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Wednesday, 20th May 2009

Preparing Prisoners for Employment: The Power of Small Rewards

Preparing Prisoners for Employment: The Power of Small Rewards
Source: Manhattan Institute for Policy Research

To the average citizen, the reasons for obtaining gainful employment and obeying the law seem obvious: the freedom to pursue, and the ability to afford, the good things in life—such as a home, a family, and a comfortable standard of living. The high rates of recidivism and unemployment among ex-offenders suggest that the reasons to make an honest living—and to take the necessary steps toward doing so—are anything but obvious. Far more than a lack of education or skills, discrimination, or other external obstacles, it is ex-offenders' impulsiveness and unfamiliarity with the world of work and its trade-offs between sacrifice and reward that explain their poor outcomes after release from incarceration and, for that matter, their lapses preceding it.

That is the theory behind a residential prisoner-release program in Montgomery County, Maryland. Realizing that neither the powerful incentives of freedom and financial solvency nor the powerful disincentives of re-incarceration and impoverishment have sufficiently reshaped this troubled population's behavior, the program has resorted to the "small stuff:"

  • later curfews
  • access to phone cards
  • more frequent visits from family

to induce program participants, some of them serious offenders, to get and keep jobs in the surrounding community. At the very least, the salaries they earn go toward victim restitution, child support, program fees, and the inmates' own savings accounts. At best, inmates learn, in doses small enough for them to absorb and respond to, the mainstream value of delaying gratification and its various offshoots: punctuality, reliability, and the effectiveness of effort. Almost 90 percent of program participants find employment within three weeks of enrollment, and 54 percent still have the same employer two months after they have left the program.


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