Beyond Bars: The Department of Corrections’ job is to correct individuals
Call me idealistic, but I think the job of the Department of Corrections (DOC) is to help correct the individuals under their keep. It’s less about saving or improving the individuals as it is about benefitting society as a whole.
The goal and responsibility of the DOC should be to lower recidivism (the rate at which offenders commit crimes and go back to prison). The most effective way of doing that is to give prisoners the tools and opportunities to be successful in the outside world.
According to the Associated Press, Utah has one of the highest recidivism rates. There are various factors that come into play, like technical violations of parole versus new charges, caseloads of parole officers, availability and frequency of drug testing, and other monitoring abilities, so the numbers are difficult to compare.
However, the statistics that are less debatable are those that show money spent in programs aimed at reducing recidivism, like higher education and vocational training, end up with a positive return on investment. This is accomplished by a lower cost of incarceration down the road to the tune of $6.72 saved for every dollar spent according to the National Institute of Corrections. Crimereport.org claims Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, Ohio, West Virginia and Wisconsin showed reductions in recidivism of 20 percent or more by funding programs that pursue research-based approaches to reducing recidivism.
I have heard over and over that the most effective way to fight recidivism is through education. While there is a direct relationship between higher degrees and lower recidivism rates, I can tell you after being around a big enough sampling of the prison population that a master’s degree level education for all is just not in the cards. However, I do think vocational training and actual jobs in the prison should be much more widely available.
In Gunnison, there are about 2000 inmates, and there are less than 35 seats available between the culinary arts and building trade programs – the only vocational training offered. Currently, there is no accredited higher education provided by the prison. Utah gives an underwhelming effort in the education, employment and transition department, and has an above average recidivism rate – I doubt that’s coincidence.
It is my opinion everyone would benefit if the DOC provided more education opportunities. Yes, this costs tax dollars. But besides vocational programs paying for themselves by reducing future incarceration costs, as well as adding tax dollars from these now-productive members of society, there is a huge opportunity to use trained inmates to make money.
In prison, inmates with the best jobs only make $1 an hour, and these jobs are few and far between. I have never understood why this cheap labor force is not utilized to a much greater degree. It could not be that hard to turn near slave labor into profit. Just pick an industry where labor is the biggest expense and train inmates to do that work. Many of these guys have never held down regular jobs, so having prisoners maintain jobs in the prison and teaching them responsibility is another benefit to all parties, as I am sure that translates to the outside world.
Having work and being able to provide for oneself is everything to a parolee who wants to stay out of prison. Helping parolees do this should be the goal of the DOC. There’s a mentality that access to education and jobs are too much of a privilege for law-breakers. So we end up cutting off our nose to spite our face. That’s what we are doing when we just warehouse prisoners and deny them opportunities to better themselves. It’s the court’s job to worry about justice and penance; once an offender moves to the DOC, the focus should be to turn them into productive members of society. This only makes sense, as 95% of prisoners will eventually be released and back in society.