Pretenses at rehabilitative justice in the United States often point to employment training programmes in prison as evidence that, once convicted, people have an opportunity to make something of themselves. They can develop skills and experience that will be useful on the outside, which will help them build new lives after getting out on probation or finishing their prison terms. This will allow them to escape the cycle of criminal life, to build lives for themselves outside the trap of escalating crimes which land people in prison for longer and longer periods of time, eventually culminating in life imprisonment.
At the same time, the existence of such programmes is sometimes used as an argument that prisoners are irredeemable by proponents of retributive justice, who say that prisoners slip back into their old ways as soon as they get out, explaining high recidivism rates. Even with training, people claim, prisoners fail to get jobs when they get out of prison and up committing crimes all over again, so clearly they aren’t committed to lasting change.
Yet, the major flaw with both approaches is the assumption that prisoners can get work when they get out. This is not actually the case, and pretending that it is accomplishes nothing, other than muddying the debate with falsehoods. People with prison records are more likely to experience unemployment, to remain unemployed for longer periods of time, and to end up in under the table jobs with no protections or benefits. They are forced by the system to become part of an underground economy.
For probationers, there may be some terms set on unemployment, places where people cannot work because they’re considered possible routes to recidivism. Someone out for embezzling, for example, may not be allowed to handle a cash drawer. Restrictions may also be placed on people like sex offenders with the goal of reducing the chances of a repeat of the crime; people may not be allowed to work within a certain distance of a school or daycare centre, for example. These restrictions close many jobs to probationers immediately, and can extend past probation in some cases.
There are also the doors that close informally to convicts, without being explicitly labeled that way. People with prison records have a hard time finding work because employers don’t want to hire probationers or ex-convicts. They want to hire people with clean records. Even if someone has training in something like fine woodworking, the employer sees that it took place in a prison setting and isn’t interested. People with prison records experience employment discrimination that can make it extremely hard to seek out legitimate, mainstream work. As a result, they may be forced into other ways of making money, even if they very much don’t want to return to what they were doing before they went to prison.
Programmes providing prisoners with training and experience tend to be most successful when they are paired with outside placement. If graduates of an in-prison training program can be assured a place in the outside world with their training, they have a much better chance of being able to rebuild their lives and shift their ways of life. Providing them with social support and a leg up to defeat the employment discrimination that plagues people with prison records, in other words, is the best way to promote rehabilitation. This, of course, costs money and requires followup and outreach, so it’s less common than just releasing people and letting them figure things out from there.
It’s a curious mixture, the blend of rehabilitation and retribution in these instances. People can pat themselves on the back for having programmes intended to provide prisoners with training and skills they can use after their release, without actually following through and ensuring that these initiatives lead somewhere and create real opportunities for prisoners. Their work is done when people are released, even if they’re going back to the communities they came from with no realistic hopes of getting a job. Their time away in prison allegedly provides them with skills they can use to build up their communities, but that only works if they can get jobs.
Firms willing to hire prisoners are thin on the ground in some places. Many are run by probationers and ex-convicts who know how hard it is to find work and want to provide community-based support for people who have gotten out of prison and may be working on adjusting to the outside world. They may work with minimal support from the government agencies and organizations that claim to care about rehabilitation and promoting a fair chance and rebuilding after prison; the delivery of direct services on the ground is often thankless and an uphill task, and it comes with discrimination too, like clients who refuse to work with a company that might send former prisoners to a job site.
In a justice system that cannot make up its mind about what it wants to be, such situations are common. It is neither fish nor fowl; our prison system is a revolving door with little chance of rehabilitation for prisoners, few opportunities for advancement, limited realistic options for people who want to turn away from a criminal past and into something else. Yet, it pretends to offer something that looks like rehabilitation, to be something more than simplistic retribution, even as most of the models in the prison system seem to be those of punishment. It’s inherent in the very name, the penal system, where the goal is to punish, not to address the larger social issues that contribute to crime and drive people to desperate acts to stay alive and keep functioning.