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Second Chances

Less punishment and more rehabilitation: how to help formerly incarcerated people readjust to freedom, according to experts

It’s not just about keeping former inmates off a criminal path, but also about opening avenues which offer them a sense of purpose and real opportunities to succeed. Excessive punishments for minor offenses and complicated, hard-to-follow rules can be counterproductive. Education is key to transforming the system, but isn’t the only option. Various experts offer their solutions.

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7 Oct 2020 – 01:25 PM EDT
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Valley State Prison in California offers 1,600-hour cosmetology courses, which include training in hairdressing, manicure, pedicure and facials. The inmates begin learning using mannequins and then go on to practice on other people in the prison. Upon finishing the course, participants can take an exam to receive their California barbering and cosmetology license. Crédito: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The young woman had been arrested for a relapse. Court documents revealed that she had been sexually abused at nine years old by an uncle and again at the age of 12 by her stepbrother. It was this stepbrother who, a year later, got her into using methamphetamines.

Refraining from both alcohol and drugs is one of the conditions for parole. For the judge in this case, Charles Pyle, who has since retired, there are too many rules which are hard to stick to. An addict needs treatment, not prison. “What this woman needed was help, not judgment. Not people telling her constantly or even her own lawyers, ‘You'll always be a loser and there's no hope for you.'’’ It’s a message which is hammered home all too often during trials, Pyle says.

The court determined that the woman didn’t need any mental health treatment because she herself said she had never had any mental health problems. “And I just thought, we have to be more intelligent than this. Her life experience screams trauma. I felt that we were the ones with all the college education of a stable living and we were just giving them a long list of things to do. We need to put far fewer burdens on it and a lot more help,” Pyle emphasizes.

This was one of the cases that made Pyle, a Stanford-graduated lawyer and Arizona district judge from 2001, decide in 2014 to focus his attention on another part of the process: reintegration. “As a judge, I saw too many situations where I felt that we were giving up on the potential for success. Seeing people not do things exactly as we wanted and then giving up on them by sending them back to prison, when with a little patience we could've had some success.”

Pyle founded the Second Chance coalition alongside Jonathan Rothschild, then mayor of Tucson, Arizona. The initiative focuses on offering support in the reentry process for people who have been in prison, with an emphasis on employment.

Less punishment, more rehabilitation

Ninety-five percent of the 2.1 million people incarcerated in state, federal and local prisons in the United States will be released at some point in their lives. Each year at least 600,000 people are released, but in many cases life on the outside doesn’t last long: around half are arrested again within the first year.

A number of obstacles (which you can read about here) get in the way of a successful transition. The situation affects a greater proportion of Hispanics and Afro-Americans.

Since people commit crimes for various different reasons, there is no single solution to avoid reoffending. Proposals are spread across different parts of the carceral system. To start with, the focus would have to change: “Prisons should rediscover their primary mission, which is corrections and not punishment,” reflects Joel Feinman, public defender for Pima County, Arizona. “Instead of the current focus which is on punishment we need to focus on rehabilitation and skills, so in addition to education we also need to focus on mental health counseling and also drug addiction treatment,” says Kara Gross, legislative director and senior policy counsel at the ACLU of Florida.

This work is part of the “Second Chance” project, thanks to the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.
Coordination: Tamoa Calzadilla and Olivia Liendo.
Research and production assistance: Ana María Carrano, Alexandra Barrera, Albany Urbaez Tahuil and Carolina Rosas.
Photography and photo layout: David Maris.
General production: Emilce Elgarresta and Stephen P. Keppel.
Social media: María Carolina Hurtado, María Dayana Patiño and Liliana Castaño.