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Incarceration does not fix criminals. This is why:

I’m a deputy sheriff working in a county jail. My job is to process criminals into the jail who’ve been arrested. I bring their food, take them to medical care, and provide clothing and a bed. I watch to make sure they don’t kill staff members or each other. I’ve been doing this job for 4 years, which is plenty of time to understand this naked truth: incarcerating criminals does not work.

It doesn’t work because, if it worked, we wouldn’t have criminals in custody. Much like if background checks on gun sales worked we wouldn't have mass shootings. Jails would be near empty and not packed to capacity and growing. To bring you closer to my point, I’ll describe for you what jail is like for a criminal:

Criminal is arrested - Doesn’t matter the offense. They come to jail and we shove them in a room with 15 other criminals and lock the door behind them. They can’t leave. This criminal is fed low standard food, receives sub-par medical care, dodges threats from other criminals in his housing unit or is beaten up. Despite all this, the criminal cannot leave.

Finally after three months of this, the criminal is released. But given time – hours, days, years – the criminal comes back. But if he learned his lesson the first time, why is he back? Surely the bad food, sub-par medical care, and threats by other inmates should have encouraged any sane person to stay away.

Here’s the truth most people don’t realize: that criminal learned how to be helpless while in custody; he was locked inside a bad situation he could not escape. Helpless to fix his behavior or change his surroundings, he succumbed to helplessness and this new behavior followed him upon his release from jail, and it’s that same behavior that brings him back to jail again in his life. I haven’t seen this happen to short-term inmates, but almost every inmate whose been here a month or longer have returned to us again. And again.

If that doesn’t make sense to you, consider this experiment conducted by Martin Seligman in 1965 who showed the process of learned helplessness. The below excerpt is taken from his study called, How Seligman's Learned Helplessness Theory Applies to Human Depression and Stress. Here is the LINK if you want to read more about it.

Martin and his colleagues were doing research on classical conditioning, or the process by which an animal or human associates one thing with another. In the case of Seligman's experiment, he would ring a bell and then give a light shock to a dog. After a number of times, the dog reacted to the shock even before it happened: as soon as the dog heard the bell, he reacted as though he'd already been shocked.

But, then something unexpected happened. Seligman put each dog into a large crate that was divided down the middle with a low fence. The dog could see and jump over the fence if necessary. The floor on one side of the fence was electrified, but not on the other side of the fence. Seligman put the dog on the electrified side and administered a light shock. He expected the dog to jump to the non-shocking side of the fence.

Instead, the dogs lay down. It was as though they'd learned from the first part of the experiment that there was nothing they could do to avoid the shocks, so they gave up in the second part of the experiment.

Seligman described their condition as learned helplessness, or not trying to get out of a negative situation because the past has taught you that you are helpless.

After the dogs didn't jump the fence to escape the shock, Seligman tried the second part of his experiment on dogs that had not been through the classical conditioning part of the experiment. The dogs that had not been previously exposed to shocks quickly jumped over the fence to escape the shocks. This told Seligman that the dogs who lay down and acted helpless had actually learned that helplessness from the first part of his experiment.

(The same thing happens to our criminals.)

So what do we do with criminals who break the law? If incarceration doesn’t work, where do we put those criminals who have murdered, raped, beaten up, robbed?

I agree with you. We can’t let them wander the streets without some recompense, especially since he might endanger a victim again. So in that, it will remain the same. Take the criminal into custody in a secure facility, but I propose the following changes are made to rehabilitate and stop repeat offenders, and create an atmosphere which does not encourage or even teach learned helplessness.


COLOR: You walk into any establishment that encourages healing, and you will see a particular color scheme. Why? Because colors trigger a certain response from us. We have to pay for paint for the walls in the jail anyway, so why not buy purple paint, or yellow? I also recommend providing the inmates with colored pencils (the short, golf pencil sized ones) so inmates can create their own subconscious color scheme personalized to help them heal. They’ll buy these off commissary like they do normal pencils.

SCENT: Are you inclined to sit in a room that smells like socks, or one that smells of lavender? Smells are therapeutic. Lavender is calming, peppermint is invigorating, and orange boosts the mood.

Jails smell bad. You’ve got 10+ men/women living in one housing unit and limited in when they can wash their clothes or their rooms. It definitely doesn’t smell like lavender. But if scents were diffused or otherwise delivered into the housing units, it would make the housing unit feel more safe and comfortable for those living in it.

MUSIC: It’s proven music will change our mood. Nice, easy to listen to music will calm tempers and put perspectives back in balance. Having this music playing in cell blocks will go far to entertain, distract, and sooth.( Inmates cause problems when they are bored). In the jail I work at, we have a few cells wired to the local radio station, and the inmates always want to live in that cell.

SELF-HELP BOOKS: I've already had inmates asking for self-help books, everything from how to have a lasting relationship to how-to-draw books. I’ve heard inmates say they want to change while in jail. They have the time so why not give them a book they can read that will teach them a lasting skill? Like how to balance finances, how to stay sober, or do math? From the inmate’s I’ve talked to, they want to do these things but just don’t have the material. If they truly want to change their behavior which got them into jail in the first place, they will read any self-help books provided. The best way to keep people out of jail is to teach them how to live life in a way that doesn’t damage themselves or others. Plus, if they are given the chance to learn something constructive, they will NOT learn how to be helpless (see experiment with the dogs).

FRESH AIR: Studies show depression is linked to lack of sunlight. Sunlight is a mood booster but even fresh air will clear one’s mood palate.

DEPUTIZED THERAPISTS: This is at the bottom of the list because this will take much more planning, funding, and study for it to be seriously considered, but I can still get the idea out there so someone much smarter and richer than me can put it into action. What I mean by a Deputized Therapists is this: A post-certified deputy who ALSO goes to school to learn how to be a mental health therapist. Being a therapist, you’d help the inmates one-on-one to heal and help them back into society so they won’t want to make those same mistakes again. But because you are still dealing with, say, a rapist or murder, you still need the skills of a police officer to protect yourself and other staff and inmates.


I can see most people hating this idea, but forget your ego and realize the end result we want: We want people to stop committing crimes so our world is safer as a whole. Ever been the victim to a crime? My method would never make you a victim again, and people who have made mistakes in their life will be given an honest second chance.


In a perfect world, these color-schemed buildings would be built brand new with these features built into them already. But this will never be a perfect world, so I’m going to use my own jail as the lab rat and discuss integrating these methods as if my county had very little money/refused to give us funding:

INTERGRATE COLOR: Easy. Buy any color paint other than white, since you have to buy paint anyway. Extra money needed: $0

INTERGRATE SCENT: I’m a convert to essential oils, and though the best method would be to have a scent diffusers for each housing unit, it comes down to where to put them so the inmates can’t tamper with them and who would then replace the water and oil. So that’s a no-go, but the inmates get mops and mop water and cleaning supplies every day, so put several drops of a mood-boosting essential oil into the water, and as the inmates mop, they will spread the scent. It may not last all day, but just that brief shot of a mood-boosting scent will go a long way and the inmates will feel more inclined to clean, because who isn’t attracted to a good scent? Extra money needed: The cheapest brand of essential oil (and getting enough of it to cover all housing units for a while) Approx. $100

INTERGRATE MUSIC: We already afford a TV in each block and trust the inmates to handle them with due-care, so affording a radio (which is cheaper) is no burden. Extra money needed: $20 a radio.

INTERGRATE SELF-HELP BOOKS: My jail already has books. Most places will donate books to the jail, such as libraries and used book stores. So that cost takes care of itself. Extra money needed: $0

INTERGRATE FRESH-AIR: Ideally – again, in a perfect world – the housing units would have their own yard attached to them so the inmates could go outside whenever they wanted. Inmates fight because they can’t get away from each other to cool down and change their mood. But if your jail is like mine and you have one yard for 13 housing units, at least allow each block yard time every other day or more.



Can you just use scent and make a difference? Do you just need to install a radio in each housing unit to make the jails empty and stop repeat offenders? Each of those things will make a difference on their own, but the only way to drive criminal activity down, make the jails empty, and rehabilitate so we don't have repeat offenders, is to employ ALL my suggested methods, to include the deputized therapists. But each method will have still have an effect, so all in all, the more methods which are employed, the better the results.

FINAL NOTE: So even if your jail is like mine, the cost to make this all happen is very small but has a huge pay-out. Can you picture this? 2 guys fighting each other to the tune of classical violin music inside a purple-painted room smelling of lavender with self-help books laying on the table next to them? I can’t picture it, either.

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