Correctional Rehabilitation Programs and the Adoption of International Standards: How the United States Can Reduce Recidivism and Promote the National Interest

Author:Emily A. Whitney
Position:J.D., The University of Iowa College of Law, 2009.

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I Introduction

Rehabilitation programs, specifically those involving education, prove critical to reducing prisoner recidivism rates. This Note posits the overarching theme that the united states stands to benefit from adopting international standards on prisoners' rights. This would entail recognizing the basic right to education for all inmates1 and the concept of aligning prison education and rehabilitation curriculums with the cultural and economic settings of local communities where inmates will return to live after release from prison.2 Though scientific data supports these two conclusions, actually achieving widespread support, sufficient funding, and judicial consensus in the United States poses a significant challenge. Over the past two hundred-plus years, shifting judicial, social, religious, and political philosophies have shaped the prison system and sought to respond to, and create a balance between, society's need for retribution and deterrence of crimes. The attempt to define both the extent of prisoners' rights and the value society places on education is an important part of this Note's thesis. Subsidiary but not insignificant issues include racial and socioeconomic disparities that plague the prison system, i.e., the disproportionate number of poor minorities filling prison cell blocks. 3

This Note provides the background needed to analyze prison education4today; in order to do so it considers the underlying objectives behind Page 779 rehabilitation and the historical context of the prison system. After laying this foundation, one can consider the legal theories and statutes supporting and challenging rehabilitation programs. Next, this Note examines the role such programs play in recidivism and the successful reentry of prisoners into society. This necessarily includes a comparison of the demographic factors comprising the prison population and the U.S. population in general. A comprehensive overview of prison rehabilitation and prisoner education must also contemplate relative degrees of public support and funding. Finally, an examination of international standards and psychological studies assists in placing U.S. programs in a broader context. This final Section supports the proposition that the United States should adopt international principles to improve the overall quality of life for individuals, and for society as a whole.

II Overview: Rehabilitation, Prisoners' Rights, and Demographics of the Prison Population

The stated mission of the Federal Bureau of Prisons5 is as follows: "to protect society by confining offenders in the controlled environments of prisons and community-based facilities that are safe, humane, cost-efficient, and appropriately secure, and that provide work and other self-improvement opportunities to assist offenders in becoming law-abiding citizens."6 This mission statement evolved from the four main tenets of criminal law: retribution, deterrence, incapacitation, and rehabilitation.7 People look at criminal justice through their understanding of human nature and select which of these four goals is more important to them.8 The U.S. public and lawmakers have spent over two hundred years debating the merits of each, giving more weight to one or another value according to the relevant economic climate or political mood at the time. 9 Page 780

Arguing over which theory holds the most water is fruitless when one recognizes that each plays a role in the prison system. The focus of this Note is to highlight the benefits of rehabilitation, but this goal is inextricable from deterrence. The prison system seeks to rehabilitate inmates as a mode of deterring them from future criminal acts, and prison literacy programs, for example, comport with these central objectives.

The following sections of this Note will consider the historical and legal background of the prison system, prisoners' demographics, statutory and case law governing prison education and rehabilitation, and general standards of review in the legal context. In sections III through VI, this Note examines the problem of recidivism, empirical studies supporting the development of rehabilitative programs, and issues of funding and public support. Section VII gives an international perspective, documenting the major applicable articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the U.N. Minimum Standards for the Treatment of Prisoners, and other international covenants. In the final section, this Note concludes with a call for incorporation of international standards into U.S. law.

A Timeline: Developing the Concept of Rehabilitation

A cursory look at the development of the U.S. prison system commences with a study of early 19th Century Calvinist philosophy. The bleak Calvinist outlook considered humans "inherently evil" and dismissed rehabilitation as a waste of time; retribution reigned supreme.10 The Quakers broke from this tradition by establishing what is considered America's first prison, the Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia, which had as one of its main goals the concept of rehabilitation through education.11 The jail, established in 1773, emphasized solitary confinement to better aid contemplation and remorse ("remorse" is the Latin meaning of penitentiary).12 It also provided basic education and schooled the inmates in the Quaker faith. 13

Reformists during the Jacksonian period of the 1820s14 gradually developed the idea of rehabilitation, focusing on solitary reflection as a means Page 781 to reform the wayward inmate.15 The new philosophy placed an emphasis on the role of family and community in educating the whole person.16 The Auburn System in New York required a long workweek from prisoners to instill a good work ethic and to procure rehabilitation through "purpose, discipline, and order."17 Another major development occurred in 1870, when the National Congress on Penitentiary and Reformatory Discipline established the American Correctional Association and the new Elmira Reformatory.18 Zebulun Brockway's revolutionary theory considered the individual prisoner and addressed his or her vocational and educational needs, providing the inmate with a range of classes from ethics and theology to geometry and literature.19

At the beginning of the 20th Century, the Progressive Period20 witnessed a loosening of the rigid prison structure and a growing consensus "that prisons did not serve the rehabilitative role intended for them."21 Since that recognition, many court cases in the late 20th Century22 detailed the growing state and national interests in establishing and maintaining rehabilitation programs for prisoners.23

Despite the fact that "[t]he Constitution did not breach prison walls for over 170 years,"24 the demise of the Hands-Off Doctrine gave birth to more judicial activism regarding prisoners' rights.25 The Hands-Off Doctrine, which courts applied until the 1960s, denotes the reluctance of jurists to interfere in matters involving the mistreatment of prisoners.26 In 1971, one commentator wrote that "[a]lthough vestiges of this doctrine remain intact at present, it has been rejected as a viable concept by most courts."27 The courts Page 782 of that era "consider[ed] prisoners as retaining 'all the rights of an ordinary citizen except those expressly, or by necessary implication, taken from [them] by law.'"28

In addition to recognizing the constitutional rights of prisoners, the cases of the 1960s and 1970s also spoke to state and national interests of prisoner rehabilitation. As mentioned above, the Supreme Court identified rehabilitation as one of three goals in Pell v. Procunier.29 States also endorsed this objective. For example, Holt v. Sarver describes Legislative Act 50 in Arkansas as "a sweeping statute dealing with the prison system [that] recognized that training and rehabilitation should be essential objectives."30The state's right to rehabilitate its prisoners was reaffirmed in Rutherford v. Hutto, and the Arkansas District Court even went so far as to say that "a State has a sufficient interest in eliminating illiteracy among its convicts to justify it in requiring" prisoners to reach the fourth grade.31

Despite acknowledging an interest in rehabilitation, courts nonetheless imposed limits on the right of a prisoner to participate in rehabilitative community programs. A Texas court declared, "[a]n inmate in a federal prison has no constitutional right to participate in community programs, nor to enroll and attend classes in a college outside the Camp."32

B A Survey on the Law of Prisoners' Rights

This section examines the role that...

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