Moving to a Rehabilitative System: How Prison Outreach Gives Inmates a Voice


What You Can Do:

  1. Ship books to the following address: Prisoner’s Express, 130 Anabel Taylor Hall, Ithaca, NY, 14853
  2. Visit the Prisoner’s Express volunteer page:
  3. Consider making a donation:
  4. Subscribe to the Prisoner’s Express newsletter:

At this very moment, you may be researching ways to help keep yourself busy over the next few weeks (or months!) as the pandemic continues to affect every aspect of our lives. Maybe you’ve come to the conclusion that things like meditation and reading only help your boredom so much. A potential alternative: why not donate the books you’ve been forcing yourself to read? Prisoner’s Express, a non-profit organization based on Cornell University’s campus, facilitates correspondence and self-expression among incarcerated individuals [1]. The organization’s members read and respond to prisoners’ letters as part of their Journal Program and compile artwork for digitization, which is included in a themed newsletter sent to subscribers. For those who can’t bear to part with any books, a donation for shipping costs is also greatly appreciated and those who wish to do more may visit their website for additional ways to get involved.

However, not all prison centers allow their inmates the right to creative expression or the proper channels to display it. The movement away from a punitive system includes this kind of access to expression and encouragement, as well as an increase in available mental health professionals in prisons. A statistical summary published by the Bureau of Justice in 2017 found that 37% of prisoners have prior experience with a mental health disorder, as diagnosed by a professional, and only about a third of these individuals are actively receiving treatment while incarcerated [2]. The development of special programs, such as those promoted by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, are likewise being pushed by advocates to remind society at large that incarcerated individuals should not be marginalized. The UNODC program that outlines their support of “the creation of national brands of prison products aimed at enhancing prisoners’ work and products with a view to generate income for prisoners, [and] increase their… employability upon release” is but one example of the tremendous efforts being taken to improve the quality of life of all inmates around the world [3]. 

Promoting rehabilitation that incorporates these ideas in the United States criminal justice system has undoubtedly proved to be a difficult endeavor. Yet, there is overwhelming evidence that suggests such a shift would be beneficial to not only incarcerated individuals, but society at large. James Gilligan, a clinical professor of psychiatry and an adjunct professor of law at New York University, explained to the New York Times that participation in “an intensive re-educational program with violent male offenders in the San Francisco jails… for as little as four months reduced the frequency of violent reoffending after leaving the jail by 83 percent” [4]. Furthermore, Gilligan added that “this program saved the taxpayers $4 for every $1 spent on it, since the lower reincarceration rate saved roughly $30,000 a year per person.” 

So why have lawmakers not pushed for such seemingly favorable change? The cosmetic answer lies in the issue of obtaining the funds needed to implement such a system and, of course, politicking. Reentry programs, designed to integrate incarcerated individuals into society following their release, are becoming much more popular due to their streamlined access to funds, compared to incorporating rehabilitation systems within the individual’s time spent in the prison system [5]. These reentry programs require less money to run, due in part to their widespread implementation, but also due to their shorter duration and less experienced staff [6]. Thus, there is no incentive for politicians to override the opinions of their constituents if many take the criminal reform system at face value, witness static tax payments, and believe the mantra of “tough on crime.” Yet, the genuine answer lies in this exact mentality. The support for punitive facilities communicates an issue with society’s overall attitude towards rehabilitation beyond that of any given legislator. The general public has been led to believe that the dehumanization and suppression of incarcerated individuals is the only way they will feel safe. A vicious cycle is established in which inmates are marooned at the expense of reelection prospects and as such, many turn a blind eye because they are unaware of the underlying injustices.

None of this is to say, however, that incarceration should be abolished; those who break the law, must, by the very foundation that upholds functional society, be held responsible for their actions. Yet, a move towards rehabilitation and cognitive therapy within the criminal justice system “can enforce the law without compromise and without triggering offenders’ resistance… and offer genuine opportunities to change,” according to Jack Bush, author and co-developer of the treatment program Thinking For A Change [7]. In a study conducted by Canadian psychologists, data indicated that appropriate treatment cut recidivism, or reoffense, by fifty percent. This treatment consisted of “delivery of service to higher risk cases, targeting of criminogenic needs, and use of styles and modes of treatment that are matched with client needs and learning styles” [8]. The indisputable fact is that implementing an alternative to a system based on punishment compels inmates to avoid reoffense based on moral reformation.

Thus, as a society, we must strive to end the sustained neglect of incarcerated individuals. The empirical evidence that supports the restructuring of our criminal justice system into one rooted in rehabilitation is compelling, yet this mission extends beyond making legislative gains. On a much more humanitarian level, it is a fight to end the stigma that many incarcerated individuals face, as well as to reestablish their status as human beings worthy of redemption. Organizations like Prisoner’s Express rise to this challenge and aspire to make sure these stories are heard by fostering a sense of community through expression. With your help, this endeavor becomes much more attainable and intensifies the advocacy for individuals behind bars to a level that will incite the change they need.