Prison as a “Parallel Universe”: Incentives for Inmates

parallel universe

If inmates’ conditions of confinement are completely predetermined, what incentive do they have to comply with behavioral code, or dedicate themselves to educational, employment, or health-improvement programs while in prison? Professional advancement and other measures of success outside of prison are strongly correlated with individual behavior. Unfortunately, most correctional facilities do not have systems in place to reward good behavior in a way that replicates the performance-based features of ordinary life. The absence of these incentives exacerbates the difficulty inmates face upon release into civilian life. Corrections is supposed to prepare inmates for re-entry—why should their systems function differently?

Marc Levin of the Texas Public Policy Foundation advocates introducing a “parallel universe” to the criminal justice system that rewards those behind bars or on parole who complete education, health and wellness, or employment programs. This incentive-based approach would better prepare inmates for life after prison.

Levin first discusses the Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP) as an example of how nonprofits and business can partner with government to equip inmates with the skills to provide for themselves without breaking the law. In the PEP, leading businessmen work with residents to prepare for a business plan competition, integrating education with experience. When mentees are ready for re-entry, their leaders help them procure a job and housing. This way, mentees do not have to struggle by themselves to find an institution that will hire an ex-convict.

In a similar vein, Arizona’s “Getting Ready” program, instated in 2004, illustrates the effectiveness of the incentive-based model. Based on assessment of inmates’ education level and health history, the initiative charts a personalized and annually updated plan for all inmates. A critical component of the approach is benchmarks for completing a GED or a substance abuse program, incentivizing inmates to further their education so they can apply for jobs based on credentials and achievements. Sound familiar?

The model is set up to continue structured programming after release. For each month of “exemplary regulation compliance,” parolees receive 20 days off their supervision sentence. If re-arrested, they lose every day they have earned. This incentive led to a drop in recidivism of 31% in just two years, saving $36 million in incarceration costs.

Massachusetts should consider the value of implementing a similar initiative—for the impact on recidivism, the reduction of disruptions in correctional facilities, and improvements in parolee behavior.  While Massachusetts’ criminal justice system currently grants 2.5 days off of parole sentences for each month of educational, vocational, or wellness programming completed, it could also implement personalized and perennially updated plans for its inmates. These plans, which in Texas involve parenting, life-skills, and anger management classes, have the power to dramatically increase public safety, as it provides past offenders with tools to overcome psychological and financial problems that originally pushed them to break the law. The benefits of personalized incentivized plans are statistically proven: “Getting Ready” has reduced inmate-on-inmate assaults by 46%, lawsuits on incarceration conditions by 64%, and crimes committed by released inmates by 35%.

With merit-based education, employment, and health-improvement opportunities, Massachusetts inmates would be better prepared for re-entry. A plan modeled after “Getting Ready” would help Massachusetts prisons be rehabilitative rather than simply punitive, making time and money spent in and on prison efficacious for all parties involved.

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