Correctional Pedagogy: Prison Reform and Life-or-Death Learning

Correctional Pedagogy: Prison Reform and Life-or-Death Learning

Education cannot just be filling an empty brain, but must be as Paulo Freire says in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, “the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.” Learning in prison is about the future that is at stake and the society at large. Prison rehabilitation should be based on process not content — should be focused on learning to make good moral decisions in a variety of situations and not a single dogmatic code of right behavior in our society. 

A pedagogy of prison rehabilitation is a life-or-death pedagogy. If even one inmate becomes a responsible, contributing member of society, there is a potential reduction of hundreds of new crimes and their potential victims. To the offender this means a life of integrity, new and positive relationships, a sense of peace and belonging, and a new self-efficacy. If the offender does not change, then it could be death on the streets, death in addiction or overdose, or a long slow death by the revolving door in and out of prison.

We need more nuanced, less polarizing, perspectives on prisoner learning. There are experts on the one hand who believe criminals can never change, and those on the other who believe a quick and easy solution is available, a conversion or instantaneous rebirth. A belief in quick solutions feeds the criminal mentality that makes the mere appearance of “going straight” the most valued outcome. I’ve heard this quick-solution thinking — “if only I stayed off the booze, or stop dealing drugs, I could live a good life and avoid re-incarceration” — many times from prisoners themselves, their jailers, and so-called rehabilitation experts. I’ve worked for decades as a provider, developer, and administrator of prison programs. Substance addiction is often underestimated as a whole-person condition, and it is just as often used as a black hole to sink our blames and fears inside.

Many believe criminals never actually change, even after many years of responsible action and living. A single offense from one former inmate can confirm the cynical view that “old habits never die” or “a leopard never loses its spots,” which I’ve heard from corrections executives and program administrators alike. What is worse is that this feeds a lurking despair and demoralization in the minds of the offender, that confirms “I can never change” because “I have failed too many times.” I have seen suicides committed over this pervasive belief. One man named Patrick completed treatment as a role model and leader in two of my programs, one in prison and one on parole. But he struggled with mental illness and relapse. He ended his life in the desperate belief that he was doomed forever and his children would be better off without him.

I believe the primary measure of correctional institutions is whether they foster real learning and growth in the lives of the inmates. Many prisons claim to have an orientation or a mission to support rehabilitation, recovery, or reintegration into society. But few provide significant and effective opportunities for offenders to truly change their lives. There may be token funding and resources, but they are limited at best.

Sadly, most institutions provide only a secure housing arrangement. They are merely warehouses for people. The simple fact is that prisons hold people and do not work to change them. They may stop them, but only temporarily.

In the learning environment of a prison, staff and peer influence is often negative. An inmate code exists, where criminal and irresponsible norms control actions beneath a façade of respectable and orderly inmate behavior. Most prisons have a peer culture where an ‘us vs. the man’ philosophy is the norm, and exploitation of others is a mark of status among offenders and jailers.

Most prisons and jails have either a custodial or clinical model, setting up a jailer/prisoner or doctor/patient dichotomy, respectively. Both models are autocratic. According to these models, jailers control inmates, and doctors and social workers cure them. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire critiques a “banking” model of education, in which “knowledge is a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those whom they consider to know nothing [...] The teacher presents himself to his students as their necessary opposite; by considering their ignorance absolute, he justifies his own existence.” Both the custodial and clinical models place the staffers in the position of “teacher” described here by Freire. Neither the custodial nor clinical models lead to comprehensive change.

Program Models for Prison Reform

Most correctional institutions have rehabilitation programs in work, education, mental health, and substance abuse that don’t talk to each other. They are silos with administrators often fighting each other for funding. They value one or more “magic bullets” that singularly hold out wonderful and amazing benefits to change the lives of offenders. Or sometimes an institution will provide more comprehensive programming that is ill-coordinated. Progress in one area does not necessarily lead to progress or change in another:

  • Education or school programs can provide useful skills for reintegration into society. Their message to the offender is “here is some information you’re going to need to make it.” However what is important is not what inmates know but what they do with it. If prisons don’t focus on a comprehensive change process, then educating criminals will make for smarter criminals. Schooling needs to be part of a broader rehabilitation program. It’s good to liberate inmates, but we must prepare them to use that liberation in healthy ways.

  • Self-help programs like twelve step groups help offenders understand what addicts and alcoholics go through and offer positive models. This appears necessary for change but is also insufficient on its own.

  • Treatment groups help offenders work through what is going wrong with them. But these groups rarely reach the intensity and frequency that would be ideal, hence group members are often shy to voice significant challenges to each other. There need to be ample opportunities to practice changed behaviors and verify change on a daily basis, something unavailable in most treatment groups. In-group role playing is also insufficient. Treatment groups have been researched with positive results. But most often the target populations are low risk and self-selected for a strong motivation to change. Failed outcomes with countless group programs are rarely published.

  • Community supervision with urinalysis, day reporting, and sometimes electronic monitoring will help watch offenders, but here the goal is to verify appropriate behavior without attention to whether the behavior is more than a ruse.

  • Work programs teach responsible habits and the ability to contribute to society, but employment can also be a front for continued criminal and arrestable activities. In fact, work and/or schooling are the façades of respectability that every probationer/parolee knows they must show to their supervision officer.

What is needed are rehabilitation programs that are comprehensive and make use of positive peer influence. Comprehensive programs are multi-dimensional and effect change in all attitudes and behavior, including substance abuse, mental health, employment, education, leisure time, and most of all personal relationships. Comprehensive programs treat the whole person with a range of modalities.

Therapeutic Communities for Whole Person Change

Therapeutic communities (TCs) offer an alternative model that is comprehensive and peer-oriented with self-help methods of programming where the community of peers are seen as the vehicle for change. When incorporating comprehensive cognitive-behavioral and educational programming, TCs have significant empirical data supporting their effectiveness, particularly for hard-core offenders with substance addiction and mental illness. I have developed TCs in six different correctional facilities in the Colorado prison system, and I’m honored to witness the personal growth in those who appear hopeless to both society and self.

TCs are currently operating in over 100 correctional facilities in the US. They are staff-led programs where the participants communicate the program elements and change process to each other. The peer culture develops as a positive influence on daily behavior. This becomes a culture antithetical to the usual prison code and is insulated from the rest of the prison society, since TC units are separated physically from the general population in most daily activities.

Comprehensive programs have breadth, depth, intensity, and duration. The therapeutic community functions as a 24/7 program which typically lasts from 6 to 18 months. They incorporate educational, therapeutic, and work activities into daily living. But the real force of influence happens in community meetings. For example, there are morning and close-of-day meetings where members motivate each other and relay important community business. The community interrelations are familial; community members are like brothers and sisters in recovery.

TCs are like a healthy family-living situation and also a school for moral development. For much of their lives, offenders have not been a real part of anything, and TCs require close involvement. Behavior becomes public and is subject to intervention by the rest of the community. Groups meet weekly to develop learning experiences in response to problem behaviors, which facilitates the peer-driven environment of the program. Frequent “pull-ups” and “push-ups” are key tools, formalized activities that members use to encourage and motivate each other.

Education groups are often co-led by members of the community, requiring greater learning but just as importantly a willingness to teach others. As Freire writes in Pedagogy of Freedom, “Whoever teaches learns in the act of teaching, and whoever learns teaches in the act of learning.” This is the community view of real education for life change.

Therapy groups are also peer-directed. As an expert and teacher in group therapy, I’ve often felt the urge to intervene. But in TC groups I’ve marveled at how skilled members in the group seem to always make the best interventions before I would even consider jumping in. That is the way group therapy or learning in any environment should work.

TC life also provides structured roles and responsibilities for each of the residents. All are expected to be role models to the others; and each are given sophisticated responsibilities. Roles change frequently. All are expected to be leaders, and also to follow others’ lead. This provides an environment for peer support, the acquisition of leadership skills, identity change, and increased self-esteem.

A big key to effectiveness in TCs are shared norms and values. Let’s be clear what these are. They are not dogmatic propaganda. They are not a code of strict and “perfect” conduct. They encourage simple and necessary values for good citizenship — honesty, accountability, work ethic, and community responsibility.

The above program elements have contributed to a record of empirical research that shows TC to be an effective correctional program reducing drug use and return to prison, and improving the mental health of the participants. These programs have been researched extensively and have earned the status of “Evidence-based Practices” within the Department of Human Services SAMHSA National Registry of Evidence Based Practices for “Corrections Therapeutic Community” and for “Modified TC for Persons with Co-Occurring Disorders”.

Reintegration

The vast majority of criminal offenders are or will be living in our neighborhoods. We must advocate for comprehensive programs of recovery and rehabilitation so that they can be positive contributing members of society rather than toxic parasites. We lock offenders in prisons and jails, but we also must be willing to welcome them back into our community of citizens and supportive groups of recovering people.

This is exactly where school reform and prison reform intersect. These are not separate and distinct movements. Our schools can’t be prisons. And our prisons must be schools.

We must believe in and recognize a positive process of personal transformation from irresponsible exploitation of others to personal responsibility and value to the community. Personal agency is not a simple decision or conversion. It is a complex and lengthy path to personal responsibility and growth. Hassan Latif is an ex-inmate and graduate from one of my TC programs in the Colorado prison system. He has a lengthy and serious criminal past and was initially denied entrance to the TC as too high risk. He says in his book that change starts with “owning your own crap” and becomes “a vision, a desire to achieve, the willingness to be guided, the discipline of dedicated efforts, and the patience to see it all come together.”


Hybrid Pedagogy uses an open collaborative peer review process. This piece was reviewed by Sean Michael Morris and Alex Fink.

[Photo, Jailbird by Ian Sanelicensed under CC BY-NC 2.0]

About the Author

Joe Stommel

Joe Stommel (@JoeStommel) was Colorado Department of Corrections Administrator of Alcohol and Drug Services from 1990-2008. He retired and is now a consultant and online college instructor. His website is trainingtcskills.com.

7 Comments
Discussions from the Community.
  1. Tania I. Garcia says:

    Great article. Questions for further discussion… How can we lessen this prevailing dichotomy ‘us vs. them’; doctor/patient that you mention? Furthermore, along the same lines; how can the Integrity of the Therapeutic Community be sustained in this paradoxical environment? And I am not referring to the isolation of the community in itself; yes this is a partial solution. I am referring to staff in the correctional environment in general.

    • Joe Stommel says:

      For the change to take hold, members must be ‘alive’ with an excitement, hungry and desperate for a new way of life. I include staff here. They must communicate their own energy, be ‘on fire’ for the change process. So all staff need to have significant personal stake and experience in transforming their own lives. Self-improvement must be on their agenda every day. Those in leadership need to continually fuel this fire with a work environment for staff that significantly stimulates this.

  2. Joe, thank you for a beautiful inspiring post. I wish we had something like that here in Egypt, and reading your post made me realize that no one has probably thought of it at all… “We lock offenders in prisons and jails, but we also must be willing to welcome them back into our community of citizens and supportive groups of recovering people.” – and you are so right about the intersections between prison reform and school reform. Thanks again.

    • Joe Stommel says:

      Greetings to you Maha Bali. Thanks for your kind words and concern for your countrymen. I am glad you are involved with the meaningful ideas and topics considered in this wonderful journal.
      Best regards, Joe Stommel

  3. Joe Stommel says:

    I was very happy to receive the following by email from Hassan Latif. I am grateful to Hassan for his tireless work in self improvements and bringing those to his relationships, his book, and to his field of work. – Joe S.

    Greetings. Please include the following comment o the article by Joe Stommel:
    This is a wonderful article. The perspective could not have been better stated, Mr. Stommel The concept of “Whole Person Change” does not simply focus on that which is dysfunctional while devaluing strengths inherent in those who has survived lives of marginalization, victimization and incarceration. It empowers an individual with the self efficacy to recognize those strengths, build upon them, lessen the obstacles and (most importantly) sustain the growth.
    I can’t even speak to how humbled I am that you would find me worthy of inclusion in offering. My life (Thank God) is, in great part, literally the sum of your work.
    Forever grateful.
    Hassan A. Latif

  4. Kayla Reynolds says:

    It is very inspiring to see that there are others out there who see the need for reform in the prison system as mentioned in this article. As a former Correctional Officer, it felt like I was alone out there with my the desire to push for a change in this environment for the offenders and society. After all, the label “offender” is temporary as the vast majority will parole to our neighborhoods one day, once again becoming a free citizen of society. I know I prefer a rehabilitated person to return to our community than one who will continue to victimize others and continue down a path of self destruction. I think one of the biggest hurtles is overcoming the mentality that a lot of DOC employees have and are often times taught or required to have. All the programs in the world won’t help much if the ones who spend the majority of an offender’s time with them, the officers, continue to kick them when they’re down and hinder progress made during their program. A dog can only be kicked so many times before it bites back or succumbs to the abuse believing that’s what it deserves. The common idea that the offenders are a lost cause who can’t be saved and scrutinizing those officers who do try to pave a path for change for an offender, doesn’t help anyone. Staff should be encouraged to be the change they wish to see in the offenders by leading them by example and work with them, not against them. Instead, staff tend to be labeled “chocolate hearts” or accused of being a “hug a thug” and outcast as the black sheep if they show too much concern for the well-being of the offenders. I liked your statement, “We lock offenders in prisons and jails, but we also must be willing to welcome them back into our community of citizens and supportive groups of recovering people.” I agree. Society wants to see change in the offenders, but generally are not willing to give them a chance. Even though they’ve served their sentence, in some ways, they all receive a life sentence because their crime will follow them for life. “But he, knowing their thoughts, said unto them, Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and a house divided against a house falleth.” (Luke 11:17). I hope for a system that will unite, focusing on the importance that rehabilitating the offenders is beneficial for the greater good of society as a whole!

    • Joe Stommel says:

      Kayla, thank you for expressing these sentiments from the perspective of the correctional officer. I appreciate your bringing up the issue of ‘positive role modeling’ as a significant influence on those incarcerated in our penal systems. The therapeutic community program adheres to a philosophy where this role modeling is the foundation of the change process. One unique aspect is that all staff members at the facility (including security) are expected to be positve role models at all times when present in the boundaries of the program or when in contact with the participants. The same standards are applied to all. Staff are chosen from those who are willing to be under scrutiny as to their role modeling and their day to day belief in self-improvement as a key value in their own lives.

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