“The supreme aim of prison discipline is the reformation of criminals, not the infliction of vindictive suffering” (Declaration of Principles, 1870 National Congress on Penitentiary and Reformatory Discipline)
Nearly 150 years later, we are still having a debate about the purpose of prisons. There are a number of arguments to be made against the current use (and overuse) of prisons, including their dehumanizing culture and consequences. For this post, however, I start with three simple assumptions that are based not upon moral arguments but rather, proven facts:
- Harsh prison sentences do not have a deterrence effect;
- Prison do not effectively reduce the likelihood of future re-offense;
- Prisons are expensive.
Clearly, undoubtedly, there has to be a more effective, inexpensive, and humane way. Corrections needs to change.
Ingredients for Successful Corrections Change
In my last post, I shared both research and personal reflections on the ingredients to successful change initiatives. Here is a synthesis:
- Lead the Change- The institutional inertia of any large bureaucracy resists change. Corrections (and state government) leadership must commit themselves and invest personal capital and energy in order to inspire new approaches and practices.
- Respect the Data- Over time, Corrections has both accumulated and diluted an array of practices that at one point represented cutting-edge innovation. Many of these practices may be worth keeping, while others may be ineffective or even harmful. Evaluating and separating what works, from ‘the way we do things,’ is a critical step in a change process.
- Embrace Risk- Corrections change will require taking a risk and redefining the purpose of prisons; earning public support for the change; adopting new practices; and holding the institution and staff accountable to high-quality outcomes.
- Share Decision-Making– Corrections often relies on a top-down decision-making process. Establishing a readily transparent and inclusive process that meaningfully involves both leadership and line-staff will be critical to success.
- Build Consensus- ‘Corrections’ often actually includes a cluster of organizations with distinct challenges, cultures, and prerogatives. Finding cross-agency consensus around a plan for change will be essential for success.
- Listen and Inspire- Over the years, Corrections has pursued numerous change initiatives, often through top-down decisions. Corrections staff need to feel valued and have confidence that the institution is invested in their change.
This a lot to ask of any bureaucracy.
Where to Begin?
Let’s assume that the first essential bar has been cleared: Corrections and state leadership is committed to change… What next?
Start with Process: Before launching into the change-initiative, leadership and stakeholders should spend time developing and defining the change-process, exploring such questions as: who needs to be involved? who makes the decisions? how is information shared?
Consider a Restorative Approach: A restorative approach, when well-executed, can ensure a good process that creates and supports momentum for change. The restorative approach (do with…not to or for) focuses on relationships; is inclusive; creates space for honest dialogue; identifies shared values; promotes transparency in decision-making; shares power; and builds consensus.
Redefine Success: Corrections change initiatives should evaluate and embrace successful practices that are measured and tracked by outcomes data. These outcomes should redefine what a successful Corrections agency would look like externally, such as evidenced-based practices and reintegration outcomes; and internally, such as employee engagement and satisfaction. Ultimately, the success of any change initiative relies both on the practices and the people who implement the change.
Support and Accountability: Change is a process, not an event. Change-agents should plan for resistance: there is simply too much money, power, prestige, and systemic inertia at stake. If the change process is well-planned, however, and line-staff are respected for their experiences and expertise, resistance can be minimized. Leadership will need to support employee change with training resources and incentives; and hold people accountable to the desired change and outcomes.
Charting a Course to a Hopeful Corrections
Over the course of my career, I have repeatedly learned a fundamental lesson (often the hard way): we ignore process at our own peril. In the rush to save time, we launch initiatives without focusing on process; and then we almost inevitably spend a lot of time cleaning up the messes from bad process. Corrections change-makers should give careful consideration to building an inclusive, transparent, and supportive process that is balanced with high expectations and accountability.
Corrections can become a hopeful institution, fundamentally supporting peoples’ capacity to change their lives. A hopeful Corrections, in turn, will deliver services that not only create the conditions for change; they will be generating a wide-ranging ripple effect that supports children, families, and communities. We should aim for such reasonable goals.
In my next post, I will share some thoughts on transforming a prison facility with a restorative approach and practices.