Philip Zimbardo And Prison Recidivism

Source: www.prisonexp.org

By now, you must surely have read the recent Slate.com piece on the increasing prison population. In it, researcher John Pfaff provides data suggsesting that the major driver of this increase is a doubling of the rate at which district attorneys bring felony charges against inmates:
What appears to happen during this time—the years I look at are 1994 to 2008, just based on the data that’s available—is that the probability that a district attorney files a felony charge against an arrestee goes from about 1 in 3, to 2 in 3. So over the course of the ’90s and 2000s, district attorneys just got much more aggressive in how they filed charges. Defendants who they would not have filed felony charges against before, they now are charging with felonies.
The remainder of the article is more speculative in nature, and since I'm not married to the theory expounded upon, I'll omit it here. Read the whole thing, if you're interested.

I came back to this Slate article, however, after reading something interesting today in Philip Zimbardo's The Lucifer Effect, about the impact of situational forces on social psychology, especially as it relates to systemic oppression. As a lead-in to a section on lessons that can be gleaned from Zimbardo's infamous experiment, he writes:
From one perspective, the [Stanford Prison Experiment] does not tell us anything about prisons that sociologists, criminologists, and the narratives of prisoners have not already revealed about the evils of prison life. Prisons can be brutalizing places that invoke what is worst in human nature. They breed more violence and crime than they foster constructive rehabilitation. Recidivism rates of 60 percent and higher indicate that prisons have become revolving doors for those sentenced for criminal felonies.
Zimbardo's position is that the "defects" present in both the prisoners themselves and especially the prison environment compound each other, having all the more deleterious effects on the prisoners.

His point about recidivism is an interesting one. If true, we would expect that yesterday's convicts would return to prison at ever-increasing rates, as the situational forces infect their psychology more and more. We already know that total prison populations are increasing in the United States, but what about recidivism rates?

According to a study conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics, the actual recidivism rate at the time Zimbardo wrote The Lucifer Effect was 71.6% over a 3-year time horizon (using rearrests as the measure of recidivism). So Zimbardo's "60 percent and higher" was actually a conservative estimate.

In 1994, according to the same study, the recidivism rate was 66.9%, and the authors indicate that the difference was, in fact, statistically significant. In other words, recidivism rates have increased independent of the overall prison population increase.

Thus, there is some evidence to suggest that there are situational forces impacting how district attorneys proceed against accused persons, which then leads to an increase in the total number of convicts. This, in turn, leads to an increase in the total population of people exposed to the nefarious social psychology of the prison system, which subsequently damages their psychology and sets them on a path toward a return-trip to prison after they've "paid their debts."

If this explanation is valid, then it means, once convicted, a person is unlikely ever to have paid his or her debt to society.

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