Rehabilitating Criminal Rehabilitation

My cyberfriend Joe recently shared his thoughts about capital punishment in a post titled Thoughts on Church, Torture and Capital Punishment. Here are a few excerpts from our comment thread:
Bob: Having ministered in prisons and jails for the past 7 years I have to admit that our penal system really sucks. It is uber-expensive.. it seems that it puts a huge burden on the tax payers. Any thoughts about what should be done and how we should treat those who commit murder?

Joe: I believe murderers should be punished. I don’t believe that the punishment for murder must be life imprisonment. I think that many but not all criminals can be rehabilitated. I think it would be uncivilized to imprison criminals without also trying to rehabilitate them. If imprisonment does not include an all out effort to rehabilitate, then we are wasting the taxpayer’s money. The criminal deserves punishment and his or her punishment is a deterrent to others. The taxpayer deserves that the system rehabilitates the criminal so that s/he can be released as soon as the punishment is complete with a reasonable expectation that s/he will not return to crime.

Bob: I get what you are saying Joe.. just think that we need practical steps to change the culture.. until the culture is changed we need to focus on protecting citizens.

From my perspective our penal system seems to really focus on rehabilitating inmates.. just not sure (from my interactions with inmates) that many have the desire to change.. even the ones in our bible studies exuded an amazing amount of ego.. I sometimes wondered if they really understood why they were in jail when they complained about being forced to attend rehab classes.

Quick story: one of our prison volunteers took in a "rehabilitated" prisoner when he completed his sentence. It was a nightmare.. the guy who was angelic in our bible studies turned into Satan when he got out.

I shudder to think about letting violent folks return to society thinking that they are rehabilitated. Of course the system today does allow for some criminals (even murderers) to be paroled.. so life-imprisonment is not always for life.
Our dialog at Joe's place is ongoing.. feel free to join our conversation.. these excerpts are limited to the penal system but Joe has some good things to say about capital punishment and the death penalty.

So what do you think the focus of our penal system should be? Do you think it is working? Should conditions in prisons be austere (i.e. no TV or air conditioning) or do you think the atmosphere should be more of a collegial one where the focus is on education and learning? Or should it be something totally different?


  1. What an interesting dialogue ~~ There are no easy answers to these questions.

    I will tune back in to hear more.

    Life has been "different" the past few weeks, and I haven't been visiting often....sorry.

    I do think of you often and your wife.

    Love and Hugs

  2. hi Bob,
    I think it's interesting that you use the word rehabilitation.
    In Florida it used to be called The Department of Corrections & rehabilitation. A few years ago they dropped the rehabilitation from the name.
    In Florida, there is no attempt at rehab of anyone. You can go to church or you can attend AA/NA meetings. You can do correspondence courses (if you can pay for them) but the state will not try to rehabilitate you in any way.
    On my first day in prison I went to what they call "orientation" where a DOC officer explained to us the finer points of "doing time". His key message was,"stay away from the fence, it is my job to keep you inside that fence and we are prepared to use any means necessary to keep you inside. Including shooting for the center of the body."
    In this state Prisons are not a strain on taxpayers. Prisoners make money for this state. Prisoners build prisons. Prisoners who are not paid a dime for the work they do.
    I'm not saying that they shouldn't be in prison, I am sure most should be. But, words like Rehabilitation, and air conditioning are more along the lines of fairy tales to me.
    I committed a violent crime, I will not do it again because D.O.C. taught me a lot about what really matters.
    Did I mention that Prison really sucks? Oh they did away with the Education program in this state the year I went in 2000.
    at least in Florida, indeed rehab is not even an option, Prison here will teach you to a.)Appreciate your freedom or b.) Become a better criminal.
    Sorry for the long comment.
    Peace Bro.

  3. Good comment from Shaun and not a bit long.

    I'm not surprised to hear that Florida's DOC has given up on rehabilitation programs. Florida is ranked #4 on executions since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976. I'll post a graph on my blog.

  4. Thanks Shaun for such a revealing look at the Florida DOC. I was wondering about this comment:

    "I committed a violent crime, I will not do it again because D.O.C. taught me a lot about what really matters."

    Did just the experience of a prison that "really sucks" make the difference and teach you a lot or did something they did teach you something? Do you think any specific rehabilitative programs or classes would have helped you?

    Feel free to answer or not.. I respect you.. you are such an open and transparent person.. I'd appreciate anything that you might have to add.

    Blessings, Bob

  5. Look forward to dialoging more about this Joe.. I appreciate your thoughts.. I think that rehabilitation and imprisonment are such complicated issues.

  6. Thanks Bob,
    I really respect you too.
    I think it comes down to a choice. I think every person that is a convicted felon has to decide what matters and if it really matters enough for you to change the way you approach life.
    I give God the credit for any real changes I made, I was always a person that let my emotions overpower what my brain was telling me.
    I think a big part of that was my believing in lies. Lies about my self-sufficiency and the nature of the close personal relationships I held so dear.
    I think it's often true for most convicted criminals that they don't live in reality, the ones that do I think are sociopaths.
    I think the one thing that would help most people in prison is actual psychological help.

    For me Bob, the thing that taught me was the separation from the people I cared about the most.
    I always tell my self that my worst day now is still better than my best day in prison. Makes things not seem so bad.
    the extreme loneliness was the hardest part. in 2 1/2 years I had one person who I would call a friend.
    Yeah I'm pretty sure that was what taught me.

  7. With the recent release of another innocent person from Death Row, I decided to take a look at how many have been released. In the last 36 years 132 people have been freed from Death Row. They were on Death Row an average of 9 years and 9 months. One was on Death Row for 33 years.

    Forty of these were from the top four execution states - TX, OK, FL and VA. Not only do these states use the Death Penalty more than the other states, they also imprison more innocent people than the other states. How many innocent people have been executed - especially in TX, OK, FL and VA?

    The Death Penalty is wrong even if the courts and juries didn't make mistakes. Courts and juries do make mistakes, will always make mistakes and WE continue to execute people with the full knowledge that some of them are innocent.

  8. Bob,

    Of course, I am no expert on rehabilitation. But, that never stopped me from having a thought.

    1.) I think that we should always opt for rehabilitation. Punitive actions are barbaric and counterproductive. Some people may learn through "consequences" for their actions. But, the goals should always be correction and/or the protection of society. Never punishment for the sake of punishment.

    2.) I believe that anyone we put into prison should be at least given the opportunity for rehabilitation. I do not believe people are disposable, ever.

    3.) The death penalty is what prompted my issue in this. Even if we could determine perfectly who is guilty of a crime worthy of death (and we have demonstrated beyond any doubt we are not perfect on that front), the death penalty is brutal, costs us more money than life imprisonment, is not a deterrent and weakens our moral authority in the world. One of the things that really disappoints and surprises me about the United States is we still put people to death.


  9. Bob, have you ever seen the Animal Planet show "Cell Dogs?" This was the most amazing forms of rehabilitation - both for inmates and for unadoptable dogs!

  10. A lot of interesting thoughts about rehabilitating inmates and a few comments about capital punishment.

    Some comments seem to embrace an idea that society owes rehabilitation to convicted felons because it is "good" for society. Gotta wonder what the victims and their families would think?

    I wonder about this kind of focus. Maybe rehabilitation is something that should only be earned by good behavior. Maybe the system should be a meritorious one where things like Air Conditioning should be earned by good behavior.

    All that said I have to say that I think that this is a huge issue.. can't simply be against capital punishment and not talk about the alternatives.


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