What Comes After “Lock ’em Up”?

What Comes After “Lock ‘Em Up?” 

After decades of being on the decline, crime rates have risen in several states across the U.S. Right now, “Lock ‘em up!” is a winning political message and being tough on crime is seen as an asset.  

I’m in the tough-on-crime camp myself, but let me be clear about what I mean when I say that. I’m not advocating for some vaguely “tough” attitude towards criminality. I’m proposing concrete action to combat crime in a precise and effective manner. Here’s what I mean:  

Every year, a large proportion of crime is committed by people who’ve been released from prison or jail. Many of these individuals commit even more severe offenses than those that initially led to their incarceration. Clearly the current corrections paradigm is failing. In some ways, it’s making the problem worse. By allowing today’s corrections culture—one that prioritizes continued punishment within incarceration—to persist, we exacerbate America’s crime problem. We need to intervene effectively the first time someone is sent to prison, something that will require a culture that prioritizes rehabilitation, healthy socialization, and cooperation between incarcerated residents and staff towards the ultimate goal of successful reentry into society.  

This isn’t an ideological stance—it’s a rational one. Recidivism rates are unacceptably high. It happens so often, in fact, that researchers have pinpointed the key factors that make someone likely to recidivate—unemployment, substance abuse, mental health needs, and a lack of a support network in the local community. Prisons are not improving these metrics. I know firsthand after my many years at every level of prison security operations that corrections tends to harden residents rather than “correct” them.  

Prisons are necessary for public safety. But “Lock ‘em up” is not by itself a solution to the crime problem. Buying short-term “security” at the expense of the long-term safety and flourishing of the public is a horrible deal for everyone. Our system is helping to create tens of thousands of new victims every year even as corrections systems’ costs continue to escalate.  

Of course, dangerous criminals must be detained. But what happens next is critical. It’s up to us in the field of corrections to build a system that is truly corrective. The vast majority of those locked up now are going to return to society. What I want for my family—and for the families of everyone reading this—is that those who return to society are much better prepared to contribute to society and live lives of purpose than they were when they went in.  

The longstanding problems in corrections do not persist because of a lack of motivation to solve them. Most of those I met and worked with during my career in corrections kept showing up because they wanted to make a difference. They were as unsatisfied as anyone with the poor results—which helps explain the low morale of so many of our front-line corrections staff and officers.  

The good news is that things are shifting. There is broad political support for rethinking corrections. Bipartisan coalitions of lawmakers have begun to bring changes in law and policy at the federal and state level, and we are rapidly approaching the next stage of incarceration facility operations that embrace the proven methods of dynamic security.  

These next-stage corrections facilities will have an entirely different culture that will transform the relationship between staff and residents into a productive and effective one. Leaders of these facilities will employ practices and policies that have shown promise but have not yet been widely applied in America. They will provide a clear purpose for corrections officers and leaders, and they will return to society people who are better prepared to contribute in a positive way to their communities. 

Social Purpose Corrections—the first nonprofit corrections operations organization—will lead American corrections into this next stage. We are proposing a new model, one that is open and accountable, that protects society in the short- and the long-term, that gives the professionals and incarcerated a sense of purpose, that continually improves and adapts based on data-driven research and performance metrics, and that is funded directly in proportion to its success. 

If this sounds like something you want to be a part of, please contact us.

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