Don Pesci: Why does prison so rarely rehabilitate convicts?


Down the Rabbit Hole:

How the Culture of Corrections Encourages Crime


By Brent McCall & Michael Liebowitz
Available at Amazon

Price: $12.95/softcover, 337 pages


Down the Rabbit Hole, a penological eye-opener, was written by two Connecticut prisoners, Brent McCall and Michael Liebowitz. Their book is an analytical work, not merely a page-turner prison drama, and it provides serious answers to the question: Why is reoffending a more likely outcome than rehabilitation in the wake of a prison sentence?

The multiple answers to this central question are not at all obvious. Before picking up the book, the reader would be well advised to shed his preconceptions and also slough off the highly misleading claims of prison officials concerning the efficacy of programs developed by dusty old experts who have never had an honest discussion with a real convict. Some of the experts are more convincing cons than the cons, possibly because prisoners, many of them victims of programs that do not reduce recidivism rates, are not credentialed. Most people in prison are graduates of the school of hard knocks, not Harvard.

McCall and Liebowitz, serious criminals, are mechanics uniquely situated to answer the question:  Why doesn’t rehabilitative imprisonment usually rehabilitate?

There are four criminological pillars to incarceration: incapacitation, punishment, deterrence, and rehabilitation. The authors find all four goals defensible, even desirable. However, the thesis of this book, very hard to dispute, is that only one engine, incapacitation, is pulling the train.

Punishment, in their view, does not rehabilitate because in most cases punishment is not viewed by prisoners as punishment: “We witness it every day. In a nutshell: prisons are often too comfortable; discipline is frequently too lax, inconsistent and arbitrary; and the staff generally doesn’t take rehabilitative programs any more seriously than the inmates do.”

The four goals of incarceration can only be met “… if there is proper implementation. When offenders are allowed to lay back in the relative comfort of an air conditioned cell watching color TV, listening to CD’s or playing video games, it can hardly be considered severe enough punishment to deter anything. Hell, that’s what most of the guys in prison enjoyed doing prior to their incarcerations. Couple this with the fact that inmates know that the vast majority of rule violations they commit will be ignored – even when committed in clear view and with the full knowledge of institutional staff members –and that effectively there are no performance expectations placed on them in either their job assignments or the programs they take – and you have a veritable recipe for failure.”

Young students confronting authority demands engage in what used to be called, before the collapse of public education, “reality-testing.” Will the authority figure apply his sanction equably? Will he apply it at all? If not, the efficacy of the sanction disappears. More destructively, the failure to apply sanctions will be interpreted as a failure of will and a sanctioning of illicit behavior. Sanctions unapplied or indifferently applied are, quite literally, dead.

The book finds that attempts to change rooted behavior in criminals fail for two principle reasons: 1) the content of the reform is wrong. You cannot teach dolphins to play pianos; better to teach them how to swim; 2) the messenger is wrong. Many of the messengers, and prison officials teach every day through example, are poorly instructed and fatally disengaged in what should be a primary mission -- changing the culture of prisons.

The authors note that the arc of penology, driven by perceptions of failure, has in the past moved between deceivingly opposite poles. “Every twenty years or so,”  they write, “the pendulum swings from an ostensible focus on rehabilitation, with its apparent emphasis on prison programs, job training and compassion towards offenders, to get tough on crime policies, which supposedly means longer sentences and harsher prison conditions.”

This is a false either-or: “Firm condemnation of offenders and rehabilitative efforts can go hand in hand… punishment and reforms are not mutually exclusive objectives. In fact, punishment, or the threat of punishment is crucial to generating the motivation to change.” The culprit in prisoner reform – the authors assiduously avoid the word “rehabilitation” -- is an unjust and random implementation of both sanctions and reform efforts. As in the broader society, culture -- the real-time application of both punishments and reform efforts -- determines the success of penological programs.

Down the Rabbit Hole, suffused with hope, is remarkably free of bitterness. Still, an honest review of the tangle of unworkable prison reforms that do little to reduce the recidivism rate in Connecticut or other prisons -- "Statistics show that 67.8% of inmates released from prison nationwide are charged with at least one serious new crime within three years of their release" -- calls forth this sulfurous appraisal: “During the course of a single prison sentence, the offender can attend a series of programs that convey fundamentally different and often contradictory ideas about what the cause of his criminality is and what is required of him to correct it. In one program, he is told that he is the hapless victim of an inherently unfair societal power structure and that he simply needs to be open to the benevolent intervention of an inscrutable cosmic force. Another program teaches that he is the victim of a pernicious disease that robs him of the ability to choose and induces him to behave poorly. Still another program informs him that he is really just the victim of a cruel world that has mistreated him from birth and continues to fail to acknowledge his innate goodness, thus causing him to express himself through artificial sub-personalities he was forced to create in an effort to merely survive… And every once in a while, someone might mention that he needs to take responsibility and correct his thinking errors – though how exactly that is to be accomplished puzzles even those offering the admonition.”

The book offers constructive remedies. What is wanting in the confusing slop of pretend-reform programs is a conversion regimen that will purge the demons within that thrive on confusion, disorder and despair. There is life and hope at the end of the rabbit hole. The book, which pulls no punches and is what politicians might call a “frank and honest” discussion of life behind bars, is an easy read, free of suffocating academic jargon, though some destructive reform remedies do not survive the authors’ petri dish.

The audience targeted by the authors is the general public, and the book itself may best be appreciated as a message in a bottle sent to the wide world by Robinson Caruso, who is best able to provide the reader with the clearest understanding of Caruso’s island, which regularly ships island dwellers, hopefully reformed, to the mainland.

Don Pesci is a Vernon, Conn.-based columnist and frequent contributor to New England Diary.