By: Matthew Leachman, Contributing Writer

prisonMost of us will get out.

Some will stay in prison for only a few months; others will stay for a few years, but only a small percentage will die behind prison walls without ever again walking free.

Most of us will get out, which is why rehabilitation is a goal that every rational person supports. Even the angriest citizens and lawmakers, the ones who feel that punishment or deterrence is a more pressing public policy than rehabilitation, agree that rehabilitation is essential.

Human beings can dream up an infinite number of methods to encourage rehabilitation. No one can say which method would be most effective – humans are not programmable robots – or even that a perfect method is possible.

But one of the worst ideas for rehabilitation in prisons is to warehouse large numbers of criminals together, give them little opportunity to socialize with anyone else, and supervise them with a low-paid and corruption-ridden bureaucracy. The thing that humans do best – better than reshaping the world with tools or fire or streaking electrons, better, even, than reproducing – is creating social networks. We adapt to our cultures. We emulate others and modify behaviors in a never-ceasing effort to thrive. And prisons become schools where novice criminals learn from their more experienced peers.

This effect is so well known that, when rehabilitative programs are available to prisoners, the programs focus on countering it.

But there is a greater harm that goes unaddressed: the systemic corruption displayed by those in authority. Rehabilitation depends on accepting the basic premise that following the law is right. Most of us will get out, and therefore, this is the lesson that society needs prisoners to learn.

However, this is what prisoners see on a daily basis: their keepers disregard both policy and law. They bring in contraband; they assault inmates; they falsify documents that range from disciplinary cases to the frequency of security checks. In short, they ignore the rules whenever it is more convenient or beneficial to do so. They outright scorn the rules: “I don’t care what policy says” and “go ahead and file a grievance, make sure you spell my name right” are phrases prisoners hear every day. Meanwhile, supervisors and administrators close ranks against complaints and protect their subordinates, often by falsifying paperwork of their own.

This contempt for the law by prison employees may not be universal, but even superficial digging into the testimony of whistleblowers reveals how entrenched the problem is. For prisoners, this pattern reinforces a simple message: “You’re not in prison for what you did — you’re in prison for what you are. If you had been born in a different family … or had a different name … or belonged to a more elite group … you could ignore the law, too.”

No mindset could be more poisonous to rehabilitation. Rather than leaving prisoners convinced that the best way of life is to contribute to society (or even oppose it in legitimate ways), the example set by their keepers leaves them convinced that rules are for fools, and that they need to be faster, or smarter, or know the secret handshake, to avoid coming back to prison.

Around 700,000 prisoners are released every year; two-thirds are back within three.

Most of us will get out. What lessons have we learned in the meantime? At the core, rehabilitation is a personal process, and it does not occur until a prisoner looks within and is determined to change. But society can encourage rehabilitation, and one way to do that is by modeling responsibility and accountability.

In the modern prison system, the representatives of society that prisoners see every day are their jailers. What if, instead of turning a blind eye to misbehavior, society demanded more? It is a grim irony that while paying lip service to rehabilitation, society has built a prison system that undermines it. Perpetuating this system is short-sighted.

Because most of us will get out.


Matthew Leachman is serving  60 years for several child sex offenses: aggravated sexual assault with a child and three charges of indecency with a child.


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