Corrections Reform as Social Reform

Let me just start with the obvious: I’m not a social scientist. As a warden and corrections system security director, I have spent a huge amount of time and energy dealing with the pathologies that social researchers and statisticians study. But my concerns always had to do with the practical: optimizing the safety and security and opportunities for the staff and residents.  

When it came out, the landmark 2006 “Mental Health Problems of Prison and Jail Inmates” study from the Bureau of Justice Statistics codified what my peers and I had seen with our own eyes: prisons had become de facto mental health hospitals, homeless shelters, and addiction treatment centers. Just really, really bad ones.  

I say that, again, as one who has overseen five different facilities as a warden and many more as a security director, so I’m not trying to pass the buck. And I’m not saying that no one cares—in fact, my experience was that corrections professionals do care but can barely tread water due to the scale and pace of the problem. Not to mention that fact that few have training to make meaningful differences in the lives of residents. When society produces such a wide array of problems, those most affected by (and most likely to continue and worsen) the problems will fall down through the cracks—until they’re incarcerated, and there’s nowhere else to go except back on the streets.  

And the cycle continues. More recent updates to the 2006 study augment the findings, but mostly end up confirming how intractable the problems are. The corrections system has become how society deals with those who suffer serious mental health and addiction problems or who live on the streets. To the extent that we deal with them at all.  

Not to mention—though we must mention—the staggering racial inequalities that persist in our corrections system.  

It’s true that many ministries and nonprofits are confronting these social problems in creative and compassionate ways—sometimes in collaboration with corrections facilities. What I often hear as I talk to these service leaders, however, are the difficulties of working with a system that seems designed to undo their work. Not because of the ill will of anyone involved, but because of what you might call the inertia of facilities and policies built on the punitive model of corrections. They can and do see success with many they work with. But sometimes they feel like the social problems they’re fighting to reverse are insurmountable.  

The persistence and complicatedness of these problems raise many questions, but one in particular demands the attention of those who are serious about corrections reform: What if prisons were better—even much better—at helping, rather than harming the staff and those who are incarcerated?  

Let me be a little more specific, with regard to Social Purpose Correction’s (SPC) approach

What if 100% of a prison’s profits were reinvested into drug/alcohol rehabilitation, onsite job training and education programs, accessible mental health and self-care treatment, mentorships, employee training, medical care, real world re-entry assistance, with the single goal of creating a sustainable correctional model that truly reduces the rates of incarceration and recidivism?  

While many of the questions we’re talking about here keep millions up at night, this question is the one that gets me and my SPC colleagues out of bed in the morning.  

Authentic corrections reform is inseparable from social reform. Fixing our approach to incarceration will not solve all of society’s problems, but it is essential to any genuine progress.  

When it comes to wraparound services, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. But when it comes to prison culture and operations, we do need to reinvent the wheel. We need a fundamentally different approach to corrections if we want to reverse decades of bad and worsening results. Solving the corrections quagmire—creating a system that no longer worsens society’s problems and grows while doing so—will go a long way toward addressing these wider problems. Why? 

Because 95 percent of those who enter prison are going to get out. When they do reenter society, should they be more ready to engage the community in a positive way, or should they be more dangerous than when they went in?  

A 2016 study (released in 2021) from the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that: 

“Over 40 percent of inmates had five to ten prior incarcerations, which substantiates prior findings that a minority of offenders commit the majority of crimes. . . The vast majority had multiple arrests, approximately 13 percent were in prison for their first arrest.”

Considering the number of victims being created in underserved communities—the communities which again and again pay the steepest cost for the prison-to-street revolving door—there is simply no way we can postpone doing what must be done in corrections.  

We need those in the corrections system to emerge with hope and a plan instead of more hopelessness and anger. The only way to change outcomes—both within corrections and within those communities most vulnerable to crime—is to reinvent our entire approach to corrections. We’re talking about a fundamental change in culture and facility operations.  

A lot of people are ready to contribute to this change—to make real corrections reform a leading agent of social reform. At Social Purpose Corrections, we’re building the coalition that is going to get it done with nonprofit, philanthropic, governmental, and activist partners who know that now is the time. 

Brian Koehn is the Founder and CEO of Social Profit Corrections.