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Boston Herald
Boston Herald
24 Feb 2024
Ed Gaskin

NextImg:Gaskin: The prison system needs a theory of change

Recently, I was listening to a group of prisoners as part of a research project. When I saw all these men in good health, with sharp minds, using the prison’s law library to successfully win legal cases, and having other gifts and talents, I had to wonder if just guarding them for years at a time was the best we could do. My first thought was, “What a waste of human potential.” Is the human cost worth it?

Then I thought of the financial cost.  The Massachusetts Department of Corrections reports that in 2022 on average it spent a minimum of almost $80,000 per inmate.  At some specialized facilities, that figure triples, if not more.  The results of such costly interventions are often measured in terms of recidivism. According to the figures reported on the state government website, a quarter to a third of inmates who are released to the community are incarcerated again within just three years.  A higher percentage are convicted of new offenses.  Is the financial cost worth it?

Given the disproportionate number of low-income and people of color in prison, it also raises questions of justice.  How can we effectively and justly improve recidivism rates to warrant the financial investment and ensure returning citizens flourish and contribute?

Let’s rethink prisons.  It’s common practice for service providers within the justice system to provide some type of evaluation of their performance to justify continued or additional funding.  Sometimes the proposals and grants include a “Theory of Change” that identifies the expected goals of the program for prisoners and the specific activities to support their success.

My thought was the prison system needs a “Theory of Change.”  It’s already happening in the system in bits and pieces, but it is less clear how the parts fit together. The development and assessment of a clear and comprehensive theory of change would require careful collaborative thinking to assess both the reasonableness and practicality that underlies system goals and the programming to achieve them.  Examining the assumptions, practices, and research basis of our current system will help map an explicit framework about why we punish (what is just) and how to punish effectively (what works).

Developing a system-wide theory of change for the prison system, with involvement from representatives from all stakeholder groups, would provide benefits in both the process and the final product.  ALL stakeholders must be involved, including prisoners, as part of ensuring justice, and it will produce better results, as everyone has different knowledge and all of it is needed. A theory of change including all stakeholders is needed to:

Openly explore and discuss the varying, sometimes conflicting, goals of incarceration as punishment (retribution, rehabilitation, deterrence, incapacitation, restoration) to agree on the problem(s) the system ought to address and the intended outcomes of the system.

Align programs with existing research that demonstrates effectiveness in reducing recidivism and other more immediate and long-term outcomes.

Examine challenges in providing research-based programs and adapt as needed in some type of continuous improvement process such as a Total Quality Management (TQM) system, i.e. a data-driven outcomes improvement system.

Identify expected outcomes for prisoners, initial, intermediate, and long-term, both generalized for all inmates and personal goals based on individual risk factors.

Identify and track expected outputs and outcomes for service providers, both state and private, to ensure accountability and effectiveness.

Explore the root causes of the problem. To agree on the problem the system ought to address its causes and the intended outcomes of the system.

Explore the possible unintended negative consequences of the system.

Identify the assets and the challenges of incarcerated individuals as a group, to better understand what assets they tend to bring.  What challenges?  This analysis helps with program design. You rely on their assets and bring other resources to help address their challenges.

Coordinate a fragmented system to reduce wasteful redundancies and identify gaps in existing services.

Given the money spent on the prison system, there is a real need to focus on the effectiveness, efficiency, and fairness of the money spent. My research in and about the prisons revealed a system with many caring and dedicated professionals, within and outside of the state system, who seek to improve the lives of returning citizens.

As the lives of returning citizens improve, so do the (Massachusetts) communities to which they return. Improving the outcomes of returning citizens may contribute to lessening the wealth gap. Money spent on incarceration should be viewed as an investment in human potential/capital rather than simply a necessary evil, and or expense we have no control over. Let’s make the investment worthwhile by achieving specific outcomes. No businessperson would spend the money we do on incarceration without better outcomes. Why should the taxpayers?

Rethinking the system together is an important first step toward prison reform.

Ed Gaskin is Executive Director of Greater Grove Hall Main Streets and founder of Sunday Celebrations.