Prisons: Purely for punishment, or rehabilitation?

9 Mins read

The reoffending rate for prisoners in America is one of the highest in the world, with almost half (44%) of inmates returning within a year of being released from prison, according to the National Institution of Justice.

In the UK, the reoffending rate was almost a third (30%) in 2020, according to figures in the House of Lords Library.

But, talking about rehabilitation within the prison system is a controversial subject: society seems quick to reinforce how the prison system should only be used to punish, not to reward.

Without speaking directly to those who have offended in the past, society holds a begrudging ‘once a criminal, always a criminal’ attitude, despite clear evidence that vigilant rehabilitative services have reduced the number of reoffenders by more than 40%.

I became acquainted with Mattese Miller via, a website that sets out to rehabilitate inmates by giving them access to people outside of their incarceration. These contacts can assist inmates with their mental health, legal issues, and future employment. I started writing to Mattese during the UK lockdown in 2020.

Mattese stood in the yard of Portland State Penitentiary. He is an African-American man, wearing blue jeans and a grey jumper.
Mattese Miller in the grounds of Portland State Penitentiary [Courtesy of Mattese Miller]

Two years earlier, at the age of 18, Mattese Miller pleaded guilty to a case of robbery. He served four years in Portland State Penitentiary in Oregon, and was released in February 2022. 

Fresh out of the facility, he was forced to readjust to his life on the outside, but admits that: “I am more depressed now, than I was in prison.”

Mattese relied on the criminal justice system, on rehabilitation, to set him up with the basic skills needed for his new life after his sentence: “Since I have been out of prison, I haven’t got any assistance – and I basically got out homeless. I am in a state where I don’t have any family and I didn’t know anyone. I was 18 when I went to prison – I was a kid.”

He felt he was basically thrown out of the institution, and back onto the streets: “For me, I am a statistic. It’s sad, because I hate to say that about myself. The system tries to make it look as though it’s about rehabilitation, but they get paid to have you on their roster!”

Although he does not feel as if prison reformed him, Mattese does hold a new outlook on his life: “I feel that I know myself more than I ever have before; I think prison forced me to,” he said. “I wouldn’t say that prison helps people reform, it’s the people that want to change [that can].”

When trying to better himself during his time in the facility, Mattese found that “they want you to believe that there is things in place, but there is not,” and added “that councillor shit, is just a title they use to say that they are trying to rehabilitate you! She was my councillor for four years, and in my last six months she was like ‘I don’t have to help you’.”

“I am more depressed now, than I was in prison.”

Mattese Miller

With a lack of resources inside, Mattese and other inmates are more likely to re-offend when they get out: “I have been getting incarcerated since I was 11 years old. I went to juvenile hall which is a youth incarceration,” he said. “From the outside looking in, it would look like I enjoy being a criminal, but if you look deeper, you can see how it is generational.”

In juvenile hall, Mattese was treated to an education, in order to gain credits for future qualifications. However, these educational services were compulsory because of his age: “they have to have you in school when you are a minor, but they honestly don’t really teach you what they teach you in normal school. They just want you to get those credits as fast as possible.”

Due to the living conditions inside, Mattese believes that it is almost impossible to find the time to become a reformed inmate: “When you are in a certain environment, you don’t have time to ‘smell the roses’ because it’s so violent, so criminal, so dangerous.”

“You don’t have time to ‘smell the roses’, because it’s so violent, so criminal, so dangerous,”

Mattese Miller

The perception of prison conditions is often the same in many countries – unanimously giving the impression that they are filthy, overcrowded, and cage-like facilities. Having spent 208 weeks locked up, the memory of his neglect is prominent for Matesse: “It’s dirty, it’s bad; I’ve slept in abandoned homes, with ceilings falling down, which was a better situation than prison.”

Solitary confinement, officially called the Solitary Housing Unit (SHU), or ‘The Hole’, is used to punish inmates more severely. Usually consisting of an 6×8 foot cell which has minimal furnishing: a mattress, which is laid upon a hard steel shelf, a thin blanket, a steel toilet, a steel sink, a thick metal door, and, if you’re lucky, a small window. The concept of solitary confinement is often abused by guards for their own entertainment.

“A CO (correctional officer), put me in the Hole because I slept through the count time, and I was on sleep medication at the time. That right there would drive you insane. I was in there at Christmas time too and it messed with me bad because I was like, ‘Could I at least call my mum and tell her I love her?'”

“You don’t know how it makes a person feel – I’ve got to go into a restaurant with this fat thing on my ankle, that makes me look like a criminal.”

Mattese Miller

Mattese spent almost a month in solitary confinement, “I only had an hour out [each day] to shower, or stretch, or grab a book,” and has suffered long term effects from his visit: “I always take shit extra seriously, I think that’s because of being incarcerated in solitary.”

One of the biggest hurdles to achieving rehabilitation, is the lack of personal space: “That’s the biggest thing, even if you have to deal with shitty guards. If I have my own space where they couldn’t fuck with me at times,” acknowledging that, “a part of rehabilitation is the fact that when you get out, you’ll have to deal with shitty bosses and shitty employees, but you wouldn’t have to live in it.”

After conversing with Mattese about staying out of prison, he shocked me by suggesting: “They make it very easy for you to go back to jail. A few months ago, my PO (parole officer) put me on an ankle monitor for no reason, even though I came to see her every month, when I was supposed to. Never missed a day, wasn’t late. You don’t know how that makes a person feel; I’ve got to go into a restaurant with this fat thing on my ankle, that makes me look like a criminal.”

When I asked Mattese about what I thought was the prison system’s ‘pen pal rehabilitative scheme’, I soon realised that it was limited to inmates who had the money to fund their own rehabilitation: “I had to pay out of my own pocket! Everything is a fucking business here; there is no free rehabilitation!”

Screenshot of Mattese Miller's music on Amazon Music
You can listen to Mattese’s music on Spotify and Amazon Music

I was curious to find out if Mattese feels as if the system will ever be capable of the rehabilitation it alludes to, “I don’t think that it can ever change unless they completely move because there are old guards, old wardens, there’s old COs that are in there and they have been corrupt for years. They like the way that it’s run, they think criminals are just criminals.”

Mattese is currently working on his career as a solo artist, “I [have] been doing music for long, it’s my coping mechanism, it’s how I cope, it makes me feel like I have a voice.”

The US and the UK have the highest reoffending rates in the Western world, and after hearing Mattese’s first-hand struggle with rehabilitation while being in the US prison system, and the impact of that on his life on the outside, I wanted to find out why there is such a struggle to help prisoners back into society.

Joe Chapman spent many years inside a UK prison, where he also found rehabilitation a challenge. However, Joe spent his time, on the other side of the bars.

A profile picture of Joe Chapman, a middle-aged white man, wearing a white shirt.
Joe Chapman has spent many years working to help prisoners reform [Courtesy of Joe Chapman]

Former prison councillor, prison guard, and group therapist, Joe Chapman, is an active advocate for reforming inmates. He worked in HMP Grendon, and is best known for working closely with ‘Moors Murderer’ Myra Hindley for eight years: “I have worked with all sorts of prisoners: drug dealers, burglars, gangsters, people traffickers, murderers.” 

Joe is still in close contact with those who currently work inside a prison, he told me, “we have got hardly any rehabilitation to speak of, in prisons at the moment post-COVID, there was hardly anything happening pre-COVID.”

During COVID prisoners were, “locked up for 23 hours a day, sometimes 48 hours. It was almost like being held in solitary confinement.”

The rumoured effects of solitary confinement, physically and mentally, are horrifying and Joe revealed that: “Solitary isn’t always what it sounds like, yes, the prisoner’s on his own, but he does see staff, is visited by the chaplain, and the governor does come down. So, it’s never solitary confinement for days on end, but it still fucks with your head.”

I was curious to find, from a different perspective, if guards in the UK abuse the concept of solitary confinement: “To just get somebody off of a wing for a little bit of peace and quiet, is where it can be abused. It is fair to say that some staff will go out of their way to send someone down to seg (segregation), simply because they don’t like them, and they hold grudges. They will place them on report, get them extra days, if they get the chance.”

An image of HMP Grendon prison. A tall brick tower building, surrounded by metal railings.
An image of HMP Grendon [Courtesy of Edmund Clark from the book In Place of Hate]

“We have got hardly any rehabilitation to speak of, in prisons at the moment post-COVID – there was hardly anything happening pre-COVID.”

Joe Chapman

Joe believes that the prison system fails inmates who have the potential to change, “because there aren’t enough programs in the system for a start,” with a lack of staff being a huge factor, “rehabilitation suffers, there isn’t enough staff to run the basics, let alone make mentor relationships with the prisoners.” He went on to question, “how anybody coming from Sainsbury’s one day, on to a prison landing the next, can cope, Lord only knows!”

This raises questions about the government’s response: “They brought out a prisons white paper strategy, which will be reviewed in a couple of months, and that was supposed to enhance rehabilitation. It includes the employment of more staff, which is a real big issue at-the-moment, they can’t get the staff.”

Joe explains that when rehabilitating an inmate, “you’ve got to think about, drug issues, mental health issues, accommodation, education, because some are very poorly educated, chances of employment, and family situations. The guys who are violent in prison, aren’t getting any real help for the triggers of their violence. And when they do get violent, they get shoved down to seg.”

Today, inmates who are given more of a chance at reform are chosen specifically by the prison administration team: “It all revolves around sentence planning and based on people who are going on parole.”

Working in both male and female prisons, Joe admitted that “there is no rehabilitation for women prisoners – there never has been.” Women are given limited education, with the system leading with ‘typical female interests’ like, gym time, cooking, and hair styling, but incarcerated women are largely neglected and receive little-to-no help with reform: “When it comes to actually digging down to the surface to why they are there, and what they are going to do in the future – there is none of that,” Joe told me.

A small group room in HMP Grendon. The room is beige, with one barred window, and has eight blue chairs in a circle - in the centre of the room.
A small classroom, inside HMP Grendon, where group therapy takes place [Courtesy of Edmund Clark from the book In Place of Hate]

After a person is released from prison, Joe has recognised that there is a common theme of, “waiting for a man or woman to fail again, and say ‘there you are, I told you’. There is always a stigma attached.” Another being: “most people are not really that interested in whether they are ready to be released, it’s whether they deserve to be.”

The fundamental motion towards achieving rehabilitation and ridding society of re-offenders is, “if you treat people humanly, if you give them something decent in prison; most of all, communicate with them, then they are able to change.”

Norway currently has the lowest reoffending rate in the world today. In recent years, the country has reduced its recidivism rate from 70% to 20%. Holding prisons in the same category as rehabilitation facilities, the Norwegian government has made sure to stay consistently focused on rehabilitating and reintegrating prisoners. 

Norwegian prisons are known for their architectural designs – bars are banned, and they have open-style cells. The cells consist of a private en-suite bathroom – with a shower, sink, and toilet. The cells also include a desk, cupboards, and a single bed. The inmates are allowed to roam freely around common areas like, the kitchen, and living room – with some leaving the facility for work. 

Although he hopes to keep his freedom now he’s been released, Mattese did mention that if he were to be incarcerated again, he would like to complete his sentence in a Scandinavian facility: “They had their wardens come in and show us what it was like, I was like shit! Send me to Norway!”

Featured image by Matthew Ansley via Unsplash CC

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