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New Paper Looks at the Use and Impact of Correctional Programming for Inmates on Pre- and Post-Release Outcomes

State and federal prisons have long provided programming to inmates during their confinement. These programs aim to improve prisoner behavior, both before and after their release from prison.
Date Published
July 4, 2017

In a new paper commissioned by the National Institute of Justice, authors reviewed the available evidence on the impact of institutional programming on pre- and post-release outcomes, prison misconduct, recidivism, post-release employment, and costs avoided through the prevention of crime.

Given the wide variety of institutional interventions provided to persons who are incarcerated in state and federal prisons, the authors focus on programming that: (1) is known to be provided to the incarcerated person, (2) has been evaluated, and (3) addresses the main criminogenic needs, or dynamic risk factors, that existing research has identified.

This paper, therefore, examines the empirical evidence on educational programming, employment programming, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), chemical dependency and treatment for persons convicted of sex offenses, social support programming, mental health interventions, domestic violence programming, and re-entry programs.

Based on the available evidence, the authors found that CBT programs generally reduce recidivism by 20 to 30 percent. Larger reductions were found for programs that targeted persons at a higher risk of committing an offense, had high-quality treatment implementation, and included anger control and interpersonal problem solving.

In general, CBT programs seek to improve decision-making and problem-solving skills, while teaching individuals how to manage various forms of negative impulses. These programs address the link between dysfunctional thought processes and harmful behaviors through timely reinforcement and punishment, as well as role-playing and skill-building exercises.

The authors also found a number of other programs to be effective in improving pre- and post-release outcomes.

Social support interventions have shown success in decreasing misconduct among incarcerated persons, reducing recidivism, and producing cost-avoidance benefits. But researchers note that these programs have arguably been underused in U.S. correctional systems. Visitation has increasingly been recognized as a way to reduce recidivism, but is not yet widely considered to be a “correctional program.”

Re-entry programs have shown an ability to reduce recidivism, improve employment, and yield cost-avoidance benefits. While re-entry programs can work, much of what distinguishes an effective re-entry program from an ineffective one remains unknown, according to the report.

Education and employment programs, on the whole, have produced favorable outcomes for post-release employment and cost avoidance. But employment, substance abuse treatment, social support, and mental health programs are more likely to produce positive outcomes when they provide a continuum of care or service delivery from prison to the community.

Finally, evidence indicates that it may be unreasonable to expect interventions designed to treat mental illness to reduce prison misconduct or recidivism. Rather, programs that address criminogenic needs and deliver a continuum of care have shown promise in producing favorable outcomes for those with mental disorders.

The authors note that recidivism is the most common measure of correctional program effectiveness. Generally considered to be a return to criminal behavior, recidivism is the main post-release outcome reviewed in this paper. But researchers advise that when considering the effectiveness of correctional programming, it is important to look at metrics beyond recidivism. Other metrics, including prison misconduct, intermediate outcome measures such as employment or abstinence from illicit substances, and cost avoidance should also be used. The use of multiple metrics provides a more complete picture of program performance.

The authors conclude with observations on the current state of evaluation research based on their literature review.

First, that the “what works” movement has produced a large body of evidence on what has been effective. However, there is a lack of evidence that reveals why programs succeed or fail.

Second, the question of what works best for whom and under what circumstances needs to be explored. From the research, the authors have shown that increased dosage and longer treatment periods (up to a point) generally yield better results. But some have argued that in addition to dosage and treatment periods, the sequence of programming and when within an individual’s time incarcerated they would most benefit from what programs.

Finally, the authors note that existing research has not examined the aggregate effectiveness of programming within an entire prison system. Moreover, few, if any, studies have recently documented the extent to which incarcerated persons are involved in programming while incarcerated.

About this Article

This article is based on the paper The Use and Impact of Correctional Programming for Inmates on Pre- and Post-Release Outcomes (pdf, 41 pages), by Grant Duwe, Ph.D. Minnesota Department of Corrections. This paper was prepared with support from the National Institute of Justice under contract number 2010F_10097 (CSR, Incorporated).

Date Published: July 4, 2017