Our prisons are called “correctional facilities.” Social science writer Daniel Goleman says this is “a tragic misnomer: nothing gets corrected.”
Indeed, prisons are crime schools. Rather than being “corrected,” young inmates learn to emulate more hardened ones, their antisocial psychology is reinforced, and their criminal skills enhanced. No wonder most, after release, soon return.
Crime is stupendously costly to society. What criminals rip off is only the start. The damage to victims tends to vastly exceed their monetary loss; some never shake off the trauma. We lose what criminals could contribute were they instead productive citizens. The whole criminal justice system is another gigantic cost. As is running the prison system.
People who work in the system like the status quo. And justifying their existence requires a constant supply of inmates. Turning minor offenders into hardened criminals is a good way to assure that.
But what if prisons truly were places of “correction?” Of course, that concept does encompass the idea of punishment; but also the idea of changing the behavior that incurred the punishment. Our prisons do the former but not the latter.
Goleman’s book Social Intelligence discusses a special pilot program to fill this gap. “Brad” was in prison for injuring a college classmate during a drunken binge. “Basically all the guys are in here because of a bad temper,” Brad said – “easily pissed off” and ruled by their anger and an “us-versus-them paranoia.” The special program sought to change that mentality, giving inmates daily seminars on topics like “telling the difference between actions based on ‘creative thinking, stinking thinking, or no thinking.’”
Goleman explains that this actually isn’t naïve utopianism, because the brain circuits for empathy and regulating emotional impulses – “perhaps the two most glaring deficiencies among the prison population” – are the last parts of the brain to mature. So the brains of inmates about 25 or younger can still be, well, corrected, into more socially desirable patterns.
It worked for Brad. Once released, he was a new man, returned to college, got a job, and detached from his previous loutish pals. Goleman also cites similar (and similarly rare) programs for social and emotional learning in schools that have likewise achieved big reductions in antisocial behavior.
(I’ve previously discussed Goleman’s writing about the “marshmallow test” for self-control and deferring gratification, so helpful for of adult life success, and how such positive traits can be taught.)
Programs like Brad’s would cost a tiny fraction (probably under 1%) of our huge prison budgets. Given the enormous cost of crime to society and the vast sums we spend locking people up, shouldn’t we be willing to spend 1% to keep them out of prison.*
A proposal in New York to give inmates college educations was shot down by public outrage. It did seem unfair to give criminals for free what poor, law-abiding folks struggle to achieve. But surely it makes sense to do something to re-educate prisoners and make them responsible citizens, to head off more crimes and all their associated costs. Currently we don’t even try.
*Another example of such lateral thinking: asked to review plans to spend billions on rail facilities to speed up trains, an economist proposed instead hiring super-models to go through trains handing out champagne and other treats. Most of the billions would be saved, and riders would not mind the slow trips – they’d want them longer!