In her May 27 column, Pat LaMarche recounted her family’s visit to the (now closed) Ohio State Reformatory and mused about the popular film version of a Stephen King story, “The Shawshank Redemption,” filmed there. Among the moving observations Pat raised, two deserve further comment. On the one hand, Pat commented that having seen OSR, she now understood why states tear down closed prisons: They wish to destroy the evidence of the “criminal warehousing, overcrowding and abuse” — the waste of human life — that took place there. Further, Pat wondered how many prisoners — if falsely imprisoned like Andy Dufresne in the movie — could stay good and, perhaps more importantly, how many of the guilty are actually redeemed.
To take the last issue first, criminologists have developed a pretty reliable estimate of how effective imprisonment is in rehabilitating offenders. Generally, the estimates are based on studies of recidivism — variously defined as how many of those released from prison are again arrested, convicted and returned to prison on the new conviction; or returned to prison for technical violations — that is, for failure to follow rules governing conduct on provisional release. The “gold standard” of recidivism studies is the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ study of prisoners released from 15 state prison systems in 1994.
A 1994 BJS study reviewed the records of 277,111 offenders who incurred 744,000 charges in the first three years after release. The results are stunning. Overall, 67.5 percent of those released from prisons in 1994 in the 15 states under study were arrested again. Slightly fewer of those released were convicted — 46.9 percent. About a quarter, 25.4 percent, of those released in 1994 were sent back to prison on the new charge. However, perhaps most telling, 52 percent of those released in 1994 were returned to prison for technical violation of their conditions of release.
Subsequent studies of various state and federal populations of released offenders, although limited in scale, have all produced comparable figures. Maine does slightly better than many jurisdictions, but uses a nonstandard measure of recidivism: 26.1 percent of Maine probationers recidivate within one year of placement on probation through arrest for a new crime. In short, American imprisonment doesn’t work well at all in redeeming those who are sent to prison.
The general conclusion, however, is not the end of the story. The BJS study of 1994 prison releasees also examined which groups among offenders were most — and least — likely to recidivate. The good news in this regard is that the most serious violent offenders benefit most from incarceration: Only 2.5 percent of released rapists are sent back to prison within three years for another rape; only 1.2 percent of convicted murderers who are released are sent back to prison within three years for another murder.
The bad news is that the overwhelming majority of offenders for lesser crimes seem to benefit little from imprisonment. In particular, offenders sentenced for property crimes and drug offenses — which together constitute around three out of every five persons in U.S. prisons — constitute regular “repeat” offenders. Probation and other forms of community sentencing, while not perfect, tend to do better with these populations — and at a fraction of the cost. Still, we imprison these offenders nationally at an alarming rate.
The realities of our imprisonment practices make Pat LaMarche’s observations about the conditions of American imprisonment even more important. While it may be true that old, decommissioned prisons are often torn down to avoid the reminder of their former lives, it is equally — if not more — true that old prisons live on, in seeming perpetuity. Thus, New York’s Sing Sing prison in Ossining, site of the nation’s first electric chair and source of the iconic phrase “being sent up the [Hudson] river,” was opened in 1825. While the original cellblock has now been retired, century-old cellblocks are still in use there today. Dozens of other older 19th century prisons — including Walpole in Massachusetts and Dannemora in New York — are also in active use.
As Pat describes solitary confinement at OSR, each of these prisons has confinement blocks that exhibit some variation on a “lightless, airless, fetid dungeon.” At the same time, there is no reason for celebrating modern American prisons, which alternate between supercenter-sized warehouses and the newly designed, command-controlled Supermaxes. The latter — such as Pelican Bay in California and USP Marion in Illinois — are as severe, debilitating and “airless” as any dank, 19th century cellblock. As a consequence, American corrections has combined the worst of both worlds: We imprison the wrong people at higher rates than any other country and we do so in more dysfunctional settings. This is the non-Hollywood version of the Shawshank story.
Robert C. Hauhart is an associate professor of criminal justice at Saint Martin’s University in Lacey, Wash. He is a summer resident of Steuben.