Rehabilitation is Behavior Modification


The word itself conjures ideas of a life transformed. As a concept for penology (corrections), rehabilitation and the means of encouraging convicts to alter their lives for the better have a uncertain history. The early penitentiaries were built with the idea that by shutting people away, they would have time to contemplate their life course and turn it back to god.

Since then, society has alternated between providing tools for rehabilitation and simply shutting criminals away. But what is rehabilitation anyway and can society find a way to transform the lives of those with a criminal bent?

Rehabilitation is Behavior Modification

Rehabilitation is behavior modification.  The idea is to transform a socially deviant person into one who is socially compliant.  Although what is considered “socially deviant” may differ from time to time depending upon numerous factors, the idea of rehabilitating a person back into accepted society is sexy.

“Idealists originally thought penitentiaries would make prisoners penitent, leading to religious conversions and rehabilitation. To accomplish this, they did the worst thing they could do: they isolated prisoners in a very bad environment. Sometimes prisoners had to keep silent, another form of solitary confinement. Cutting off prisoners from society made it difficult for inmates to keep their sanity or cope on the outside. Isolation from normal society made it that much easier to learn criminal ways inside the prison. Prisoners lost feelings of self-worth. While appropriate punishment promotes pro-social cooperation in normal human society, punishment that completely removes individuals from cooperative society also deprives normal society of any pro-social behavior brought about by that punishment.” – John Dewar Gleissner, Esq.

Imagine the peace in the world if everyone thought alike.  It could happen if it were possible to rehabilitate anyone and everyone, but it is not.  Rehabilitation depends largely upon the prisoner, his attitude, and his willingness to seek a better path. Rehabilitation also depends on social and political consistency. In addition, to be effective, any course of rehabilitation would have to have to reflect the values of society at large.

Finally, in order to “rehabilitate” anyone, there would have to be in place the legal and ethical mechanisms to do so in a humane way. Why?

Because frankly, rehabilitation requires forcing a person to comply with values which they do not. It forces people to comply with the values of the majority in society (or a powerful minority). Historically, people have shuddered at the idea of forced behavior modification. In Nazi Germany, some of the experiments conducted involved forced behavior modification and this connection is not lost on some. Many therefore decry forced behavior modification techniques; yet ironically accept rehabilitation. It’s the same thing.

Social, Moral, and Legal Issues Aside, IS Rehabilitation/Behavior Modification Possible?

Aside from the clear social, Ethical/Moral, and Legal issues with forced behavior modification, can people be tranformed?

English: Inmates Lisa Bode (left) and Cynthia ...
English: Inmates Lisa Bode (left) and Cynthia Thompson participate in the LIFE (Lifelong Information For Entrepreneurs) program at the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Oregon. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Every day, people transform their lives; but that seldom occurs in the prison environment. The reason is freewill. When people see a need to change, they do. If they do not see a need for change, they do not change. It is that simple.

So the key to rehabilitation is really sales: Convicted criminals need to be convinced that there is a better way to live than to conflict with society. However, those in charge of inmates tend to be among the least educated and least inclined to help; the state of corrections today is woefully lacking for the task. Sure, the upper echelon of Corrections in a given state may have lofty goals, but these simply do not translate to those hired for the role. In addition, long-standing attitudes and habits of existing correctional officers prevent anyone who does attempt to make such a difference from actually doing so.

In the correctional facility where I worked, the most common expression heard, uttered in contempt was, “They are just fucking inmates.” – Former Correctional Officer

It should also be noted that not all will change their way of life just because the state says they should. That being the case, it seems foolish to place those with an inclination to better themselves with those who have no such inclination.

If society wants to rehabilitate people in a prison setting, there will need to be some sound changes to the way penal systems classify inmates on intake. In fact, it should be possible to determine the likelihood of rehabilitation on any inmate.  We have many tools for determining with a reasonable likelihood how someone will respond to various stimuli. Using existing psychology, corrections officials could construct prisons with a view to rehabilitation. For instance, rather than classify inmates according to security risk and seriousness of the conviction, a new form of classification would segregate prisoners based on likelihood of change. This new classification system would resemble…

  1. Level 1 prisons would house those who are contrite on entry and have committed minor crimes. These are persons who will be back in society soon and are open to help.
  2. Level 2 would be for anyone in need of intensive drug treatments and those who cannot be classified as likely to change. In other words, there is hope for the individual, but it appears slight.
  3. Level 3 would house anyone who will a) never get out of prison, b) show zero remorse for their behavior, or c) are determined to be a serious flight risk. Ideally, it would be an area which is fenced or otherwise cordoned off such that there would be one-way traffic; those convicted enter and never leave. There are no officers within and the inmates never leave. They make of it what they will.

A New SuperMax Prison Which Would Rehabilitate Over Time

In such an area, the ideal of rehabilitation could be realized over time.  The area is simply cordoned off by the corrections department with controlled entry.  Within the confines of the area, convicts must rebuild society, if they wish.  They can build industries within and trade with the outside world.  Any wealth they possess on the outside, they possess inside; it will be transferred to them.

Prison Tycoon 4: Supermax
Prisons in America have become big business, reducing the inclination to develop systems which benefit society. Prison Tycoon 4: Supermax (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Once inside, they are there for life.  They can build or destroy.  Detainees can be male or female, certain juveniles, criminals of all kinds from all walks of life.  Over time, they will build and eventually organize law and jails.  In time, the city can be assimilated back into general society.  A total transformation will have taken place over time.

Such an idea is not out of the realm of reality. Both America and Australia started as penal colonies. Those convicted in English courts were sent to either permanently. Over time, a natural form of behavior modification took place. In time, both areas developed their own laws and social order. Both today are sterling examples for the world; yet both were founded by “criminals” deemed too incorrigible to remain in English society.

Parole and Rehabilitation

Parole is ideally used today for those who have shown that they are ready to reenter society before their official sentence is complete. It rarely works that way. Still, the conditional release back into society of a convict who has exhibited a high degree of rehabilitation is considered useful.

If the convict fails to comply with the conditions of his release (Foster, 2006), a return to custody may ensue.  Mandatory release may still carry conditions but is based on an objective formula.  Parole is subjective in nature.

It is difficult to assess any process entirely so to find a ‘better’ is questionable.  A system that is better in some ways may fall deficient in others.  One may not be better than the other but merely different.  Although the likelihood of a convict rehabilitating is largely up to him, it has also been shown that the prison level determines the likelihood of recidivism (Gaes & Camp, 2009).

Gaes and Camp studied the connection between prison classifications and the likelihood of recidivism. They found that those who were assigned to more restrictive classifications were more likely to return to prison. Of course, it could just be that such inmates were simply more hardened, which led to the higher classification. Still,if the Gaes & Camp study proves anything, it is that probation may yet be the magic pill the corrections industry has been seeking. It is like the self-fulfilling prophecy; if we believe someone to be good, they will become good; if we treat them as if they are no good, they will prove to be no good.

If you believe you can or believe you can’t, you are generally right. – Zig Ziglar

Probation and Community Corrections; a Form of Behavior Modification

Probation is like parole without the prison.  It is a sentence that a judge may impose due to extenuating or mitigating circumstances that allows the convicted to continue living a ‘normal’ life of conditional and supervised release.  This sentence is generally only given to first offenders of relatively minor offenses.  Compared to other forms of sentencing, such as imprisonment, community service, or death, probation seems fairly minor.  This is until one factors in the monies paid to the probation office every week, the restrictions a probationer faces, and the degree of responsibility for the crime that is placed on the shoulders of the criminal.  Probation, used correctly, can be a very effective tool for rehabilitation (Meyer & Grant, 2003).

Like probation, community corrections holds promise of reducing the prison population while simultaneously rehabilitating a number of convicts.  In some cases, community corrections benefits the community by providing a means by which a convicted person can continue a relatively normal life such as through work-release.  In other cases, community corrections half-way houses assist some ease into society from prison.  Again, used wisely, community corrections can provide benefits to a society (Foster, 2006).


Prisons vary greatly worldwide.  Whereas the United States Prison system houses convicts in reasonably decent facilities, in most third-world nation’s prisons are nothing more than dungeons.  Convicts are thrown in with little expectation of having even basic needs such as food and water provided.  The Cuban Boat lift detainees in two separate prisons rioted so as to remain in United States custody rather than be returned to Cuban prisons (Foster, 2006).  If the United States were to adopt such a system the civil courts would become inundated by lawsuits.  Such a system would rapidly draw sympathy for prisoners and a reversal would become a political necessity (Foster, 2006). If however, the United States were to follow the example of its parent nation, in time even the most hardened criminals would create a society which naturally rehabilitate itself.


  • Foster, B. (2006). Corrections: The Fundamentals. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentis-Hall.
  • Meyer, J., & Grant, D. (2003). The Courts in Our Criminal Justice System. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentis-Hall.
  • Unintended consequences: experimental evidence for the criminogenic effect or prison security level placement on post-release recidivism. (2009, February 18). Journal of Experimental Criminology, 5(), 139-162.

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