A Literature Review: Inmates and the Effects on Recidivism Inmates and the Effects on Recidivism
History of Rehabilitation in American Prison Systems
Prison systems were initially intended to rehabilitate law breakers and release them back into society as law abiding citizens (Cullen & Gendreau, 2000, from Wines, 1871, p. 541)
Indeterminate sentencing was used as a motivational tool to conform. Release was based on good behavior.
Authorities of the time recognized the need for goals. When setting a determinate sentence period, inmates had no motivation to change; however, by varying sentences based on behavior, inmates worked harder to conform.
Focus was on training inmates with usable skills, correcting moral deficiency with religion, and expanding possibilities with education.
Isolation was found to be dehumanizing, which increased anti-social behavior.
Robert Martison published the “Nothing Works” doctrine in 1974 based on the very little research available at that time, which was confounded due to lack of reliable and validated independent variables and research techniques (Cullen & Gradreau, 2000).
Out of 231 studies claimed to be reviewed by Martison, only 55 were determined usable after reliable and validated categorized independent variables were applied.
Research studies compiled by Martison did not include cognitive behavioral programs and often had confounding with-in group variances due to lack of controls (Klockars, 1975).
Fueled by polictical upheaval of the 1970s and lack of trust in the government to protect its citizens, criminologists of the time adopted the “Nothing Works” doctrine.
The “Get Tough on Crime” platform swept the nation as politicians hoped to gain favor in voters by cleaning up the streets with an iron fist.
Psychologist trained in the Learning Theory saw an obvious flaw in the “Nothing Works” doctrine: People learn and adapt, so SOMETHING must work.
Martison recanted his statement in 1975, and though politicians and criminologists were already set on their path, psychology took a step back and refocused their research on what causes recidivism.
Recidivism is the rate at which criminals recommit crimes after being incarcerated and released. This measurable dependent variable can be evaluated by focusing on the types of independent variables applied to the subjects - such as therapy within prison, work programs, and transitional help after release.
Continued research shows that the effect size on recidivism stems mostly from cognitive behavioral therapies, skilled oriented training, and multimodal programs (Palmer,m 1995).
Prisoners must learn how to participate, learn, work, and grow in social environments (Lipsey & Wilson, 1998). Long sentences that include periods of isolation have shown to increase recidivism rates.
Work programs have shown to have positive results by exposing inmates to positive peer relationships and skill sets they can use to continue positive growth upon release.
Programs that keep inmates busy while incarcerated, keeps them out of trouble during their sentence while teaching them healthy social skills (Bahr, Harris, Fisher, & Harker, 2009).
Prisoners who have a history of prison misconduct are more likely to return to crime once released (Drury & Delisi, 2010).
Research continues to show that variances in rates between similar programs across the nation vary due to individual differences as well as program implementation. Proving that the “Nothing Works” doctrine is a fallacy, and that some programs do work in varying circumstances.
Where research is lacking and needs to be examined
Research continues to evaluate the different cognitive behavioral treatment programs as independent variables directly relating to recidivism rates; however, more research is needed to determine the effect of the prison social construct as a subculture directly related to an individual’s ability to conform to societal norms.
Research on skills training programs shows that it reduces recidivism rates by introducing inmates to positive peer relationships. It might stand to reason, that continued integration with negative peer groups could increase recidivism rates.
Going to prison often means loss of a job, family, and friends. While incarcerated, inmates are surrounded by fellow criminals with similar prejudices of the justice system. Without proper guidance, these negative influences can inhibit positive rehabilitation.
A lack of hope can lead to anger, depression, and resentfulness (Nieuwbeerta, Nagin, & Blokland, 2009). These individual emotions when shared in a group can breed a social norm of “us against them.” A person’s need to seek social acceptance can mean that more inmates are rejecting treatment programs in order to maintain social status while within prison walls.
Where research is lacking and needs to be examined
The criminal justice system bends to demands of the people, who often cry for harsher punishment while ignoring the need for reform (Geraghty, 2004).
Judges, and other officers of the court, appease these pleas by handing out longer sentences and utilizing diversion programs less.
More criminals being imprisoned means overcrowding and less categorical control. Criminals of lesser crimes, or non-violent crimes, are being housed in maximum and even super-max prisons.
The subculture created within prison walls is one of survival. Survival while within the walls. Though most inmates will profess to want their release, their goals are more short-sided with daily endurance.
This subculture combined with miss categorized inmates could lead a non-violent criminal to commit heinous crimes while incarcerated. It is very possible for someone imprisoned for simple burglary, first offense, to end up with a life sentence for crimes committed while incarcerated.
With a focus on how the subculture of prison life combined with the social norms created from it, recidivism studies can point to improved ways of housing criminals in order to foster a more positive environment for learning, working, growing, and changing: the initial ideal of the American Justice System.
Bahr, S. J., Harris, L., Fisher, J. K., & Armstrong, A. H. (2009). Successful reentry: what differentiates successful and unsuccessful parolees. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology , 54(5), doi: 10.1177/0306624X09342435
Cullen, F. T., & C. Gendreau, P. (2000). Assessing correctional rehabilitation: Policy, practice, and prospects. In J. Homey (Ed.), Criminal justice 2000: Vol. 3—Policies, processes, arid decisions of the criminal justice system (pp. 109-175). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice
Drury, A. J., & DeLisi, M. (2010). The past is prologue: prior adjustment to prison and instritutional misconduct. The Prison Journal, 90(3), doi: 10.1177/0032885510375676
Gendreau, P., & Keyes, D. (2001). Making prisons safer and more humane environments. Canadian Journal of Criminology, 43(1), 123-130. Retrieved from www.csa.com
Klockars, C. B. (1975) The true limits of the effectiveness of correctional treatment. The Prison Journal 55 (Spring-Summer): 53-56
Lipsey, M. W., and Wilson, D. B. (1998). Effective interventions for serious juvenile offenders: A synthesis of research. Serious and Violent Juvenile Offenders: Risk Factors and Successful Interventions. Retrieved from
Nieuwbeerta, P., Nagin, D. S., & Blokland, A. A. J. (2009). Assessing the impact of first-time imprisonment on offenders' subsequent criminal career development: A matched sample comparison. Journal of Quantitative Criminology, 25(3), 227-257. doi:10.1007/s10940-009-9069-7
Palmer, T. (1995). Programmatic and non-programmatic aspects of successful intervention: New directions in research. Crime & Delinquency 41 (January): 100-131.