By Jinnie Chua, Assistant Editor of In Public Safety
Time and time again, studies and reports describe how America’s prison system is broken. The United States still has the highest incarceration rate in the world, harsh sentencing for non-violent drug offenses continues to be debated, and rehabilitation efforts remain by the wayside. These concerns are underscored by the grim reality that two-thirds of released prisoners are rearrested within three years.
The cycle of recidivism has obvious financial consequences—the U.S. spends $80 billion a year on incarceration—but also points to deeper fractures within a system that over-emphasizes incarceration and does little to support ex-offenders returning to their communities.
“If we keep having high recidivism rates, why do we call it a ‘correctional’ system?” said Robert Hood, who has held four wardenships over the course of his 42-year career in corrections. “If you’re only focused on custody and not reentry, you shouldn’t be working in this field.”
While the White House is currently working on reforming legislation to improve educational and reentry initiatives for prisoners, it is not clear who will lead the changes if the bill is passed. The top position at the Federal Bureau of Prisons remains vacant after the sudden resignation of Director Mark Inch last month. “You can’t be serious about changing a system if you’re not putting someone in there to take the lead,” said Hood. “Employees and inmates have no one to follow in attempts to develop reentry initiatives.”
While systematic prison reform may yet be a long and uncertain road, Hood encourages all wardens to look at what they can do now. Introducing educational programs and preparing inmates for successful reentry is not only a step towards reducing recidivism, but it’s also vital for creating a safer prison environment for both inmates and staff.
Preparation, Transition and Stabilization
“To reform prisoners we need to reform our philosophy to include reentry,” said Hood. “We need to have academic, vocational, social, and psychological support, but we can’t stop there.”
Hood’s background in education has always underpinned his approach to corrections. After obtaining his masters in special education, he began his career as a prison classroom instructor and eventually became warden of the Supermax, the most secure federal penitentiary in the country. Even at the Supermax, where most prisoners face no prospect of release, Hood saw the effectiveness of increasing communication and educational programs. Inmates behaved better, there were fewer incidents of inmates harming themselves, and staff safety increased.
“I don’t like their crimes or what they did, but now that they’re here what can I do to work with them?” said Hood. “If I can run the most secure prison in the world and still find the heart and humanity to work with those prisoners, in non-Supermax prisons that impact will be much greater.”
In addition to the Supermax, Hood held federal wardenships in Arizona, Oregon and Colorado. He developed a three-phase plan to help prisoners with successful reentry:
- Preparation – “Preparation for reentry needs to start on the first day of incarceration, not six months before they go home,” said Hood. He believes that inmates should have an individualized education plan (IEP), which is a tool he adopted from special education that helps individuals work on their strengths and weaknesses. “It’s almost like a social contract based on communication and positive reinforcement,” he explained. It requires getting to know inmates and setting goals based on what’s important to them. For example, if an inmate is a father, Hood might encourage him to complete parenting classes or a program on alternatives to violence in exchange for increased visitation hours. Other incentives could include a better housing unit or a new job in the prison.
- Transition – “We can’t say we want inmates to stay out of trouble and be self-sufficient without connecting them to the resources to do that,” said Hood. In addition to helping inmates find safe housing and a stable job, there are more immediate needs that often get overlooked. Inmates are released with the same belongings they had when they were incarcerated, so many don’t have valid ID, appropriate clothing, or access to a phone upon their release. Many prisoners spend decades behind bars, said Hood, and will need to be guided through processes like renewing their ID while they are still in prison. “Some of these guys are used to putting coins in payphones,” he added. “They may not even know how to work a cellphone.”
- Stabilization – “When they’re physically out there we can’t forget about them and say they’re not our problem,” said Hood. Instead, he suggested correctional staff work with probation and parole agencies to provide released prisoners with a continuum of care. This involves making sure they have access to halfway houses or drug treatment centers, as well as educating the public on why these facilities might be needed in local areas. “We’re sensitive to the fact the public is the victim in many ways, so we need to send correctional staff out into the communities and create some kind of understanding,” said Hood.
Involving the Community in Reentry Initiatives
More than 650,000 inmates are released from U.S. prisons every year. That’s almost 2,000 people every day. “The reality is these prisoners are going to be your neighbors, so we need a reentry game plan,” said Hood.
Perhaps one of the most successful reentry initiatives that Hood oversaw during his wardenship in Oregon was organizing job fairs where members of the public, including CEOs in many cases, were invited into the prison to meet and recruit inmates approaching the end of their sentences. In the lead up to the event, staff helped inmates write their resumes and coached them to improve their interview skills.
“The inmates cleaned up their uniforms, buttoned their shirts properly and, to be candid, every inmate did extremely well,” said Hood. “I could see the public was scared at first when they walked in, but it was amazing to watch that civility and humanity kick in and it was just like any other job fair.”
In addition to inviting the public into the prison, carefully selecting low-security inmates to participate in supervised programs out in the community can also help change the public’s perception of offenders. The key to getting the public on board, said Hood, is developing programs that cost little to nothing to run and are impossible to criticize. There are many reentry programs that can simultaneously educate offenders, prepare them for reentry, and give something back to the community.
Some of the programs and initiatives that Hood oversaw include:
- A woodwork workshop where inmates built desks, bookshelves, and furniture for government buildings or local schools
- A “Toys to Kids” program where inmates built thousands of toys a year to bring to the local children’s hospital
- A horticulture center for inmates to grow flowers to bring to nursing homes
- A forestry program where inmates cleared hiking paths for the public
- Sending inmates to clean up local schools and repaint their bleachers over the weekend
- Sending inmates out to distribute sandbags during a flood
- Talent shows that inmates’ families were invited to attend
- An inmate choir to sing with elderly folk during the holidays
“These kinds of things get to the heart of the inmate and it gets to the heart of the public,” said Hood. Without building these bridges between the prison and the community, prisoners are more likely to struggle to reintegrate. “The prison environment doesn’t replicate enough of the real world to let them successfully transition,” he said, which is why these programs are needed.
Improving Communication with Prisoners
To work on IEPs and encourage inmates to participate in educational programs, correctional officers must be willing to build relationships with prisoners. In prisons that are only focused on custody and security, this can be a difficult thing to inspire. However, having been in the position before, Hood knows that wardens can lead by example to change the mindsets of their staff and the attitudes of their prisoners.
With the Warden Exchange, Hood has conducted transformational leadership seminars for wardens with a variety of different philosophies. Although reentry initiatives are becoming the norm, he occasionally encounters those who are understandably resistant to the idea. “Some prisons are so reactive in nature where every day wardens are putting out the fires, the fistfights, the stabbings. They’re not thinking about reentry, they’re thinking about survival,” he said. “When I speak to those wardens, I say you don’t have to listen to me, keep doing what you’re doing, but it’s not working.”
Implementing change starts with better communication, said Hood. He encourages wardens and staff to personalize their approach to inmates by looking in their file or simply asking them questions about themselves. This is especially important for the IEP to work. Subtle changes such as referencing their family and calling them by their first name, rather than their last name or inmate number, can make a big difference.
“I don’t want them hanging around with the guys thinking about how to sneak in contraband. I don’t want them to get into the gangs. I want them thinking about family, community, things like that,” said Hood.
Ultimately, prisoners and staff are working towards the same objective – successful reentry. Not only does better communication set the foundation for reentry initiatives, but it also creates a safer prison environment. “We’ve got to realize we’re putting people at risk when we push or curse at an inmate and another officer gets harmed because that inmate’s angry,” said Hood. “How can we encourage them to change their behavior when they go home if we can’t do it in our prisons?”
Successful reentry initiatives are in the interest of inmates, correctional staff and the wider community. While prisons will always need to be disciplined, controlled environments, Hood believes it’s about striking a balance. From giving a prisoner a handshake to reinforce good behavior to working with the public on reentry initiatives, he hopes the correctional system will soon live up to its name.
About the Author: Jinnie Chua is assistant editor at In Public Safety, an American Military University sponsored website. She graduated from New York University in 2016 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism and Sociology. At In Public Safety, Jinnie covers issues and trends relevant to professionals in law enforcement, fire services, emergency management and national security. She can be reached at IPSauthor@apus.edu. For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.