Prison Programs That Produce : Religion Was Important in Efforts to Rehabilitate Criminals in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. It Is Now Considered a New Method of Altering the Careers of Chronic Offenders

Article excerpt

In 1974, criminal rehabilitation programs were no longer seen as effective vehicles for reducing recidivism. Most research evaluations of a wide variety of programs indicated meager or no results in reducing the number of convicts returning to prison. The coup de grace came from sociologist Robert Martinson's article in Public Interest, "What Works--Questions and Answers About Prison Reform." Martinson, backed up by statistics, questioned the effectiveness of many categories of rehabilitation programs and also rued the poor methodological quality of the studies. According to Martinson, "It is possible that some of our treatment programs are working to some extent, but our research is so bad it is incapable of telling."

The resulting disillusionment with criminal rehabilitation might have been less shattering if the original designers of these programs in the 1950s and '60s had not with little evidence made grandiose claims for what they might accomplish. Claims of success rates of 80 percent were not uncommon. Careful evaluation usually indicated little or no difference between program subjects and a matched group of inmates who hadn't participated in this form of rehabilitation.

The lack of results coupled with the rising U.S. crime rate led correctional administrators to state publicly that it was time to stop relying on rehabilitation to solve the problem of high rates of recidivism and move on to other means. It appeared that the 100-year-old criminal rehabilitation movement was moribund, if not quite expired. But two events that occurred in the 1980s led to its partial revival.

The first was the development of a new statistical technique. Many studies prior to the introduction of meta-analysis showed modestly successful results but because of small sample size did not reach the level of statistical significance. In meta-analysis, by assessing the outcomes of a larger number of similar studies, it was possible, according to David B. Wilson of George Mason University, to "focus on the size and direction of effects across studies rather than the statistical significance of individual effects."

Looked at this way, the results indicated a modest degree of success for vocational, educational, behavior modification, and other programs. Program practitioners still have a tendency to make grandiose claims about the success of particular rehabilitation programs. The real results of well-conceived and researched programs now indicate that we should typically expect program subjects to have 10 to 15 percent less recidivism than nonprogram subjects with comparable backgrounds.

The second event was the introduction of various forms of cognitive-behavioral treatment. These, according to clinical psychologist James McGuire, include social skills training, social problem solving, rational-emotive therapy, and reasoning programs. They replaced nonbehavioral treatment that had earlier been one of the mainstays of prison rehabilitation efforts. Included in this latter category were Freudian-oriented programs and watered-down versions that defined inmates as "sick" and ascribed their emotional illness to foul-ups in childhood development.

These kinds of programs ordinarily had two strikes against them. The first was the scarcity in the prison setting of competent analytic therapists or group leaders. The second problem stemmed from the nature of the inmate prison culture, which was strongly opposed to having most criminals defined as emotionally ill. Due to this opposition, many or most of the unwilling participants in this mode of treatment would not accept the definition of their "problems" assigned by therapists. Without a meeting of the minds (either full or partial) between the therapist and inmate, this variety of treatment was destined to fail. Research results showed this to be the case.

Religious rehabilitation programs

It is ironic that religion, which was important in efforts to rehabilitate criminals at the end of the eighteenth century and for most of the nineteenth century, is now being seriously considered as a new method of altering the careers of chronic offenders. …