Monday, May 10, 2010

The New Rehabilitation?

The recent investigative pieces in the Sacramento Bee about behavior modification units have made me reflect again about the concept of rehabilitation. Whether the examples in the Sac Bee investigative report are outlier "rotten apples" or systematic abuse and neglect, they are certainly a reminder that rehabilitative/medical approaches do not necessarily imply benign coddling of inmates.

This would seem obvious, but the political realities of the correctional debate would suggest otherwise. As Francis Cullen argues here, rehabilitation has become a political counterweight to punitivism, as anything that can be rhetorically labeled "rehabilitation" might still garner public support and yet be less harmful than hopeless warehousing. Nevertheless, the usage of the term "rehabilitation" in rhetoric is very different from its application in practice. Elsewhere we discussed the tendency to accept the academic received wisdom that determinate sentencing is the root of all evil in U.S. corrections, and that in the "good old days" of indeterminate sentencing there was much attention to rehabilitation and betterment.

This nostalgia, according to people who studied the systems at the time, is misplaced; much of the support for determinate sentencing came from progressive circles, who were aware of the abuses and exploitation involved in the so-called rehabilitative scheme and hoped that the determinate sentencing system would be more benign. Moreover, even when rehabilitation was taken seriously, the techniques used were far from benign and "soft"; the history of corrections in the United States started with the Philadelphia and Auburn prisons, both of which used isolation as a technique to induce self-reflection and repentance (more so in Philadelphia, where inmates were kept in absolute seclusion from each other, ironically much like today's inmates at SHU and the behavior modification units).

The problem, therefore, lies not in our choice between punitivism and rehabilitation; it lies in the method we use to assess what might constitute rehabilitation. Over the years, we have implemented policies based on unfounded, untested assumptions about recidivism, repentance, and the like: isolation, tough love, confrontation with nature, have been tried not only in prison, but in various programs like reform schools and boot camps. The call for evidence-based rehabilitative programs is not about implementing benign or coddling programs; it is about implementing programs that have been proven, through careful assessment and sound methodology, to work in the real world. This is something that everyone concerned with rational resource allocation, on either side of the political map, should agree on. And until our resources focus on such programs, all we are doing, really, is warehousing our fellow Californians, and we should at least be honest about it.

1 comment:

flora victor said...

It seems like it is business as usual at CDCR. Where is the public outcry against the cruelty of the prison guards? Obviously Matt Cate and Arnold Schwarzenegger don't know what is going on in the prisons. And the silence from them on these horrors reveals a complete lack of concern for the human beings incarcerated under their watch.