THE BLOG
07/18/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

What If Released Inmates Stopped Committing Crimes?: Prison Reform That's Already Working -- Like Nothing You've Seen Before

Last week, Senator Jim Webb posted a column discussing the need to reform our criminal justice system.

To help Senator Webb find a bipartisan solution to fixing our broken system, I'd like to suggest a relatively simple, practical, and actually cost-saving way to begin: Start by changing our lock-up facilities into places that actually cause inmates to change their behavior -- so that when they leave them they never go back. Instead, they become positively-functioning members of their local communities.

Sound impossible? Well, what if I told you it's already happening? And it's been happening in some communities for the past decade. What if you knew that there is a tried, researched, and proven solution to inmate recidivism? (the rate at which inmates return to incarceration facilities once they've been released) What if you knew that this solution is easily replicated in any jail or prison, while also customized for each facility? What if you knew that it dramatically reduces costs; improves public safety; makes life easier, safer, and far less stressful for correctional officers and staff; and has been shown to reduce inmate recidivism rates from above 50% to around 5%. (Yes, you read that correctly. That's about 5 out of a hundred released inmates repeating crimes and returning to jail vs. the more than 50 out of a hundred that usually repeat the cycle.) What if you knew that this correctional solution, when implemented, has reduced inmate violence in jail to zero incidents? (Yes, zero.) What if you knew that this solution makes sense to conservatives and liberals alike -- because it positively affects everyone, including police and other law enforcement agencies, corrections staff, inmates and their families, local communities, society at large, and government and administrative budgets?

What if you knew all that? Would you take a few minutes out of your life to check it out on the Internet, and then pass on the info to others for possible implementation in their community? Or to legislators who have the power to make a difference for the public safety and well being of the nation?

Here's what the solution is:

It's called the Community Model in Corrections and it's based on the concept of dignity -- dignity for all, including correctional officers, administrators, other staff, and inmates. The Community Model is the brainchild of Morgan Moss and Penny Patton of the Center for Therapeutic Justice. It aims to help inmates change themselves by changing the culture of incarceration to one of respect and dignity for everyone. The model's remarkable success is due, in large part, to the fact that it works entirely within the existing structure of correctional institutions. It supports existing institutional rules and regulations, so it actually makes corrections officials' jobs easier, not harder. It is not only a first-rate inmate rehabilitation program but also an effective facility management system. In the Community Model, inmates volunteer to participate, which means they choose to live as a community with other inmate volunteers in a designated section of the jail.

Together, they take responsibility for managing their unit, maintaining high security standards, developing themselves emotionally and psychologically, changing inappropriate behavior, and becoming able to function responsibly and appropriately within a community. Eighty-five percent of inmates are eligible for the program. In facilities where the program is currently operative, there is a waiting list to participate.

Dr. Philip Zimbardo, professor emeritus at Stanford University, creator of the now-classic Stanford Prison Experiment, and author of The Lucifer Effect, in 1971 made a horrifying discovery. He conducted a psychological experiment in which college students were placed in the roles of prison guards and inmates. The experiment, planned to last two weeks, was halted after only six days because participant behavior quickly grew dysfunctional and abusive. The research revealed that the culture of prison exerts an effect so powerful that it can dramatically alter the behavior of otherwise normally functioning individuals. We can conclude that a primary reason the Community Model works so well is that it changes the culture of incarceration, through its model of self-governance within a context of mutual respect and dignity, into a culture that exerts a positive influence on all involved. Dr. Zimbardo observes:

Of all the programs designed to enable prisoners to gain dignity and a sense of purpose while incarcerated, and prepare them to become effectively functioning citizens when released so that they are not recidivists, I know of none that do these jobs better than the Community Model in Corrections developed by the Center for Therapeutic Justice. It should be a central part of every correctional institution.

So...if you knew about a cost-saving, easy-to-implement program that could provide practical, fast, and powerful prison reform, the likes of which we've never even dared to imagine, what do you suppose you would do?

Would you ask your senators and congressional representatives to watch a 5- or 20-minute video about it? How about your local sheriff, county jail administrator, or newspaper? Would you post a link to the videos on your Facebook page? Would you twitter a bit to your friends?

Let's do it, folks--because we have nothing to lose; and by reducing repeat crime, we have a whole lot to gain.

Watch the 5-minute video here.

Watch the 20-minute version here.

Watch both! www.communitymodel.org

Pamela Gerloff is co-author, with Robert W. Fuller, of Dignity for All: How to Create a World without Rankism (Berrett-Koehler Publishing, 2008). She can be reached at gerloff@dignityforall.org.