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Two men approach a table at a reentry fair at a PA state prison
Reentry fair at a Pennsylvania state prison (Photo source: PA Department of Corrections)

When most people in the U.S. seek professional help, they expect the provider to improve the situation.

Anybody would hold the service provider accountable for ineffective care. Yet that’s not the standard to which we hold the providers and programs of the U.S. corrections system. 

Words often used in reference to this system — including “corrections” and “rehabilitation” — really don’t apply. 

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, more than 600,000 people are released from prison each year, but studies show that about two-thirds of those folks are likely to return to prison within three years. 

The failure of the system’s rehabilitation programs are starker when considering that many of us serving long-term or life sentences are passed up for these programs almost entirely. 

I have been given many opportunities while I’ve been serving my sentence, but not everyone has that chance. For the most part, we are dehumanized, degraded and scrutinized. When we are released, our lives are no better.  

Welcome to prison

In my state of Pennsylvania, the first part of prison starts with intake. Most new inmates entering the prison system are sent to a diagnostic and classification center, which in Pennsylvania is currently State Correctional Institution Camp Hill.

It has been about 23 years since my own experience with classification, but each person there is required to undergo interviews and tests with mental health professionals. Staff evaluate an inmate’s age, custody level, programming needs, security needs and housing needs. The Office of Population Management then determines the appropriate facility placement. 

Reception at the prison includes an initial case study and report performed by a corrections team skilled in social work, psychology, psychiatry, academic and vocational education, counseling, religion and custody. 

Despite how they sound, all these evaluations are not part of a path that is helping you. They only support the prison system, not the individual.

Everyone is painted with a broad brush and assessed by someone who has spent 15 minutes with them. Individuals with unaddressed deep, trauma-related issues are passed to another handler who does not address the past or prepare them for reentry.

In my case, I was first sent to SCI Houtzdale, a medium security institution, and in 2004 was transferred to a brand new facility, SCI Fayette, a maximum security institution near Pittsburgh, where I remained for 19 years until I was transferred a month ago to SCI Mercer to participate in the veterans program. Mercer is a minimum security facility with academic and vocational education programs, and where I’m looking forward to finally receiving more rehabilitative care and reentry support as I continue to hope for commutation. 

Process without end

Each inmate’s day consists of “programming,” or structured participation in education, leisure activities and group therapy. 

The programming is determined in an evaluation process to create something called a “prescriptive plan.” A team of correctional professionals assess each inmate for their strengths, weaknesses, problems, risks and needs. Using available resources, a plan is developed to ultimately return the inmate to the community.

The prescriptive plan, officially known as “Pennsylvania Department of Corrections DC-43 Integrated Correctional Plan,” identifies the inmate and inmate number, counselor name and date of annual review. Each year, there is an evaluation conducted by a counselor in your housing unit. 

The progress of my prescriptive plan reads:

  • After Care Completed 12/30/2005
  • Co-Occurring Outpatient Completed 08/30/2007
  • Long Term Offender Completed 03/02/2006
  • Therapeutic Community Failed to Complete 07/20/2006
  • Violence Prevention Moderate Intensity Completed 12/17/2019

Included on the prescriptive plan are reports on general performance like mine listed here: 

  • Maintain Positive Work Report Library Clerk – Above Average
  • Misconduct Free Behavior Maintained since 2008
  • Positive Housing Reports Average

I have completed my prescriptive plan except for “therapeutic community” and I’ve taken many additional programs and courses. 

Each year I am asked if anything has changed. I tell them no and return to my normal daily life. 

The corrections policy (Reception and Classification Policy 11.2.1) states that the overall goal is for the inmate to return “to the community as a law-abiding citizen,” but in my experience, there is no rehabilitation taking place when an inmate is doing the same thing repeatedly with no reward. 

Even if someone completes a program or two, they return home mostly unchanged because issues including mental health and trauma they have experienced were never addressed.

No path home

Without rehabilitation, life inside is aimless. You get up, go to work and return to the cell to do it all again the next day. Once we complete the programs, we remain warehoused and deteriorating. The only alternative is to take it upon yourself to be engaged in something else.

Some people purchase musical keyboards and learn music, while others learn a new language or, like myself, pick up writing.

But many of us want a better life, not just pass time. 

Many people on the outside seem to think prisons rehabilitate people, but the system does not work, and a majority of staff do not care.

The therapeutic programs do not delve as deeply as one truly needs. Participants are offered just enough training to obtain a certificate. Even if they have hopes that the certificate will help them get a better job, they rarely mean anything to employers, in part because the training is often outdated. 

Still, there are some positives. A certificate can, for example, help you get a better prison job, such as one in Correctional Industries, which employs incarcerated people to produce services and products for nonprofit organizations and the state. Another benefit to completing a program is that it can help reduce your custody level, which allows you to be considered for the honor block. There, you have access to special privileges and work details that require a security clearance to work outside, including the warehouse, treatment plant or as part of the Community Work Program, which allows those who have almost completed their sentences to work outside of their prison for government and nonprofit public service agencies.

One of the carrots they dangle in front of folks like myself, who are serving long-term and life sentences, is that programs could help us reduce our sentences. However, in actuality, it’s difficult to do because some programs are only available to those who are near their release date. Policy dictates that a certain percentage of the spots be reserved for people with long-term sentences, but it is so miniscule that I’ll likely never be able to access those programs. 

In other countries with more rehabilitative approaches, incarcerated residents begin rehabilitation programs from the beginning of their sentence. Maximum sentences are also rarely as long as a lifetime. 

In the U.S., however, we have a long way to go to have a truly rehabilitative system. Under the approach here, the guys serving long sentences are set aside. 

The subtext of these prison policies feels to us like America believes we have no value. After all, we are not going anywhere. We’re just waiting in prison to die.

(Additional reporting by PJP)

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Jeffery Shockley is a writer incarcerated in Pennsylvania.