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Posted Sep 10, 2012, 1:56 pm
The name itself sounds like a tasteless joke: "therapeutic prison."
Talk about a contradiction in terms! It's akin to the old saying that trying to reform an inmate in prison is like trying to teach someone to fly in a submarine.
In fact, though, the idea that prisons should rehabilitate offenders is virtually an American invention, going back to our creation of the "penitentiary" in the early 1800s. This was an exciting idea at the time, as reformers pushed the notion that prisons should be not only tools for detention and punishment but also places where criminals could be transformed into productive citizens.
Fast-forward nearly 200 years and we behold a rather different approach to incarceration—especially in conservative states like Arizona. Here, as elsewhere, the very idea of rehabilitation has been shouted down for decades by a combination of those who say it can't work and those who say prisoners don't deserve the effort.
In fact, there are plenty of studies and practitioner testimonials confirming that rehabilitation can work (in the sense of reduce recidivism); as for whether inmates deserve to be exposed to education, counseling, substance-abuse treatment, etc., it's worth remembering is that virtually all of them are coming back out to a neighborhood not so far from you.
In any case, the idea of the "therapeutic prison"* has been around for about a couple of decades, and has spawned a Correctional Program Assessment Inventory (CPAI), which has been used in the U.S. and elsewhere to help design, support and evaluate rehabilitative programs.
The inventory is a kind of checklist that points toward the goal of an "ideal" correctional program — that is, one based on evidence-based programs, careful implementation, management buy-in, a qualified professional staff and continuous assessment and evaluation.
Indeed, a recent journal article says that "staff members should be open, be warm, and exhibit respectful communication ... [and] be nonjudgmental, empathic, flexible, enthusiastic, and engaging."
If this doesn't sound to you like a typical corrections officer, you're not alone. Indeed, the journal article acknowledged that 60 percent of the correctional programs evaluated by the CPAI have failed to achieve a passing grade.
It does all sound a bit utopian, just as a lot of Americans used to believe that humans can be reformed and — if not "perfected" — then substantively improved through education, material assistance, just treatment and, often, religion.
Do we believe that today? Not so much, even as we struggle to cope with an enormous prison system that is releasing hundreds of thousands of largely unreformed prisoners every year.
We have chosen to abandon the classically American ideal of rehabilitation undoubtedly in large part because rehabilitation costs money. So perhaps we've saved money (Arizona's annual corrections budget is around $1 billion). But it's hard not to conclude that payback is coming.
Morrison Institute for Public Policy is a leader in examining critical Arizona and regional issues, and is a catalyst for public dialogue. An Arizona State University resource, Morrison Institute uses nonpartisan research and communication outreach to help improve the state's quality of life.
Bill Hart is a senior policy analyst at Morrison Institute for Public Policy.