The Magazine

Free at Last

What will happen as large numbers of ex-cons are released from prison?

Sep 9, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 48 • By ELI LEHRER
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What worked for the largely female population of welfare recipients can also work for the largely male population of prison inmates. "The work ethic is part of mainstream America," says Charlie Sullivan, a former Catholic priest who is the executive director of Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants, a left-leaning grass-roots group that promotes opportunities for prisoners to work. "When you can provide opportunities to work you can have prisoners learn what the rest of society does every day. They can begin to become breadwinners and help keep their families together rather than tearing them apart."

Work programs are effective. An Urban Institute literature review from May 2002 found that prisoners who work in paid jobs for 18 months or more do almost as well as those who do significant college level work. This is a surprising outcome since most prisoners can barely read when they enter the clink and only a small, highly motivated bunch can do college work. While the benefits of education are significant, it's much harder to force prisoners to learn than it is to force them to work. (Although requiring prisoners to become literate and earn GEDs is a good idea.)

At least one good model for prison labor already exists. The federal prison system, which requires all prisoners to work, allows particularly well behaved inmates to work in factories run by Federal Prison Industries. They produce everything from office furniture to pens for the government's use. The program also gives prisoners the opportunity to earn money for a nest egg upon release. Prisoners who misbehave lose out on the financial benefits and satisfaction of work. It's probably no coincidence that federal prisons have less violence and produce fewer recidivists than their counterparts on the state level. (Direct comparisons are a bit difficult since a larger percentage of federal inmates are educated white collar workers or sophisticated criminal kingpins.)

Indeed, work can change the entire atmosphere inside prisons. "When you have 50 or 100 jobs paying $5.15 an hour, it can set up lots of good competition within a prison," says Knut Rostad, the president of the Enterprise Prison Institute, a right-leaning group that promotes opportunities for prisoners to work for money. Of course, not everyone supports prison labor. Manufacturers and unions are united in their opposition to the cheap labor which prisoners supposedly provide. (Actually, added security costs and low worker productivity mean that prison labor costs are, at best, about the same as those in the outside world.) Indeed, a bill that would significantly weaken Federal Prison Industries has found supporters in both parties. But the political obstacles to more work by prisoners should not be insuperable.

Prisons should also hold inmates accountable for their behavior, particularly when it comes to drug use. Bureau of Justice Statistics studies from 1997 and 2000 show that over 50 percent of inmates used drugs in the month before their arrests and more than a third committed the crimes for which they are imprisoned while under the influence of narcotics. Despite regular searches, more than 10 percent of inmates test positive for drug use at any given time. Allowing prisoners to continue their drug use inside prison rewards this particular brand of law-breaking.

Those who fail drug tests should receive severe punishments, extra time added to their sentences, and plenty of coercive drug treatment. Most research shows that forced drug rehab programs actually work better than voluntary ones. What better time to mandate sober and drug free behavior than when they are supervised for 24 hours a day? A 2000 UCLA study found that regular drug testing reduces recidivism significantly. Even if it did not, forcing prisoners to stop using drugs they presumably enjoy seems like a more appropriate punishment than shutting down the weight room.

Even if prisons meet the tall order of socializing prisoners to the discipline of work and breaking them of their drug habits, cracking the recidivism problem will also require better follow-up from corrections professionals. Political scientist Edward Banfield famously argued that the real determinant of social class wasn't income as much as it was the ability to plan for the future. A great many criminals live from day to day and misbehave at least in part because they fail to recognize the long-term consequences of their actions. Forcing inmates to plan for their post-release lives could go a long way toward mitigating this problem and, perhaps, stopping them from repeating criminal behavior in the future. Every prisoner leaving the prison gates with the traditional bus ticket and cheap suit should also have a specific, detailed plan for his post-release life.