"The bottom line is, we want inmates practicing on the inside
what works on the outside," said Steven J. Ickes, an assistant
director of the Oregon Department of Corrections, "to try to undo
all the bad crime- inducing habits they learned in the years before they
In a sense, these new programs represent a major shift in thinking
about how to run prisons — a return to the old notion of
rehabilitating prisoners, the idea behind the very term
"corrections" that lay at the creation of American prisons in
the 19th century.
Rehabilitation was discredited and largely abandoned decades ago in
most state prison systems, said Todd Clear, a professor at John Jay
College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan.
"With the huge expansion of prisons starting in the 1980's, most
prison systems gave up believing they had any responsibility for
changing offenders or what happened after offenders were released,"
Professor Clear said, adding that some academic research contributed to
this by concluding that nothing could be done to reduce recidivism.
"The objective became that prisons should be just for
punishment," he said, "and politicians competed to see who
could make prisons more unpleasant, by taking away things like
television and recreation and education classes."
But the pendulum may be swinging back again, in what prison officials
like to call re-entry or transition to the community. And states like
Oregon give the process a modern twist. For it was an Oregon voter
referendum in 1994 mandating that prisoners work as hard — 40 hours a
week — as the taxpayers who provide their upkeep that supplied the
impetus for putting inmates to work. Given this mandate, prison
officials called on Oregon business executives for advice about how to
run prisons more productively.
And so Oregon turned from historical vocational training for
low-paying jobs to comprehensive inmate training for jobs that companies
have open, like telemarketing and using computers to map water and tax
districts from aerial photographs. To ensure accountability, inmates are
tracked by computer 24 hours a day, and are offered what amount to small
monthly bonuses for good work or study. Many inmates now leave prison
with a professionally printed résumé, including a record of classes
passed, and letters of recommendation from prison officials.
"For guys whose lives have been way out of control, a résumé
puts them back in control of their lives," Mr. Ickes said.
In Missouri, which has a similar program, Dora Schriro, director of
the State Department of Corrections, sums up the new approach this way:
"People ask, `How much time is enough?' But they should ask, `How
do you want them when they come home?,' " because 97 percent of
inmates are eventually released.
As the movement to revive rehabilitation has spread, Pennsylvania,
Ohio and Washington State have also begun programs, though less
Texas, which has the country's second-largest prison system, with
150,000 inmates, has also made rehabilitation a central goal since 1995,
said Glen Castlebury, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal
Justice, with a requirement that every inmate do a full day's work.
Mandatory schooling is required for inmates with less than a seventh-
Many Texas inmates still work in old-style prison jobs, like stamping
license plates, and the state's program does not emphasize inmates'
success on the outside as much as Oregon's does. But, Mr. Castlebury
said, "What we hope is that we are teaching the work ethic."
Inmates who refuse to work are not allowed to watch television or buy
items in the canteen, he said.
The Oregon program, for men and women, begins upon an inmate's
arrival with a battery of tests to identify the mental, social or
educational barriers the inmate may face. A detailed plan is then worked
out to help the inmate overcome these troubles through literacy
programs, drug treatment or job training.
"We try to be outcome-based, like a good business," Mr.
The 1994 measure specified that the work by inmates reduce the cost
of prisons to the state government. So, for example, 16 inmates sitting
like telemarketers in office cubicles are answering callers' questions
to the Department of Motor Vehicles or the secretary of state's office,
saving the cost of state employees.
"What makes this so phenomenal," said Mr. Ragsdale, the
inmate, as he assembled a computer, "is that a few years ago a guy
walking out of here had nowhere to go and no job skills, so they often
ended up coming right back to prison.
"At least here they had everything they needed: food, clothes, a
bed and their friends."
Now, he said, "There is a waiting list to get into the class,
and when guys are accepted, they have to make a commitment to be on a
team, or they are out, permanently, even for playing a computer
Signs already suggest that the Oregon program is working, state
officials say. The percentage of inmates admitted to Oregon prisons in
2000 who were returning parolees was only 25 percent, down from 47
percent in 1995.
Inmate behavior in Oregon's 13 prisons has also improved, prison
officials say. Because a disciplinary report can lead to automatic
expulsion from the most coveted work assignments — like the computer
program — there has been a 60 percent reduction since 1995 in major
disciplinary reports, including for fighting or attempted escape.
Also, because admission to some of the best prison jobs and classes
requires a high school diploma or its equivalent, Oregon's inmates are
now completing G.E.D.'s after an average of only 1.5 starts, down from
8.5 starts before 1995. Over all, Oregon prisons have a higher rate of
G.E.D. completion than the 17 community colleges in the state that offer
the instruction, Mr. Ickes noted.
But Oregon has not yet found a way to gauge perhaps the most
important measure of the success of its new program — how quickly
inmates find jobs and how long they hold them. It has been difficult
getting money from the State Legislature to set up a tracking system,
prison officials say, though they hope to have a system in place soon.
Finding ways to ease the return to society and reduce recidivism
"is the hot topic in the criminal justice system, because of the
huge costs and numbers involved," said Michael Jacobson, a
professor of criminology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a
former director of New York City's Department of Correction.
About 614,000 people will be released from state and federal prisons
this year, said Allen J. Beck of the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the
statistical arm of the Justice Department. Within three years, based on
studies he has done, Mr. Beck said, 62 percent of them will be arrested
again, and 41 percent will be sent back to prison.
In California alone, Professor Jacobson said, about 70,000 people, 75
percent of the state's total number of parolees, are sent back to prison
each year for parole violations, like failing drug tests, for periods
averaging five and a half months. These inmates take up about 20 percent
of all the state prison beds each year, he said, costing California $1
In the 1990's, when the economy was hot and tax revenue high,
politicians could ignore these costs, Professor Jacobson said. But tax
revenue is down, and voters want more money spent on education, he said.
"So there is a new environment for looking at how to save money
on prisons," and one of the easiest ways, without having to soften
popular tough sentencing laws, is to reduce recidivism, he said.
Since the prison boom began in 1980, quadrupling the number of
inmates in jails and prisons to two million, the recycling of criminals
through prisons has gotten worse. The percentage of inmates admitted to
prison who had been there before rose to 36.4 percent in 1998, from 18
percent in 1980, Mr. Beck said.
Still, some prison guards view rehabilitation programs as taxpayer
money wasted on criminals, and some labor leaders worry that inmates are
taking union jobs.
But in Oregon, even some people in the tough-on-crime camp say they
like the state's new approach. Steve Doell, the president of Crime
Victims United of Oregon, whose 12-year-old daughter was killed walking
home from a school bus stop, said:
"The thing people need to know is that most of these folks in
prison are eventually going to come out again. So we think it's smart
policy to try to change them while they're locked up, so that when they
return to society there will be fewer victims on the street."