Labeling Theory 2: Socialization, Total Institutions, and Re-Entry

(images courtesy the Stanford Prison Experment slideshow)

In 1971, a group of social psychologists including Philip Zimbardo and Craig Haney embarked upon a creative, groundbreaking experiment, which would be cited and referred to for years to come. They hoped to study the psychological effects of imprisonment.

For that purpose, they converted the Stanford Psychology Department’s basement into a prison, complete with cells, and monitored by cameras. They recruited male college students, who completed a battery of personality tests, and randomly assigned them to two groups: guards and inmates. At the beginning of the study, there were no detectable personality differences between the participants in each group.

The “guards” (depicted in the bottom image) were instructed to maintain discipline in any way they saw fit, excluding physical violence. The “inmates” went home, and later were “arrested” at home with a police car, brought to a police station, and placed in prison after having undergone a series of booking procedures, which included being assigned a number and special clothes (depicted in the top image). Zimbardo assigned himself the rank of warden, set the guards loose on the prisoners, and the experiment was to run for two weeks.

The research team had to stop the experiment after six days.

The details of what happened are absolutely fascinating, and I strongly recommend following them in this slideshow, or watching the excellent documentary Quiet Rage, which contains footage from the experiment. But the bottom line was that, once in role, both guards and inmates quickly socialized into their roles, and the research team feared the ramifications of the guards’ increasing cruelty and the inmates’ psychological situation. Despite the fact that the guard and inmate groups were psychologically indistinguishable from each other at the beginning of the experiment, as days went by participants strongly socialized into their roles.

Erving Goffman, who studied roles and status, was a big influence on the Stanford experiment team, as well as on labeling theorists. One of his best-known books, Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates, examined how people are socialized into their roles as inmates in enclosed social settings that he named “total institutions“. A total institution is a place in which all aspects of life are governed by the institution, there is a strong hierarchy, impermeable boundaries between the inmates and the staff, and your status as an inmate becomes the central aspect of your life. Prisons are an excellent example.

During the 1960s and 1970s, prison researchers found that the entrance rituals into prison, as well as the experience itself, makes inmates strongly identify with their inmate identity. In other words, being an inmate becomes one’s “master status“, overshadowing other roles and identities that the person has, such as being a father, a friend, an employee, etc. One of the main obstacles to reentry after release from prison is the persistent stigma generated by this master status. The challenge of this status lies not only in how others perceive you, but also, as the Stanford experiment teaches us, in how you perceive yourself.

These days, my colleague Lior Gideon and I are conducting a survey of Californians regarding their opinions about redeemability of formerly incarcerated people, and the extent to which they believe in rehabilitation. While the results might reflect a variety of considerations, such as cost, political opinion, fear of crime, and demographic factors, they might also reflect the public perception–shared by the inmates themselves–that “once an inmate, always an inmate”. One of the important things to take into account when planning re-entry programs is finding creative ways to shed this stigma, persistent as it is, and move on.

NYT on Compassionate Relief puts CA in perspective

The New York Times has a story today on compassionate release for inmates who are physically or cognitively unable to present a threat to society. This paragraph stands out:

“In California, where federal judges ordered the state to cut the prison population by 40,000, three people were granted compassionate release last year. In Alabama, where prisons are at double their capacity, four sick inmates were let out on compassionate release in the 2009 fiscal year; 35 other prisoners in Alabama died while their applications were being reviewed. Since New York adopted medical parole in 1992, at the height of the AIDS crisis, 364 people have been released.”

The situation may be egregious in New York, and proportionately worst in Alabama, but by sheer quantity California’s prison crisis is most dire. What values are we pursuing, what metrics are we optimizing, by paying for incapacitated inmates to die in prison rather than at home?

Book Review: Dreams from the Monster Factory by Sunny Schwartz with David Boodell

The constant conversations about budget, prison expenditures, and cutting programs, raise the question of cost-benefit from prison programming. Which rehabilitation enterprises are worth investing in for the long run? Which programs actually reduce recidivism to a point that makes them cost-effective for the prison system? Dreams from the Monster Factory provides some thought-provoking information about programs offered at a San Francisco jail by the Sheriff’s Department and rekindles hope in rehabilitation and re-entry programming.

The book reads as a half-personal, half-professional memoir of Sunny Schwartz, a 27-year veteran of the Sheriff’s Department, who joined the jail staff in the 1980s as part of an initiative to ad programming to the jail daily routine. Her program was rather ambitious and, in some ways, counterintuitive. Rather than creating voluntary programs, she created an ambitious study curriculum, with mandatory attendance and a dense schedule. With the collaboration of (most) of the deputies, she managed to create a series of special programs targeting women, general education and substance abuse. The most impressive part of the book, however, is Schwartz’s description of RSVP (Resolve to Stop the Violence Project), a special program involving a dorm of violent men whose reeducation away from violence instincts is based on the Manalive program. The unique aspect of RSVP is the collaboration between a variety of community advocates whom we are used to thinking of as being at odds with each other: victim organizations, religious organizations, community groups, and counseling services. The role of victims in the program is described in a particularly appreciative, sensitive way, and generates hope that some victim organizations may see beyond punitiveness to healthier paths for activism. Despite the program’s success, Schwartz does not flinch from describing the less glorious moments of this difficult and often frustrating work.
Not all readers will appreciate the book’s unique mix of professional and personal information. Schwartz delves into descriptions of events in her own personal life, including some difficult descriptions of her family and relationships. The strength of these narratives, to me, lay in creating the sense that the inmates were not “different” in any sort of substantial, deterministic way, and that all of us, who have been through life’s trials and tribulations can empathize with their challenges and frustrations. Schwartz does not come off as a “fixed”, “enlightened” prison reformer with all the answers in her pocket, but as a flawed individual who looked inward to find the strength to light a beacon of change, beckoning to the flicker of light in the soul of most of the program’s participants. This will make a good read for those interested in an insight into prison life and in thinking about the potential of programs for generating change.

Penny-Wise and Pound-Foolish

The Mayor of Newark blogs about a reentry initiative in New Jersey, emphasizing that the initiative is bipartisan and builds on broad collaboration between different political actors.

Some are quick to point out that certain provisions of the state bills would cost money at a time of tremendous fiscal strain – adding millions to the state budget in the near term. Many of these people are using this understandable concern to reflexively oppose this legislation. However, the cost of doing nothing simply leaves the tremendous expense of arrest, adjudication and incarceration to fester and grow larger and more burdensome in coming years.

We cannot be penny-wise and pound-foolish. The time to act is now. If implemented effectively, the bills not only have the ability to pay for themselves but can provide significant savings to taxpayers in future budget years. This is not fantasy or fiction; the proof can be seen in the active bipartisan success so evident in Newark right now.

Prisons and Budgets

Today’s NYTimes editorial “Prisons and Budgets” at lauds state legislatures for corrections policy changes with positive fiscal impact. The piece calls 3-Strikes “overly harsh” and calls the Florida law mandating serving certain percentages of sentences “dubious corrections policy and terrible fiscal policy.”

My favorite citation is their use of the ACLU National Prison Project’s new report “Michigan Breaks the Logjam: A New Model for Reducing Prison Populations.” Michigan reduced its prison population by over 8% in about half a year, primarily through justice reinvestment. This leads me to think about how many more teachers, students, doctors, nurses, patients, etc. California could afford to subsidize, were we to reduce our state prison population by as much as 8%.

Back on Track Graduation

Two weeks ago, 15 formerly incarcerated men and women graduated from the San Francisco District Attorney’s program Back on Track. The video above, from a 2007 news segment, provides an introduction to the premise of the program. The program has a record of dramatic recidivism reduction, but very few participants. Nevertheless, it might be the herald of similar initiatives.

Movie Review: The Released

The Released, a Frontline production, examines how mentally ill inmates fare after their release from prison. Filmed in Ohio, the film follows up on five men who are being let out of prison and their trials and tribulations in homeless shelters, group homes, and state mental institutions.

These experiences are shadowed by the “Great Decarcerations” of the 1970s. Following the invention of Thorazine, and under a philosophy highlighting free choice and freedom, various U.S. states began closing down their mental institutions. Some readers may recall Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over a Cuckoo’s Nest as a cultural harbinger and representative of this ideology.
The problem was that no viable alternatives were created. Medication is a suitable alternative to prison only if one is sure to take one’s medication. And, in many such cases, the organization and cognitive presence required for consistently taking medication is lacking.
Several of the people interviewed in The Released manage shelters and group homes, and while they have plenty of good will and energy to help, their powers are limited if one of their residents decides to take off. These places are ill-equipped to supervise medication; the only place who does a decent job at it is the mental institution, and therein lies the paradox; once medicated, the inmate is functioning well, and therefore released, whereupon he ceases taking medication again, leading to a new incarceration or hospitalization.
According to the movie, a million inmates in the U.S. are mentally ill. Thinking about our local problems, one can only guess what the incarceration experience is like when surrounded with so much dysfunctionality. Is it possible that the Plata/Coleman descriptions of flawed mental health treatment are actually better than what the inmates are to expect on the outside?
An aspect portrayed, though not deeply explored, in the movie, is race. We see a white man — the only uplifting, redemptive story in the film — obtaining a placement at an excellent group home, Bridgeview Manor, with great facilities and conditions. All other residents are also white. At the end of the movie we see him doing well. The other people portrayed in the film — black inmates — are not so fortunate; the shuttle from shelters to jail and back, and some face further tragedies. The extent to which race and class play a part in placements, and as a result, in the hope of a regulated, supervised life, is disturbing. But more disturbing is our notion of what counts as “good”. There has to be a point of balance between unnecessary paternalism and laissez-faire abandonment of people to their fate. I fear we are not there yet.

You can watch the full movie right here on the PBS website.

State Plan a Mix of Releases and Correctional Expansion

I’ve just finished going over the CDCR population reduction plan in all its more-than-100 page glory (including the depositions). For those who rejoiced in the original August order to reduce population, the plan will be a disappointment; but even those who found the panel’s reasoning problematic will find little cause for rejoice.

Here are the essentials: The state stands behind the measures it proposed previously, in the noncompliant plan submitted September 18. Those included credit enhancements for good behavior, a certain quota of inmates housed in out-of-state facilities, more reliance on community corrections, sentence commutation, and parole reform (including the recently approved summary parole for nonviolent offenders).

In addition, the state proposes to seek changes to legislation that impedes broader use of the out-of-state option, privatization, shifting jurisdiction to county jails, and accelerated construction of prisons. It does so while expressing doubts about the federal panel’s authority to require violation of state laws; according to the state, therefore, these measures are necessary to bring the plan to the 137.5% reduction level.

The depositions provide concrete numbers regarding the reduction rates.

Jay Atkinson (Chief of Offender Information Services Branch) estimates that the California Community Corrections Performance Incentives Act of 2009 generates a system of rewards for probation success. Implementing it will achieve an approximate reduction of 1,915 inmates. In addition, releases based on good behavior credits will yield 2,921 reduction; raising the threshold of grand theft from $400 to $950 will yield a 2,152 reduction; and programs for alternative custody for low-risk offenders will achieve a 4,800 reduction. My summary: 11,788 total reductions. Atkinson cannot provide estimates for the reductions resulting from parole reform, but those may yield additional reductions.

Scott Kernan (Undersecretary of Operations) states that, by approximately January 2011, CDCR anticipates housing a total of 10,468 inmates at out-of-state facilities. In addition, it will push to remove an existing clause that mandates termination of the out-of-state program. Changing this clause will allow the state to expand its out-of-state program by 1,500 beds by December 31, 2011. In addition, the state plans to pursue privatization options more aggressively (the out-of-state options themselves are privatized.) Contracting with private facilities will provide an additional 5,000 beds for inmates removed from state institutions. Finally, CDCR will engage in a complicated game of musical chairs, which will involve shifting inmates around, switching between male and female inmates in some institutions, closing down 3 male facilities, and creating more community correctional facilities. This option will yield no more than a 800 inmate reduction. Total seems to be 17,768. Combining the two statements, the grand total seems to be a 29,556 reduction.

I haven’t checked up the math on the additional 10,000 reduction, but the plan suggests that this will be achieved through a combination of programs: commutation sentences, changes in juvenile facilities, and other measures that were mentioned in the original plan.


As can be seen by these two contrasting depositions, the state is pursuing two “prongs” of overcrowding solutions: the type that the court wished to encourage – namely, early releases, parole reform, and sentencing reform – and the type that the court will be very disappointed in, such as increasing prison construction and shipping more inmates out of state. Interestingly, these measures are predicted to yield more reductions than shuffling people within the existing incarceration options. The plan has, therefore, a bit of a “split personality”. Some of it expands the penal monster and some of it works to decrease it (in the spirit of humonetarianism.) I assume the court will be rather dismayed by this. Leaving the reduction methods up to the state opened the door for the state to cling to the old solutions of expansion, contraction, and exporting Californians to other states; but since the panel was convened for the sole purpose of solving the problem of constitutional violations in health care, its ability to have a general say regarding the system’s size is rather limited.


There is another issue which, while not directly yielding reductions, merits attention. At the panel’s request, the remaining depositions describe the impact of cuts to rehabilitative programs on prison conditions.

Sharon Aungst (Chief Deputy Secretary of the Division of Correctional Health Care) states that the decrowding will not improve treatment for the mentally ill, but the cuts in rehabilitative programs will have an adverse effect on weekly activities for mentally ill patients.

Robert Ambroselli (Acting Director, Division of Adult Parole Operations) estimates that the parole sites and programs have served a combined 18, 449 people, though some of these may be repetitive (enrolled in more than one programs). The expected $41,000,000 reduction in operational budget will lead to delays in finalizing and activating new sites.

Finally, Elizabeth Siggins (Acting Chief Deputy Secretary for Adult Programs) states that the budget cuts will lead to a significant reduction in treatment slots. 4,633 inmates (a 5000 reduction) will be benefitting from community-based aftercare treatment. Substance abuse programs will be available to 1588 inmates (4000 reduction). There will not be changes to in-custody drug treatment, the parolee service network (serving 863 inmates) and the female offender treatment and employment program (serving 412 inmates). 80,000 parolees will be getting employment opportunities through California New Start.


These are grim news indeed. It would appear that, over the next few years, possible gains with regard to health care will be offset by losses in terms of rehabilitative programs. The panel’s program to reform California prisons through the opportunity to intervene in health care seems to have been frustrated by the methods adopted by the state.

A final thing to remember is that the state’s plan is not to be construed as abandonment of its appeal to the Supreme Court. The state consistently repeats, throughout its legal documentation, the right to appeal the order, which it still maintains is erroneous. Given the particulars of the current plan, it remains to be seen whether the Supreme Court will see the panel’s attempt to fix the health care system in a favorable light. It is a sober reminder, though, that judicial review of state institutions is an imperfect and limited solution, and while it has the ability to change policies and practices in ways that are impossible through legislative and administrative channels, its narrow, case-by-case focus may have unpredictable, and disappointing, outcomes.

Book Review: Smart on Crime by Kamala Harris

Kamala Harris’ new book, Smart on Crime: A Career Prosecutor’s Plan to Make Us Safer, written with Joan O’C Hamilton, is a refreshing book on prosecutorial practices, and on the need to disengage law enforcement from practices of severe sentencing and mass incarceration.

In the book, Harris, who is the San Francisco District Attorney, and running for Attorney General, speaks up about her prosecutorial philosophy, but also discusses more broadly America’s criminal justice priorities.

The book opens with an examination of several “myths about crime”. Harris seeks to situate the crime debate outside the partisan lines, pointing out that there is an alternative transceding the “tough/soft on crime” dichotomy. She also debunks the idea that there are no alternatives to current correctional techniques by examining a series of innovative reentry programs. The novelty of this account lies in the fact that these programs are sponsored by law enforcement – prosecution offices and sheriff’s offices.

While Harris treats crime and victimization very seriously, she emphasizes the fact that violent and sensational crime constitutes a small percentage of the entire crime picture. The universe of nonviolent offenders, who are not as much of a danger to society, will not be properly handled using lengthy prison sentences, which contribute to recidivism.

Harris suggests an expansion of the traditional prosecutor’s role, arguing for including reentry projects and community involvment in the scope of prosecutorial responsibility. One issue in particular that she highlights is the need to address school truancy. As Harris explains in the book, she sees truancy as a major predictor of a criminal career, and therefore believes that addressing education, and making sure children are not truants, will go a long way toward preventing crime in the long run. The District Attorney’s office’s efforts in this regard have already yielded a decline in truancy rates in San Francisco. Nevertheless, the question is whether criminalizing the truants’ parents is a truly effective measure in reducing crime. In adopting this measure, Harris may have fallen into the same trap she warns us about in the book – focusing on criminalization rather than on problem solving.

The book is meant for popular readership, and much of the rhetoric (including examples of violent, dangerous offenders whom Harris has helped remove from the streets) will soothe readers who are concerned about violent crime and victimization. These sections do not read as a fake attempt to placate the masses so that a “soft on crime” agenda will remain unnoticed. As a prosecutor, Harris comes off as committed to law enforcement and genuine in her belief that some offenders need to be removed from society for a long time. It is precisely this genuine perspective that lends credibility to her “smart on crime” argument, which comes from a concern for public safety in the broader sense rather than from pity. This decidedly not-soft-on-crime stance is enhanced by Harris’ humonetarian arguments for her “smart on crime” solution, which is advocated as a means to save money as well as achieve more public safety.

Prison scholars and inmate rights’ activists who read the book may be concerned that Harris does not go far enough. I do not see this as a shortcoming in the book. Harris is a prosecutor and she writes from a prosecutor’s perspective. Even under a more benign, less punitive correctional regime, law enforcement officials and prison activists will not see eye to eye. The important thing is that this book opens the door for open minded prosecutors to transcend the government/offender divide, and more importantly, the right/left divide, and to agree on general solutions, the most promising of which is a focus on reentry programs such as San Francisco’s Back on Track program. This program, which uses deferred entry of judgment as a “test period”, under the D.A.’s office supervision, combined with vocational skills, jobs, and other support, is advocated as a method to reduce recidivism rates.

You can find more information about the book on Kamala Harris’ website.

Why is California Eliminating Rehabilitation?

Yesterday Prof. Aviram posted analysis of the newest Plata/Coleman panel court order. She points out, “The panel wants to hear more about the use of rehabilitation and reentry in the community as a population reduction measure that might actually improve public safety.”

So I thought I’d post this cover story from 10/17 last Friday’s LA Times. The piece highlights poignant personal stories of incarcerated, and formerly incarcerated, female addicts. It also provides a damning quote from a recent Schwarzenegger insider: “Kathy Jett, formerly Schwarzenegger’s top aide for prisoner rehabilitation, said gangs may attempt to fill the void created by the absence of programs.”

For purposes of this blog, though, the article also provides some worrisome statistics.

  • Rehab services lose $250 million a year, more than 40% of what they now get and a quarter of the $1 billion total sliced from the prison system.
  • “At the same time, the state is eliminating 45% of the seats in its substance-abuse programs for parolees.”
  • The featured rehab provider previously helped 756 women, and will now reach only 175.

These changes seemed almost calculated to increase addiction and recidivism. One might speculate that even the Governor is knowingly passing on the problem of prison overcrowding to the next administration rather than addressing any of its root causes.