//Why Rehabilitative Programming is Failing

Why Rehabilitative Programming is Failing

By |2019-03-12T18:50:39-07:00March 12th, 2019|

A January 2019 report by the Auditor of the State of California found that there is no difference in recidivism rates for people who take advantage of California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) programs, as opposed to those who don’t.

In other words, the self-help groups we are taking in here do not have a significant impact on whether or not we’ll stay out of prison once released.

For those of us, who have been taking these groups, this may not come as a serious surprise. In a recent post I wrote about some of my reservations about CBT as it is applied in prison settings. To be fair, CBT does have value. For instance, CBT helps us deconstruct our thinking patterns and responses to various triggering events, and potentially gives us the tools to create healthier coping skills to deal with the events that trigger us. Just knowing that we get triggered and that we can choose our responses when it happens has been life-changing for lots of people in here.

Anyone can see that a curriculum that traces your thinking patterns back to their roots, gives you the language to identify your emotions, and options for healthier responses would be helpful.

But, imagine if you were learning that lesson on a yard with a person in a gun tower. Imagine if you could hear people practicing to shoot you on a nearby gun range. Imagine if, one you stepped out of that classroom setting, you were regarded as less than a human, an inmate, who must be watched and regarded with suspicion at all times. What if the people who were watching over you were trained to see you as manipulative, warned against getting too close to you, and taught to use disciplinary means up to physical force or isolation if you express too much agency. Would not what you are learning about how the world sees you outside of that CBT class overwhelm the positive lessons you learned in the class?

To be clear, gun towers and gun ranges and suspicion over the motives of incarcerated people isn’t occurring because prison officials want to mistreat anyone. In conversations I’ve had with correctional officers and other prison staff, I’ve come to realize that many of them take their charge, to keep the public safe, very seriously. In their view, the harshness and highly controlled structure in prisons is dictated by the threat the incarcerated people they are holding continue to pose towards society. It would be irresponsible, to sacrifice public safety, or “corrections,” in favor of rehabilitation.

It’s the mixed signals between the concepts of corrections and rehabilitation that are sabotaging the state’s efforts to reduce recidivism. Any true effort to empower people to reenter society safely must first address the environment that CBT programs occur in.

According to the report I cited earlier, a prison official at the prison that had the most success implementing CBT programming that reduced recidivism credited their success to an “immersive CBT environment.” In this environment, incarcerated people were given individual cells and various other incentives. While I’m not a big fan of creating incentives for good behavior, I do believe creating a rehabilitative environment is essential. When we try to reduce “learning” to what takes place in a classroom or self-help group, we make a false distinction that then undermines our original goal. Many of my peers grew up in houses where extreme violence was normal. Then they went to schools where the trauma they were experiencing wasn’t addressed; instead they were asked to focus on reading skills or math. Study after study has since shown that people who are going through trauma then suffer in their ability to focus on more abstract forms of learning.

What’s needed, for CBT programs to achieve success reducing recidivism, is for these programs to be immersed in environments that treat incarcerated people humanely. Environments that treat the healing fo a person who is harming others is a priority from the first ay they are taken into custody by the State. It’s not about creating incentives for good behavior, it’s about understanding that investing in people is our most effective pathway to creating a safer public. After all, each of us were part of the larger public at some point. And each of us were made to feel unsafe before we ever committed a crime.


Written by James King

James recently had his sentence commuted by Governor Brown and will go before the parole board as early as this spring, to be considered for release. He is incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison.

You may write to him at the following address:

James King CDCR # V-69030 2–W–10 
San Quentin State Prison
San Quentin, CA 94974

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One Comment

  1. Mike April 3, 2019 at 7:10 am - Reply

    I like your post, James. One of the challenges for custody staff is known as role conflict/ambiguity. Providing safety and security for staff and inmates takes the highest priority. The level of danger, especially in a level IV prison is ever-present. But many staff believe in providing a securiy mindset with a treatment approach. Creating an environment conducive to rehabilitation is also top priority. It’s not an either/or but a both/and. Admittedly, though, it’s a “juggle”. I have a high value for CBT but it is not effective in isolation. It’s part of a continuum in the rehabilitation process which includes restorative justice, re-entry, etc. Holistic approaches are more effective because they treat the whole person (physical, emotional, mental, spiritual). I disagree with the auditor’s report BTW.

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