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Rehabilitation and Corrections…

Middle management sent out an email recently addressing the concept of rehabilitation with respect to Correctional Officers. One of the ideas equated Oregon’s framework of accountability (within the Oregon Accountability Model) with the concept of rehabilitation. This was in reference to an article by Chris Jones recently published at CorrectionsOne. The article’s title, An officer’s responsibility to rehabilitation, opens a can of worms with well meaning intention. While there is much I’d like to address in this article, I want to keep this post to a reasonable length, so I’ll restrict most of my comments to the first few paragraphs:

I hear this statement from fellow officers all the time: “Rehabilitation doesn’t work.” Those who say it, all of whom are intelligent corrections professionals, cite numerous reasons. Some point to the astronomical recidivism rate. Some say that offenders are wholly uninterested in change. They wonder why we should waste precious time and resources attempting to change a group of individuals who have no interest at all in changing. Who are we, many ask, to question this accepted wisdom?

We are corrections professionals with minds of our own, and the ability to see past the single-minded ideas presented by those — some even within our own ranks — who think that punishment and security are the only things with which correctional officers need to concern themselves.

I’ve also heard time and again, “I’m not a guard. I’m an officer.” I couldn’t agree with more that sentiment. We are not guards, we are correctional officers. We work in security, but we are not security officers. We are not punishment officers. We are correctional officers. Because of that, the things we do — or should be doing — every shift contribute to our departmental and institutional mission of rehabilitation. After all, what is rehabilitation other than correcting attitudes and behaviors?

Even within these first few paragraphs there is much to discuss concerning diction, or the precision with which words are chosen to convey meaning. Moreover, Jones immediately calls into question what he perceives as received wisdom, i.e., “rehabilitation doesn’t work,” and justifies challenging that “wisdom” with the idea that we are “corrections professionals with minds of our own….”

If you have the time, read the whole article, but for the purposes of this discussion, I’ll be focusing on the words rehabilitation, corrections, and accountability. I realize that what I’m about to say may seem obvious, but typically, when we challenge the meaning of words by challenging the way in which they are used the common defense is – “I’m not going to argue semantics with you.” Now then, I’m going to define four words.

First, semantics is the study of meaning. Saying, “I’m not going to argue semantics with you” when the challenge is about meaning is nothing more than a cowardly retreat or copout. Semantics focuses on the denotation of a word without forgetting its possible connotations. Let’s be honest, meaning is important to effective communications.

Second, rehabilitation isn’t nearly as easy to define! Unless of course, we do without the connotations and focus on denotations, then rehabilitation means the action of restoring something to a former state or capacity. When we go into rehabilitation for alcoholism, we hope to be restored to a sober state. The very word rehabilitate assumes the existence of a prior and preferred state of being. For many inmates there really isn’t a prior and preferred state of being. Still, the idea of rehabilitation carries the seeds of our modern notions of restorative justice, i.e., restoring the offender to an amicable relationship with his community.

Third, being accountable means being subject to giving an account, being answerable for, being responsible for ones actions. Think in terms of money, accounts payable. Holding a party accountable for damages should give us a good idea of what accountability means.

Finally, the word corrections is probably a word that should not have been used for a penal institution unless some very radical changes were orchestrated. Think of this in terms of correcting a math paper, and then corrections are the act of altering or adjusting the problem to some standard or required state. In terms of our penal system, according to Webster’s, it is the act of punishing or disciplining with a view to reforming or improving one’s behavior.

While the last three words are used in the corrections field (our old penal system), they are not synonymous and we do a disservice to our chosen profession when we are not clear about the terms we use to communicate to each other and the public. On Oregon’s Department of Corrections website, there is a page devoted to the mission, vision, and core values of the department – no mention of the word rehabilitate. Look up the Oregon Accountability Model (OAM); you’ll be hard pressed to find the word rehabilitate or rehabilitation. Accountability and restoring the inmate to the community (re-entry) figure large in the OAM, but not rehab. I think this is a good thing, because it isn’t just “old time guards” that doubt the claims of rehabilitation programs; the public tends to share those doubts. Accountability, restoration, and reformation are good words to use within the framework of correctional professionals.

Feel free to tear me up here – after all, I did give short shrift to Jones’ article to keep this one manageable. My primary focus was to correct the notion that you can equate the concepts of rehabilitation and accountability, and that no, rehabilitation really isn’t simply correcting attitudes and behaviors.


  1. John
    January 16th, 2011 at 13:08 | #1

    Your comparison to the alcoholic is good. Rehab doesn’t work if the person has no motivation to change. The conventional wisdom saying they have to hit “rock bottom” first, to me, is relative. Apparently being incarcerated isn’t “rock bottom” for some people, or there wouldn’t be so many returning.

    Having never been in a prison, I’ll ask the question, is the present environment one that would deter the career criminal from taking the risk of getting caught again?

  2. February 25th, 2011 at 20:17 | #2

    Hi John,

    I’ve been lazy about answering/responding to comments in my blog. My apologies. I suppose I came pretty close to bailing on this thing for the next 18 months to two years. I’m actually trying to round out and finish my book. Some friends and Luise make it clear I’m not allowed to be quite that lazy!

    So, to your question… the common sense short answer is simply, “No!” In fact, doing a bid in prison is almost a prerequisite to credibility in current gang culture. Moreover, some of the gangs presuppose a leadership behind bars directing the soldiers on the street. The people that prison serves to deter future criminal behavior are those people who “barely” belong here in the first place.

    Having talked with many inmates about just this subject, I wasn’t as surprised as I thought I might be… to find out that “getting three hots and a cot, a weight pile, pool tournaments, and miniature golf – not to mention free medical and dental care – isn’t that much of a deterrent.” Although it is actually more complex than that, it is still pretty close to the facts on the ground.


  3. John
    February 27th, 2011 at 16:09 | #3

    That’s pretty much what I thought, it keeps the “honest people” honest, but for the career criminal it’s not much of a deterrent. We’re too afraid of offending the criminals to make the prison time inhospitable enough to be a deterrent.

    As for your upcoming book, I’m assuming it will have something to do with criminal justice? Here’s my advice to get publicity for it – Take a few jabs at Sarah Palin, you know she’s a button just waiting to be pushed and can’t help but lash back…….Instant publicity!!!

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