Containment or rehabilitation: Where do best practices come from?

Containment — warehousing prisoners — is supported by for-profit prisons because it creates a steady stream of re-offenders to put in jail. It is supported by others who believe if you punish a person long and hard enough, they will learn their lesson and not re-offend. This has never been shown to work. Ironically, containment cannot be a best practice because it leads to more criminal behavior, not less. Rehabilitation and teaching the people in prison what they need to know about how to behave and be successful re-entering society does work.

Best practices never become best practices unless someone tries them first. Bill Lapinskas, the superintendent of Spring Creek maximum security prison, is leaving after being sanctioned by the leadership of the Department of Corrections for not using “data driven best practices” in the prison. He dared to try some things that were new. I accept partial responsibility for enabling his “bad behavior.”

Two-and-a-half years ago, the director of Partners for Reentry Center, a local nonprofit that helps convicted felons re-enter society, asked me if I would consider conducting a nonviolent conflict resolution class for the inmates at Spring Creek — I was a University of Alaska Anchorage professor specializing in negotiation and conflict resolution. It sounded scary: going to a prison, full of people there for committing violent crimes, to teach a class. However, I decided to do it. The most compelling reason to take the risk was that the prisoners asked specifically for the training. In a face-to-face interview with the inmates, they convinced me they were committed to change. They really wanted to learn how to behave in a way that would make the prison a safer place to live and to avoid doing something that would send them back to prison once they got out — if they got out.

[Earlier coverage: Rethinking Alaska’s only maximum-security prison]

Of the 27 inmates starting the class, 21 completed it. This is remarkable — no prison classes have this retention rate. There was to be a second class and the demand for the class exceeded its capacity. Unfortunately, the DOC administration disallowed it because it was not a “data driven best practice.” The class cost the state nothing.

The results of the training are remarkable. The inmates’ comments after the class include:

“… I still have a shot and another chance. ... You have given me hope and something to strive for.”

“I am thankful you took your time to come here and teach us.”

“Thank you for your time. I will always take with me what I learned here.”

“I was just in a conversation that I needed to adjust what I wanted and needed to work with that other person so that it didn’t turn into a problem.”

“He owes me some paper and he cannot deliver on time ... I’m going to give him another shot.”

“I walked into my room and my bunky was playing Xbox. I had just got off of work and all I wanted to do was lay down on my bed. So, I just walked in, took my coat off, and walked out of my room (instead of getting into a conflict over it).”

“If someone was to disrespect me how would I handle it. Stay calm, walk away, then later approach the person and have a conversation.”

The net outcome of the class is that it actually reduced instances of conflict.

The behavior of those who took the class showed positive change. One of the participants, who is in prison for life, started a moral reasoning class open to all inmates so that they have a way to learn to think through what they are about to do and make better decisions. The prisoners asked for a living space where those who seek to avoid fighting can live in and practice what they learned. The members of the class refused to engage in a yard fight and also actively worked to prevent other potentially violent altercations inside the prison.

If you want to reduce the percentage of convicts who become repeat offenders, you need to address the behavioral issues that got them there. Teaching them how to behave in society outside starts by teaching them while they are on the inside. Bill Lapinskas understands this. He also understands that if you change the culture inside the prison to one that values safety of the inmates and non-violent conflict resolution, everyone benefits.

Bill Lapinskas did not follow the rules that dictate the use of “best practices.” Instead he dared to try approaches that will become “best practices.” Containment and punishment is not a best practice. Containment consistently results in a higher percentage of re-offenders who victimize the public, get convicted again, and go back to jail. Instead, Bill Lapinskas dared to treat the inmates as if they are redeemable and tried more progressive approaches that actually get results that the public wants; non-violent conflict resolution and the potential for a safer community and state. Thank you; we will miss you, Bill.

Frank Jeffries is a professor in the UAA College of Business and Public Policy.

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