Academic journal article The Behavior Analyst Today

Building Constructive Prison Environments: The Functional Utility of Applying Behavior Analysis in Prisons

Academic journal article The Behavior Analyst Today

Building Constructive Prison Environments: The Functional Utility of Applying Behavior Analysis in Prisons

Article excerpt

The present author evaluated a correctional program that applies the principles of behavior analysis with in a "Supermax" correctional facility that housed 128 adult mate inmates with severe behavior problems. An interdisciplinary team systematically assessed behaviors to be targeted. An individualized program was created for each inmate. Criteria for discharge from this unit were to have completed the assigned programs and to have not engaged in any violations of the rules of prohibited conduct. Data were recorded by correctional staff on problematic behaviors and appropriate behaviors of inmates in this unit. Appropriate behavior was positively reinforced with increasing access to visitors, personal property and negatively reinforced by escaping from the unit upon completion of the assigned program. Results showed a significant decrease from years prior in the rate of misconduct reports and inmate grievances to the administration.


By the end of 2001, there were 2.1 million people incarcerated in America's prisons (Harrison and Beck 2002). In 2000, the National Center for Policy Analysis reported, "an estimated 630,000 inmates were released from prison last year, with an estimated 160,000 of those being violent inmates" (Du Pont 2000). These statistics beg several questions: is it surprising that the United States has surpassed South Africa as Western Civilization's most imprisoned people? What is being done, during the inmates' incarceration, to address antisocial behaviors that are being reinforced in prisons today? What are the maintaining variables that reinforce a person's development of pro-social behaviors? Does the society that imprisons these people recognize that criminal behavior does not simply stop at the entrance or the exit of a correctional facility? What is being done to change the behavior of these inmates into people who will eventually become our neighbors? Over the last twenty years there has been much advancement in the technology of Applied Behavior Analysis. Have these advancements facilitated the building of constructive prison environments? The purpose of this paper is to describe a current program that applies Behavior Analysis in a maximum-security prison setting.


Although the national trend toward more stringent sentencing laws is decreasing, prisons are left to deal with a subset of the population that is considered "unteachable". Likewise, "unteachable" was also the term used in the 1950's and 1960's to describe people with severe and profound retardation. It was in the 1960's that Behavior Analysts began to research the field of Mental Retardation and Dual Diagnoses (MR/DD), and today, there are few behaviors that cannot be changed through the systematic manipulation of envirom-nental factors. Also, starting in the 60's and continuing into the early 80's, Behavior Analysts became interested in the application of the principles of behavior analysis in the correctional setting. In 1974, B.F. Skinner spoke out on the issue of how to build constructive prison enviromnents in a "letter to the editor" of the New York Times:

"It is possible for prisoners to discover positive reasons for behaving well rather than the negative reasons now inforce, to acquire some of the behavior which will give them a chance to lead more successful lives in the world to which they will return, to discover that the educational establishment has been wrong in branding them as unteachable and for the first time to enjoy some sense of achievement. But that can only be brought about through positive action."

Most of the groundwork for building Behavior Analytic based constructive prison enviromnents have been outlined in the research emanating from this era in Behavior Analysis. A specific example of this research was undertaken in 1971 by John McKee, a Behavior Analyst, regarding the issue of contingency management in a correctional institution. …

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