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Transforming Prisoners by Transforming Prisons

By Dr. Michael Pittaro, Faculty Member, Criminal Justice, American Military University

I recently accepted an invitation from Rishabh Shrivastava, President of the Criminological Research and Development Organization (CRDO) in India, to be a guest speaker for a webinar, “Transforming Prisoners by Transforming Prisons: A Global Perspective.”

The CRDO is a “national organization concerned with criminology, embracing scholarly, scientific, and professional knowledge pertaining to the etiology, prevention, control, and treatment of crime and delinquency. This includes the measurement and detection of crime, legislation, the practice of criminal law, as well as a review of law enforcement, the judiciary, and corrections.”

The two-hour “live” webinar was held on Thursday, June 11 via Zoom. I was one of three featured speakers, including Dr. Shri Radhakant Saxena, former Director of India’s National Committee on Jail Reform, and Dr. Shubra Sanyal, India’s first female psychologist/criminologist who has studied prisoners and prisons for decades. Each speaker was allotted 15 to 20 minutes to discuss the strengths and deficiencies of their country’s prison system in rehabilitating and transforming prisoners and reducing recidivism rates in both countries.

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Our dialogue also delved into some of the common challenges that convicts confront in most societies, including stringent, lengthy sentences typically imposed on those deemed indigent by society’s standards. India has been advocating for transforming to the extended use of “open prisons,” a model that has been successfully implemented in Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Finland.

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An open prison, as explained in a 2017 Indian Express article is a “prison without walls, bars, and locks.” Open prisons are also referred to as minimum-security prisons, open-air camps, or prisons without bars.

While the Scandinavian model is intriguing, I am highly skeptical that we would find similar success in the U.S. transforming offenders and reducing recidivism if we implemented that particular model.

In the U.S., we recognize this type of structure as “minimum-security” facilities; however, open prisons are even less restrictive than our minimum-security prisons. Those of us who have worked in America’s prisons have likely let out a loud sigh of disbelief. How can that open prison possibly be a prison? As Americans, we are accustomed to steel bars, small cells, and bulky locking mechanisms.

The Indian Express article goes on to explain that transforming to open prisons includes less-stringent rules compared to what we in the United States are accustomed to. I acknowledge that I am an idealist at times, but I am also a realist. To me, comparing U.S. culture with the cultures of the Scandinavian countries, along with India, is like comparing apples to oranges.

Closed prisons, which likely include Americans’ vision of a prison, are still used in many countries, including India. But both of my fellow speakers advocated for the expansive use of open prisons, particularly for those who are amenable to treatment and have committed non-serious, non-violent crimes. For example, most drug and alcohol related crimes, most property crimes, and most cybercrimes. They reserved closed prisons for the truly incorrigible, violent offenders for which rehabilitation, reformation, and successful reintegration are unlikely for a number of reasons.

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However, the high-security prisons in Scandinavia and India are unlike America’s high-security or maximum security prisons. Journalist Doran Larson published an informative article in The Atlantic detailing his visits to four high-security prisons in Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland where he was surprised to see common areas that included table tennis, pool tables, steel darts, and aquariums along with artwork displayed openly.

According to Larson, the relatively relaxed prison environment not only benefits the prisoners, but also the officers who embrace both rehabilitative and security responsibilities. Each prisoner is assigned a “contact officer” who monitors and helps prepare the prisoners for reentering society. This practice was introduced partly to help officers avoid the physical and mental challenges of performing purely punitive functions. Those functions often lead to stress, hypertension, alcoholism, suicide and other job-related physical and mental ailments. No wonder the average life expectancy of American corrections officer is 59.

For the past 30 years, I have proudly served the American corrections system as both a practitioner and as an educator. I consider myself to be a progressive, open-minded, optimistic, visionary, but I am not convinced that the prison models described above would produce the same successful outcomes in the United States.

Our prisons tend to have a more diverse population than those in Scandinavia or India. The U.S. prison population includes many different racial and ethnic groups, extremist groups, and other groups that pose a threat to security and often employ violence as a means to an end. In addition, the United States has a lengthy history of violence. We’ve recently seen clear evidence of the systemic racism that exists at every stage of the U.S. criminal justice system from arrests to incarceration to capital punishment.

One glaring similarity likely shared by all countries is that the world’s prisons are filled with poor, under-educated, under-employed, young, males from a particular racial or ethnic minority group. I am reminded of Jeffrey Reiman’s book, The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison, which explains how the wealthy tend to avoid prison whereas the poor do not have the same social privileges in which status and reputation are largely defined by one’s income.

One of the many benefits of collaborating internationally as a criminologist is learning from one another. The challenges we as a global society face concerning crime, criminality, rehabilitation, reintegration, and recidivism are essentially universal.

The U.S. and India share more similarities than differences as far as criminogenic risk factors are concerned: poverty, lack of a formal education, lack of viable, sustainable vocational skills, poor self-image, deficient coping/resiliency skills, broken families, and disorganized communities.

These risk factors are virtually the same whether the prisoner is from India or the United States; therefore, we need to collaborate further on a global scale to truly investigate, assess, and implement programs and policies that have been shown to be effective in one country to see if the same outcome is possible in the other country.

We tend to look to our respective criminal justice systems for simple answers to complex social problems. Rather we should be employing the services, resources, and finances of governmental, non-governmental, and private industry. Crime transcends all social, political, geographical, and cultural boundaries.

The adage, which I now accept as true, “It takes a village to raise a child,” has merit here. Criminals are not born, they are made. As a social scientist, I subscribe to the notion that we are products of our social environment; therefore, we need to shift our attention from focusing almost exclusively on the back-end – punishment and rehabilitation of the convicted – to transforming to prevention and intervention of those most at-risk.

transformingAbout the Author: Dr. Michael Pittaro is an Associate Professor of Criminal Justice with American Military University and an Adjunct Professor at East Stroudsburg University. Dr. Pittaro is a criminal justice veteran, highly experienced in working with criminal offenders in a variety of institutional and non-institutional settings. Before pursuing a career in higher education, Dr. Pittaro worked in corrections administration. He also served as the Executive Director of an outpatient drug and alcohol facility and as Executive Director of a drug and alcohol prevention agency. Dr. Pittaro has been teaching at the university level (online and on-campus) for the past 18 years while also serving internationally as an author, editor, presenter, and subject matter expert. Dr. Pittaro holds a B.S. in Criminal Justice; an M.P.A. in Public Administration; and a Ph.D. in criminal justice. 

Dr. Michael Pittaro is faculty at AMU. He worked in corrections and as the executive director of an outpatient drug and alcohol facility. He has been teaching in higher education for 18+ years while also serving internationally as an author, editor, presenter, and SME. He holds a B.S. in Criminal Justice, an M.P.A. in Public Administration, and a Ph.D. in criminal justice.

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