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.
CHANGE THE ATMOSPHERE
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.