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Preparing Prisoners For Employment: The Power Of Small Rewards

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Preparing Prisoners For Employment: The Power Of Small Rewards

May 19, 2009
Urban PolicyCrime
OtherPrisoner Reentry

To the average citizen, the reasons for obtaining gainful employment and obeying the law seem obvious: the freedom to pursue, and the ability to afford, the good things in life — such as a home, a family, and a comfortable standard of living. The high rates of recidivism and unemployment among ex-offenders suggest that the reasons to make an honest living — and to take the necessary steps toward doing so — are anything but obvious. Far more than a lack of education or skills, discrimination, or other external obstacles, it is ex-offenders' impulsiveness and unfamiliarity with the world of work and its trade-offs between sacrifice and reward that explain their poor outcomes after release from incarceration and, for that matter, their lapses preceding it.

That is the theory behind a residential prisoner-release program in Montgomery County, Maryland. Realizing that neither the powerful incentives of freedom and financial solvency nor the powerful disincentives of re-incarceration and impoverishment have sufficiently reshaped this troubled population's behavior, the program has resorted to the "small stuff:"

  • later curfews
  • access to phone cards
  • more frequent visits from family

to induce program participants, some of them serious offenders, to get and keep jobs in the surrounding community. At the very least, the salaries they earn go toward victim restitution, child support, program fees, and the inmates' own savings accounts. At best, inmates learn, in doses small enough for them to absorb and respond to, the mainstream value of delaying gratification and its various offshoots: punctuality, reliability, and the effectiveness of effort. Almost 90 percent of program participants find employment within three weeks of enrollment, and 54 percent still have the same employer two months after they have left the program.

In place of training or educational programs or counseling to produce passing scores on tests measuring inmates' mental fitness to rejoin society, Montgomery County's Pre-Release Center (PRC) makes inmates' actual behavior the standard by which their progress is judged. They soon discover that their actions, constructive and otherwise, have immediate, direct, and predictable consequences. Staying employed brings them greater measures of freedom within the residential program, to which they must return at the end of each workday. Gradually they are able to make the mental transition from the completely controlled environment of jail or prison to the initially shocking andenduringly challenging freedoms of society at large. In jail or prison, they are given no responsibilities; in society, they are used to escaping them. For many of them, the PRC is their first introduction to the world of individual accountability and the privileges that accrue from it.

Many correctional systems are not as well funded, well managed, or well situated as Montgomery County's, and would thus be unable to replicate all of its features. Close monitoring of participants requires high staffing levels, which are expensive. In addition, the PRC is located in a large metropolitan area with below-average rates of unemployment, and it is in close proximity to a subway system that provides access to jobs throughout the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area.

Expensive as the PRC is, so is standard confinement in a jail or prison. And as participants begin to adapt to the program, they require less supervision, freeing resources for their more troubled peers. Given the social costs of crime and dependency, a program like the PRC makes economic sense.

The study concludes with a discussion of how the principles of this and similar programs might be adopted by parole agencies, which today focus on getting parolees to comply with the rules governing their release, not on instilling a work ethic in those they supervise.

The Montgomery County PRC provides an alternative to incarceration and a bridge to employment and social reintegration. It recognizes the social and psychological deficits common to the incarcerated population and has constructed an effective and instructive system to compensate for them.