“Pavlov’s Prisoners and the Prison Program Paradox”

“Pavlov’s Prisoners and the Prison Program Paradox”

“Pavlov’s Dog” illustration (Pavlov 1928 & Goodwin 1991, p. 138).

On Tuesday, February 10, I attended a ‘criminal justice reform’ conference at the Washington Post in Washington, DC called “Out of Prison, Into Society.” It was very well attended by organizations and individuals interested in the current national trend to reform our criminal justice system.

The list of guests was impressive and included Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor to President Barack Obama and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), as well as Bernard Kerik, former NYC Police and Correction Commissioner and former federal prison inmate.

While this morning’s agenda focused on federal criminal justice reform issues including sentencing and re-entry, the dialogue is identical to what has been taking place all around the country as states struggle to deal with constitutional requirements to balance budgets and look to reducing prison populations as one way to accomplish that.

The rise in prison population is generally blamed on the “war on drugs” but that is just where the finger points. The truth is, money is a great motivator, and particularly so in the area of incarceration. It was greed and profit incentive that created the prison industrial complex in the first place, and it was that industry which created what I termed in my prison blog The Oakdale Chronicles, “America’s Culture of Incarceration.

While Sen. Lee’s bill has come under recent criticism and attack, there is far too much talk on the subject to imagine that passage will not occur at some point. I applaud his efforts and I was impressed with what I heard this morning from Ms. Jarrett, Mr. Lee, and all of the others who participated.

Mr. Kerik offered a perspective that was different in that he spoke from the dual perspective as one who spent a lifetime locking people up, and as one who himself spent 3 years behind bars. Since Mr. Kerik was a federal inmate his stories struck a familiar chord with me since I was a federal prison inmate for 4 years from 2010 to 2014.

One area of his contribution was to talk about ‘programs’ offered by the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) as a means of preparing inmates for re-entry into society. In particular, Mr. Kerik mentioned Adult Continuing Education (ACE) self-study courses offered on the compound where he served his time. He named several titles of some of the classes, including ‘chess’, ‘checkers’, and ‘quilting’ and wondered how, exactly, those would contribute to anyone’s successful re-entry into society.

Good question.

I served my time at Oakdale FCI in Oakdale, LA and 24 ACE courses were offered. While some of the titles were on subject matter that might be beneficial, I met not one person who actually completed any of the courses. The common practice was to ‘buy’ completion of the entire series from the library clerk (an inmate) for 2 books of stamps. Stamps served as compound currency, and this was just one of the many prison ‘hustles’ employed by inmates.

The other way to complete the series was to obtain them one at a time and take the ‘tests’ at the end, which sounds good, but each and every book in the series had the answers to the test questions underlined, so all ‘students’ did was leaf through the pages and fill in the blanks.

Everyone is familiar with Pavlov’s conditioning of dogs to anticipate the ‘reward’ of food when they heard him ring the bell. When the ACE series was ‘completed’ a certificate was issued, as they were for all other programs offered, and these certificates became the reward that was anticipated when the programming ‘bell’ was rung.

Unfortunately, it was so important for the prison staff to demonstrate that they were helping to move men forward, to improve them as individuals, to educate them and to prepare them for re-entry that the check-mark of completion became the goal rather than the accomplishment of anything of genuine significance. The promise that a collection of certificates would make them look good to the probation officer that would supervise their release contributes to the conditioning that makes the certificate the benefit, rather than the actual learning of the content of the material represented by the certificate.

The paradox is that while programming seems like a good idea, the results gleaned are less than acceptable or desirable. The focus needs to be on education, and not just of the rubber stamp or ‘book-of-stamp’ variety. It needs to be genuine, verifiable, and meaningful.

While Mr. Lee’s bill addresses the absolute insanity of some of the sentencing practices which have contributed to the 900% growth of the federal prison population since 1980 (as stated by Mr. Lee), there was far too little discussion addressing 1) prison education initiatives, and 2) de-incentivizing the profits that are harvested through the unconscionably large ‘crop’ of human beings incarcerated in this country.

Kudos to the Washington Post, and to all who see the problems that exist in our criminal justice system today and are trying to do something to correct what was an extremely bad idea to begin with, and has only gotten worse since. As we all know, there are no simple answers, but with people like Ms. Jarrett, Sen. Lee, Mr. Kerik, and the other esteemed members of the discussion panels speaking up about the problem, combined with the support of media organizations such as the Washington Post, perhaps we can one day silence the ringing of Pavlov’s bell.