen Stelter: Bob, can you tell us a little bit about the specifics of how you applied an educational mindset to helping inmates? Can you talk about the concept of the individualized education plan or an IEP, which is something very common in education and how that applies in a correctional facility?
Robert Hood: Sure. The public schools of course use an IEP as a plan to ensure that you can identify students who might have a disability or need special instruction and related services. To be candid, I used it on myself, first of all, as a college student and also as an administrator, thinking, okay, what are my weaknesses? What do I need to work on? What resources do I need as a person? Then I was applying that concept to my staff, not thinking IEP, I was just kind of using the common sense of it.
But then at some point in time I realized, gosh, we’re all the same whether you’re the warden, the staff members, or the inmates. So I looked at the typical individualized education plan and kind of looked at it more like an entry plan for inmates coming back home. I didn’t necessarily even think about IEP as the education plan, but I segued it over and realized, let me look at some problems we’re having at the institution or on the national level and try to zero down to some problems we’re having with our inmates.
Let me give you an example of that. I looked at the national problem we had, at least in the federal system. I’ll focus on that, with people not having their GEDs or high school diploma. Even though it’s a very impressive group we have in the federal system of inmates, we have 60% of our inmates with GEDs, but about 30% or more need them and about 10% are enrolled in some program that’s trying to get them.
So I looked at that. I simply looked at the need and then I started looking at individuals. Let me give you an example right from the Supermax, which is one of the hardest populations to work with when you’re thinking of re-entry, because most don’t reenter. I looked at an inmate who was doing life plus, many years, never going home. He didn’t have a GED. He had limited interaction with staff. He was a terrorist, to be candid, I just won’t recognize his name because I don’t think it’s appropriate.
Staff members didn’t necessarily love this guy. Most people, if I mentioned his name, wouldn’t love him because of what he’s done. But he did have a family member in another country, a mother who still believed in him and wanted to visit. So I looked at all those characteristics, thinking as a teacher more so, and then also as a warden, and I realized, okay, let me sit down with this guy and say, “Guess what? If you can have no incident reports, no misconduct as an inmate, if you can keep yourself clean,” which sounds like a minor thing to the listeners, but it’s a big deal for me, inside of a prison setting. “Also if you can work on your GED, I’ll approve an international visit.”
It’s a verbal contract, basically. It’s an IEP. In one sense I realized the weakness, this guy has all these negatives, sitting in this cell 23 hours a day for the rest of his life. Why would even want a GED? So it’s almost like coming up with a need for the system, but also bringing it down to the person.
Now look to the resources. We have teachers who go around to the cells, we have materials, etc, etc. So this contract, if you will, this IEP, was implemented for a short period of time. The inmate didn’t receive incident reports, he had a clean cell, he showed respect for staff and, ironically, he was able to pass all the five sections with the GED studies and take the test and earn an unbelievably high score.
So again, I looked at those examples. I realized that regardless if you’re one of the 600,000 state and federal inmates coming home every single year, I can use this for the individual inmate, but I can also use it for a larger scope, like inmates in general getting the GED, and it was a win-win. I was getting a more compliant inmate. A person who woke up in the morning, was studying, was working with our staff, had some contact with their family members. I think that’s the teacher in me coming out and I think overall, I know overall it was a plus for the inmate, to staff, and of course myself as the manager.
Leischen Stelter: I’m curious too about some of the hurdles that you might have encountered when you were trying to put this policy or this kind of program in place. Was there some resistance either by the inmates or by the staff about taking this kind of approach?
Robert Hood: Definitely, definitely, and I knew that. Prior to going to the Supermax I was warden of several other prisons, but there are more program-oriented prisons. But even in those facilities you have a separation between custody and the program staff, and so even though well-intended, if you’re the captain of security, versus the educator or the psychologist or the vocational training administrator, it’s a different mindset. You’re going in there with different responsibilities.
So in every prison I’ve ever been to, and I’ve been to hundreds of them around the world, you do have that separation. So when I come in as a person with an education degree, which is abnormal to begin with, and then I walk in and I’m starting to slide in these programs. Yes, resistance definitely occurred from the staff. You basically say, “Here’s why I’m doing it.”
I think the most important thing is to look at the basic tenants of running a prison, the success areas that you can measure. So you look at the idleness, you look at the suicide attempts, you look at the simple and serious assaults on staff, and when you start measuring those long-term, and you start saying, “The guys enrolled in academic classes or vocational classes or leisure activities, are far less dangerous and far more productive when they get out, if they are going to get out.” That’s something that you can’t argue with.
You might not like what I’m doing as a staff member, but you eventually see the rewards of it. The inmates, some are paranoid to the point that they think, oh gosh, what is this guy doing? But after a period of time when you see them each and every day, you get out of your office, you manage by walking around and talking to these guys. You realize, hey, they’re the ones with the families. They’re the individuals without their GED or adult basic education or English as a second language, and all you’re doing is trying to bring something to help them with that idleness and prepare them for the streets.
Leischen Stelter: I want to talk about this on a larger scale because we really are trying to address and talk about criminal justice reform, which I think a lot of these measures are all aiming to improve the system as a whole. I think when you’re talking about improving education or even just addressing the individual needs of inmates, so whether that’s improving their education or improving their social behavior, or just addressing other weaknesses that they may have. Do you think that this is something that could be scaled on a really large level? I mean, like you said, there’s 600,000 inmates leaving across the country every year. Is this a program that could be applied on a widespread scale?
Robert Hood: Definitely, but I want to maybe qualify by saying that all correctional systems, all 50 states and of course the federal government and some of the local facilities, they have academic and some vocational and social programs, so I’m not suggesting that this isn’t occurring. I think the difference is that the main emphasis has been on low security inmates. The guys who are coming home. You can’t invest in the ones you want to succeed because they’re getting ready to leave the door.
I know it could be done, IEPs or whatever you want to call it, could be an applied and maybe you look at it as an individualized entry plan or some people will say, they still want to get the custody word in there, they would say inmate entry plan for an IEP, whatever you want to call it. We have to look at the 2.3 million people that we have incarcerated in this country and realize they’re coming home, and so can it be enrolled out in a different way? Can it be rolled out where it’s more on a contractual arrangement with the inmate.
Each person’s different. I don’t treat all the inmates the same any more than I treat people in the free world the same. I think by being sensitive to their personality differences, their cultural backgrounds, their lifestyles, education levels. I think once we look at them as people and apply a prescription nationwide, apply a prescription that says, “Guess what, you have kids. We want you to take some childcare classes. If you’ve had a problem, domestic issues with your spouse or loved one, whatever, we need alternatives to violence classes or whatever,” so it’s almost like don’t just slop them in a classroom and say, “Here, learn something,” just because it looks good for a parole board.
Sometimes you just have to look at the individual and say, “What do you want?” If you don’t want to go home, fine. That’s a whole different story. But most people do and let’s work with them. I think we need to do that, but also look at people that don’t go home. Some people just have sentences that say they will never get home. We have 10,000 people today in federal prison custody that are in special housing units. They’re locked down. They’re in restrictive housing. They can’t get around to other inmates, and over 100,000 in state and federal areas. Sometimes you have to look in the mirror too and say, well, what’s the game plan for them?
My background in special education helps because I know a lot of inmates come to prison and don’t have the ability to take orders, don’t have the ability to sit in a classroom, and sometimes they get in trouble because of that lack of understanding. I believe an IEP can work across the system, but I think we need to stop putting reentry programs at the tail end of the sentence. Reentry programs need to be on day one. Welcome to the bureau prisons, or welcome to the state prison system or the local jail, our game plan is to get you home better than when you came in and gets you back with your family.
By doing those IEPs, including life skills and strategies to change behavior, I think that’s very workable. It is a mindset. It’s including custody people, including treatment professionals and getting them all on the same page to say, “Come on guys. Do you want a safer prison? Let’s look at these guys as people and let’s have education program, vocational program and leisure activities, etc.” Regardless of whether there’s a direct correlation with recidivism, everybody wants to make sure no one comes back and I get that. But during my career of 35 years or so, clearly I didn’t worry about that number as much as trying to help every individual, and do the best you can.
Leischen Stelter: You’ve sat in the big chair in the big office and I’m wondering what you’ve seen, in terms of the mindset of a lot of administrators, because as you mentioned, this is something that could be very doable but would require everyone coming on board and agreeing that this is a really good strategy to make big changes within our correctional system. Do you have any thoughts on what it would take for administrators to really change that mindset? Is it showing them some of these statistics? Is it demonstrating that this can work in certain facilities, or what do you think really needs to happen to make those changes happen at the highest level?
Robert Hood: I think initially it’s by modeling the behavior for inmates and staff on what you want them to duplicate. So coming in and seeing that someone wants to use tear gas to stop an inmate from certain behavior or put them in certain restraints or things that we customarily do in corrections, it’s the different mindset to say, “Guess what? What is the issue? What’s the problem here? Who’s on duty?”
What I found myself doing with all the resistance I did get with certain staff members was sitting down and not formalizing their evaluation, but sitting down with kind of a self survey and just saying, “Hey John, on a one to five, how are you doing on your communications? How’s your responsiveness? If I ask you to do something or somebody asked you to do something, how are you doing with the professionalism of coming to work on time?” Some of the basics.
Then to say, “When’s the last time you sat in the back of a classroom?” If you’re in custody, I know you’re in the gun tower, I know you go down to food service, I know you do this and that. But what I found myself doing is holding people accountable. All my department heads. I want the custody people to become more program oriented. I wanted the program people, to remember they’re still security first, at least in the federal system where all federal law enforcement people, regardless of our program background.
So what I found myself doing is doing that kind of a prescription for the staff and now they realize, wow, they’re getting something out of this. Let’s try it with the inmates. I do seminars all over the country and then I’ll be honest with you, if they don’t want to listen to suggestions, that’s fine. But normally when you say, “I’m the former Supermax warden,” they listen and when you say, “Guess what? However you run your prison, that’s your business as a warden. But look at your assaults on staff. Look at your suicide attempts or actual suicides. Look at the atmosphere in your prison, the social climate.” All prisons do this. You’re measuring that anyway. Insert some things we’re talking about. Whether you want to call them IEPs or just humanity into a setting that’s not designed for humanity perhaps. Do it and then measure it.
You can’t debate it really. When you really look at it. I don’t have to have charts and graphs, but maybe because as an educator I come in with that mindset, I like to tell the wardens at the local level, the state level and federal level. I go to conferences all over the country and when I speak to them it’s, “Hey, do you want a safer prison or not? Isn’t our objective make sure we go home to our families each and every day and we have a safer place to go to work?”
When you really get down to why we do this stuff as a country and as a correctional system, we’ve got to emphasize what you’re doing now with this program, looking at correcting corrections. It’s not a great system. We have some issues. Now we just need to look in the mirror and say, “Hey, if you’re an old time custody guy and you’re not even concerned about programs, slow down a little bit and realize that’s as important as your tear gas. That’s important has your gun tower.” I think when people realize that, they buy into it maybe not as quick as I would like, but from my experience, once they see the value, they emulate the value.
Leischen Stelter: I really like how you talk a lot about personalizing, making these programs personalized for both inmates and staff, addressing the needs of individuals within this whole system and also the humanity of it. Because as you said earlier, a lot of the vast majority of inmates are going home, and if they have an experience in the correctional system that’s not terrible, that actually is looking out for them as a person and helping them to reform their past behavior and make them a better person as we send them back into society, that’s going to benefit everyone, from them as an individual and then the rest of us out, in terms of enhancing public safety.
I think like you said, there’s almost no argument against doing something like that except just figuring out the best program to put in place, the resources and as you mentioned, most facilities have a lot of resources dedicated to education anyway. It’s just maybe structuring it a little bit differently or changing the mindset. It’s innovative and yet common sense at the same time. Is there anything else that you want to talk about, in terms of this kind of educational approach? Anything we didn’t talk about?
Robert Hood: Yeah, I guess just clarifying people’s perception of inmates. Some inmates, many inmates are very intelligent, very knowledgeable and we shouldn’t be threatened by that as staff or the members of the public. We should capitalize on their skills. Again, they’re coming home, 95% are coming home. Many of them are great people, they just messed up and therefore they’re doing time in prison.
But I think what I have learned as a teacher, using the IEP method and then of course running various prisons, fairly successfully, it doesn’t make a difference if the person is a terrorist or the person is in for white collar crime. They’re a person that you need to look at their individual skills and abilities and say, “Hey, what do you want to do with that person?” If they’re never coming home, I still want them to be civil. I still want them to have respect for staff.
Get out of your office as an administrator and talk to the inmates, find out what makes them click and even if the objective is, “Hey, why should I get a GED? I’m not going home. Why should I be respectful to staff? Sometimes the staff aren’t respectful me.” I get all those things. Most prison administrators do get it.
But if your game plan is to get out of the Supermax, to get out of a major penitentiary some day, their reentry might not be in society, might not be for your neighborhood, but it might be just one of the 10,000 inmates in federal custody that’s locked up in a special housing unit or the 100,000 that are locked up around the country in various prisons that don’t see daylight pretty much.
Even for those folks, we need to come up with an IEP and it sounds minor, but it’s the right thing to do. It’s a humane thing to do and also it’s important to consider the victims. It’s kind of hard to say “Rah, rah, rah, let’s do this and that and have IEPs,” when we have people out there that are hurting because of these crimes. But part of that is you open the prison as much as possible and you let people see some of the value. Whether people like it or not, 95% are going to be your neighbors, so it’s a different mindset and I think that’s where the education background and my career path has helped more so than hurt me.
Leischen Stelter: Well Bob, thank you so much for sharing your perspective and your expertise. I think there’s a lot to learn here and a lot to apply about how we can really reform the correctional system and the criminal justice system in general. So thank you for joining me for this episode of Correcting Corrections on In Public Safety Matters.
Robert Hood: Well, thank you very much.
Leischen Stelter: Thank you to our listeners for joining us. You can learn more about this topic and similar issues in corrections and criminal justice by signing up for In Public Safety’s bimonthly newsletter. Thanks again, and be well, and stay safe.