Give prisoners joy of work they choose

Joe Diament, the director of Community Corrections, is asking lawmakers to make sure they give incentives to prison programs that actually reduce recidivism. The Corrections Department opposes two House bills held for further study, HB 404 and HB 694, that would give inmates time off their minimum sentences for educational, treatment, vocational and parenting programs. 

Corrections Commissioner Bill Wrenn has warned that either bill could spur equal protection lawsuits from prisoners ineligible to earn time off through no fault of their own. Someone coded for special ed, for example, might have little chance of winning a GED or a bachelors degree. 

In an informal workshop with members of the House Criminal Justice Committee April 30, Diament introduced a new concern about the bills.  They might put heavy stress on otherwise worthy programs that correlate poorly with success outside the razor wire. They could also target the wrong inmates, Diament warned.  

Here was his counter-intuitive argument. There is robust research that a prison should stress programs that reduce addiction, criminal thinking, impulsiveness, anti-social attitudes, selfishness and association with people who have those problems. Those traits correlate with high recidivism. But there is less crime-prevention benefit, Diament said, from offerings that ease anxiety and low esteem, encourage creativity, foster mental health and boost physical fitness. 

Clinicians score all inmates early in their sentences with sophisticated risk assessment tools to discern the dangerous prisoners from those unlikely to return to prison, Diament said.. Rehabilitation should focus on the people most likely to continue in crime when they leave. Paradoxically, low risk prisoners are more prone to go bad if they face heavy programming demands. 

The prison should also provide needed programs to a prisoner in maybe the last two years of a long sentence and continue it on the outside when the person makes parole. That continuity of rehabilitation has the best impact, Diament suggested. Services in only one setting or the other are far less effective. Likewise, prisoners lose the benefits of therapy they complete too early in their sentences. The grind of prison erodes their gains. 

I have great respect for Joe Diament, but I would humbly suggest the programs incentivized by HB 404 would attack all of those bad habits of thinking and association that return prisoners to prison. The bill would do so by changing the inmate culture itself into one where prisoners work to improve themselves, take pride in doing it, and encourage others to learn, gain skills, become readers and better readers, and see themselves growing more marketable day by day to employers and future girlfriends who might become wives. 

A cellblock is full of boredom, anger and despair. Classrooms and workshops are far happier. Give prisoners meaningful work to do, and more of them might stay out for good. 

Let me digress to make a point. Forty years ago the state treated Lake Winnisquam with a chemical that killed an unsightly algae bloom. It was harmless to fish, according to robust research. But the fish all died. The rotting vegetation used all the oxygen in the water. Folks 30 miles away at the State House could smell the mistake.

It is my gut feeling based on experience as a teacher, parent, correctional counselor and prison volunteer that changing the culture of a prison is the best way to address the issues the state wants to focus on. I doubt if there is much research about that solution. It’s too complex and nuanced to measure. 

That is hardly not my original ideas. I learned it, among other sources, from a dozen trustees on the Inmate Communications Committee. Some state reps are going to meet with them May 1 at 10:30 a.m. I’ll report tomorrow on how it goes.