By Bob Hampe
Calls for prison reform—including sentencing reform, drug policy modification and making mental health treatment available to incarcerated individuals—abound. While rates of incarceration have somewhat leveled off in recent years, the fact is there’s been a 500% increase in the number of people imprisoned in this country during the last 40 years. The U.S. leads the world in both incarceration rate and the total number of incarcerated people—two million. Many of these individuals are not first-time offenders; the problem of recidivism in this country nearly matches the country’s issues with prison overpopulation.
The solutions to these complicated issues are, themselves, complicated. But working with correctional facilities for their RTLS needs for the past several years has given Actall a front-row seat to changes in the approach and evolution of corrections in general—its purpose, role and adaptability to social change. It’s not likely that we’ll abolish prisons or overhaul our criminal justice system completely. But what I do see happening is a transformation of another kind: one that prioritizes rehabilitation and healing.
The Corrections Facility of Tomorrow: Education, Rehabilitation and Less Recidivism
Tomorrow’s corrections facility will likely look more like a mashup of a behavioral health facility and an addiction recovery center, all wrapped around an educational institution. If you don’t believe me, look no further than a project we’re working on now: a Nunavut-based corrections facility with signage in culturally appropriate language and a layout that was designed to facilitate healing, rather than to degrade and punish. Evidence shows that the carceral environment plays a major role in the mental health and wellness of inmates and correctional officers alike, leading to better outcomes and less recidivism overall. That’s good news both for the incarcerated and for taxpayers who are on the hook to continuously fund facilities that expand the number of beds but don’t address root issues, like behavioral health or skill-building, that lead to outsize rates of recidivism.
Costs to society aren’t just in the form of increased fees to feed and house hundreds of thousands of people for long periods of time. Social costs—shattered families, gutted communities, less opportunity for financial advancement—mirror and exceed these rising funding expenditures.
Releasing people back into society without also offering technological or other skill-based training can lead formerly incarcerated individuals to the same kind of decision-making that got them locked up to begin with. Simply put, if baseline conditions don’t change, outcomes won’t, either. Changing the foundation of access, opportunity and education—the lack of which sometimes leads people to make decisions that land them in jail or prison—will transform the way people move through the criminal justice system.
Treating mental health challenges offers immense promise for keeping people out of the system. Behavioral health centers all over the country already engage in this kind of rehabilitative work, helping people address root causes of issues in their lives and embark on healthier, more productive paths. Tomorrow’s corrections facilities and criminal justice system can and should have an intense focus on treating mental health challenges and on providing opportunities for skill-building—both for the good of incarcerated people and for the good of society.
The Fork in the Road
We can agree that things need to change. But will the change come now, or will we wait until cost curves get even steeper and levels of recidivism continue to skyrocket? It’s time to use technology, architecture, mental health treatment and education for transformative good,so when people serve their time for criminal convictions, they emerge equipped with skills not just to survive in society, but even to thrive. Tomorrow’s correctional facility will look radically different than today’s, and that’s a good thing for everyone involved.
We’ll be publishing a series of blogs on this subject in 2023, and engaging directly with a number of thought leaders in correctional design and operations for their insights. Next in this series will be a Q&A on the “Norway Model” with Brian Koehn, Founder and CEO at Social Profit Corrections.