Is the goal really rehabilitation in prisons?

MGN Online

When I think about rehabilitation now, outside of my own philosophy and ideas, what immediately comes to my mind is the movie “Birdman of Alcatraz.” Robert Stroud (Burt Lancaster) had a conversation with Warden Harvey where he eloquently told the warden why “the whole science of penology” is a failure. His points rang so true and were delivered with such controlled passion, I wanted to write to the warden of the prison I was in and implore her to watch the movie.

Rehabilitation is something I have thought about very seriously for the past 13 years. From what I’ve experienced, prison seems to be more concerned with making financial gains while punishing those convicted of crimes than it is concerned about ensuring people leave better than when they came in. Money is woven so tightly into the fabric of America’s prison systems (dare I say, the justice system, too) that when proposed policies that would result in releasing large numbers of truly rehabilitated people (and people who shouldn’t have been locked up to begin with) are brought up, one of the first reasons for rejecting them is the large number of jobs that would be lost.

What is rehabilitation? For me it’s healing, it’s bridging the divide between victim and perpetrator, it’s learning how to navigate and overcome circumstances of poverty, under-education, discrimination, and broken homes without hurting others during your journey—it’s investing in human capital. As the definition indicates, rehabilitation is about restoring one’s ability to function optimally in society. It comes from the word habituate, which means “to make fit or capable.” How do you restore a person’s capacity/ability to operate within the bounds of a civilized society?

In these institutions that we call prisons, there are programs offered (and mandated in many cases) that are pushed and lauded as “evidence-based” rehabilitation programming. The problem is, the overall environment and dynamic that these programs are operating within represent the worst of our civilized society. That is, most prison environments are a microcosm of the slums and crime-ridden areas of America.

Correctional officers remind young gang members of the gang life and mindset: They defend each other when they’re right or wrong, they lie on reports, they use intimidation tactics and they too have a “no snitching” culture amongst themselves. There are plenty of legal and illegal drugs available; no one seems to care about them and they are isolated and marginalized.

And selling drugs will always be more appealing to many from that lifestyle when their first experience with a job is forced labor for pennies an hour.

So having a bunch of programs, no matter how good, will never be as effective as they should be, because the system has not removed a person from the environment-the energy that fosters the ideologies and behavior that led to criminality.

They say “hurt people hurt people” and I believe that. This past April, I heard a restorative justice guest speaker say “healed people heal people.” I believe that, too. Hiring more correctional officers to guard prisoners isn’t going to make prisons safer or change the current rehabilitation climate, and it isn’t going to heal anyone. Hippocrates said, “Healing is a matter of time, but is sometimes also a matter of opportunity.”

Give us the opportunity to heal by changing prison’s approach to rehabilitation so it reflects an attitude that people, NOT profits are the priority.

Rehabilitation is a multifaceted process of healing that must be balanced in its approach. It can never be accomplished by placing people in inhumane and unnatural living conditions.

I wonder what comes to mind for most Americans when they think of rehabilitation. That’s assuming Americans are even thinking about it at all…

With the highest incarcerated population in the world, I hope a lot of people are.

Antonio Williams is an inmate at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Rush City.