California Department of Corrections and… Rehabilitation ?

I began working in the criminal justice field nearly ten years ago. I’ve worked with law enforcement (Probation and Parole), criminal defense attorneys, juvenile justice, court evaluations, and the correctional system. Like many of us in this field, we embark on this arduous journey idealistic and enthusiastic about making positive contributions in reducing recidivism. What many of us soon learn is the inherent flaws within this system that eventually create discouragement, disillusionment, and distaste.

The United States of America has more incarcerated individuals than any other country in the world. In Portugal, rather than criminally charge individuals with substance addiction, they mandate them to a residential substance treatment center. In Finland, inmates are housed in small apartments within the correctional system. They are given all major appliances and utensils (including knives) to reinforce the need to learn how to care for themselves (cooking, cleaning, doing their laundry) and instill self-worth. In America, we house two inmates in a small 6’x6′ cell. We have significant overcrowding.  In the State of CA, we had the three strike rule that, in theory, was designed to be a deterrent for reoffending while also assisting with overcrowding. The three strike law had one underestimated and overlooked flaw in that a third strike could be felony possession of marijuana that resulted in an individual being sentenced to life in prison. I have had patients serving life in prison for striking out on a petty theft charge. Their two previous charges were minor (such as possession of marijuana as an example). Now these individuals are serving life in prison, in a level four institution, with no history of violence just trying to survive.

California has been making tremendous strides in reforming the laws and legislation with regard to sentencing due to the significant overcrowding we have. These laws are now allowing youth offenders serving life a chance to go to the board for reconsideration. Some are allowing resentencing and reducing enhancements. From the outside, it certainly looks like the government is doing their part to effect necessary change in the criminal justice system and, statistically, it appears to be working and many civilians continue to vote for these reforms.

But what are we doing while they’re in the correctional system?

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has enacted various vocational training programs, education programs, substance abuse programs, and re-entry programs. In theory, the system is offering everything that is needed for those incarcerated to “rehabilitate.” It allows them to obtain a GED, a certified vocation, parole plans and more. The deficiency in this is there is always a wait list and many individuals are unable to participate throughout their term. Another overlooked deficit is that, aside from giving these notoriously underserved individuals the tools they need to meet their basic needs, they’re not successfully addressing the maladaptive behaviors they learned that brought them there to begin with. Other variables aside (such as peers influencing others and teaching more criminal behaviors)  the correctional department cannot change these behaviors until they, at the very least,  begin with the staff employed there.

As a forensic psychologist who works in the correctional system I have come to learn that the most common factor among all the patients I have worked with are maladaptive behaviors that were learned throughout their life due to a number of variables. I work in a level four institution which houses the most violent offenders, many of whom have gang affiliations, and many of whom have had emotionally or physically absent caregivers during their developmental  years. This, coupled with their environment, caused them to adapt accordingly to survive. In nearly 90% of these cases, those adaptations included violence. They had learned that the most effective way to get their needs met was to use violence (or threat of violence) and, in their world, it was effective. Basic behavioral theories teach us that all people, including children, continue behaviors that have proven to get positive results.

If we want to truly rehabilitate we need to address these behaviors. The correctional system is archaic in that staff mainly gives attention when it’s punitive in nature. We need to make a drastic shift and begin to reinforce the behaviors we want to see and stop reinforcing the behaviors we don’t. Unfortunately, most correctional staff, overtime, become so used to manipulation by this population that they disregard those inmates who are not attempting to manipulate but rather put into practice the prosocial behaviors they’re being taught. It’s not until the inmate reverts back to acting out, using violence or threat of violence, that custody or free-staff responds and listens to their needs. This just serves to reinforce the idea that violence is the only effective method for them to get their needs met.

As a psychologist who focuses specifically on changing behavioral patterns with my patients, this is beyond frustrating. When inmates are taught conflict resolution skills and assertive versus aggressive communication styles and staff are not responsive or are disrespectful in return, this serves to invalidate the effectiveness of prosocial approaches. Inmates always tell me that “violence gets a response” or “violence teaches people not to do that again.” If they are not able to apply these new skills in the correctional environment and see positive results, they certainly aren’t going to practice them in society. They need to practice these skills and if their only available environment to practice them in is inherently punitive and dismissive, they will not retain these skills or believe in them.

So, in summation, if the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation truly wants to decrease the recidivism rates among the population, it needs to start with the staff. Every member of every department should be taught basic behavioral theories and respond and act accordingly. Those who don’t should be re-trained and or reprimanded in some capacity. The job of all staff working in corrections is to ensure the safety and security of the institution, and if staff are not able to do that over simple things like reinforcing appropriate behaviors, than we certainly aren’t ensuring the safety and security of society upon their release.

Thoughts or comments? Please speak up!

Happy life starts with happy thoughts!

Dr. Engels


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s