Impacting recidivism goes beyond trade skills

By Mario Bueno

The Michigan Department of Corrections’ new strategy to prepare parolees for employment is good, but is it enough? And why should we care?

The MDOC strategy is to create “vocational villages” to train prisoners in skilled trades in hope that such training will connect the soon-to-be released prisoner with a meaningful opportunity for employment. 

Teaching prisoners a skilled trade, without transforming the way they think, will only lead to high turnover for the employers that do hire them, Bueno writes.

This would be a good start to reducing the 44.9 percent recidivism rate within the first year of release and the whopping 84 percent rate of all parolees going back behind bars within their first nine years of release.

Now, let me be clear: 95 percent of all offenders will return to our community. It is definitely in our self-interest to participate in how our prisons are run, for the quality of our lives depends upon it. The environment that we provide for these already broken men and women will determine whether they return to our communities healed and prepared to be taxpaying assets or victimizing liabilities. 

Truth is, the choice is ours because we know through compiled data and research that there is a positive correlation between prisoners who receive advanced educational studies and increased employment, reduced recidivism, and improved quality of life. 

However, it is not enough. The prison culture is that of the street culture: a culture of honor where dog eats dog.

The resolution of conflict is through aggression, intimidation, and violence. Meanwhile the MDOC’s cognitive behavioral therapy programs such as Anger Management, Thinking for a Change, Violence Prevention, and Violent Offender Psychotherapy are taught for about one to two hours a week and usually during the last year of a prisoner’s sentence.

The problem of recidivism lies not in the debatable philosophies of what school of thought we should take in trying to reform those citizens who need correction. Rather, the core of the issue lies in the culture of prison and the rules of engagement promoted by both staff and prisoner alike. It is a culture of honor that is predatory in nature.

So, while a prisoner may be taught for two hours a week during the last six months of a 20-year prison sentence on how to resolve all conflict peacefully, they have lived — and are living — for the other 166 hours a week in an environment that does not respect the peaceful and pro-social ways of responding to conflict. The prisoner learns the theory of resolving conflict peacefully, but not the application.

In short, the prison environment is a battlefield where aggression and violence are the tools that keep you alive and safe; they are the rules of engagement that win the war. The problem is that those tools do not lead you to success in society but to failure. 

The conditioning that leads the prisoner to win every battle is the same behavior that will push your own family away when they try to help you with reintegration, will prevent you from obtaining or maintaining employment, and, invariably, will lead to reincarceration at the expense of more victims and the community at large.

No, the Vocational Village of the MDOC is not enough to stop the incubation and breeding of homegrown terrorists who are conditioned to respond violently and aggressively to conflict, for conflict is inevitable. Teaching prisoners a skilled trade, without transforming the way they think, will only lead to high turnover for the employers that do hire them. 

Prisoners conditioned to be dependent and independent (isolated from showing unity among prisoners) fail to understand the essential element to personal and professional success: interdependence. 

That’s why learning a trade is just a start. Changing the mindset must be the natural next step if we’re serious about fixing recidivism rates.

Mario Bueno runs a re-entry program, Luck Inc., and is the author of “Reformed: Memoir of a Juvenile Killer.”