Prison Recidivism in America

“Throughout the ‘California Department of Corruption,’
There is no more “Correction,” just Degradation
‘Rehabilitation,’ has become a joke, through these quotes I wrote,
You can note my Frustrations”

From the eyes of a non-violent 3rd Striker, sentenced to 25 to life for possession of a half a gram of cocaine and drug paraphernalia (a smoking device); this is what I see
by a California prisoner   (Source: Prison Censorship)


Recidivism: . Recidivism is defined as reconviction or rearrest within five years of release from prison. Currently two thirds of people reduced from prison are rearrested; about 80 percent of those are rearrested before the end of their first year out of prison (“Recidivism”).


Why I Care: In a democracy, it is hard to reconcile the idea of incarceration with our freedomist ideals. How can we justify temporarly stripping citizens of their rights if we are not sure the punnishment will help society and the individual. For a system meant to increase public safety, we should expect a better success rate. What can we do to make sure ex-convicts become functioning members of society rather than returning to prison in a vicious cycle of incarceration.



History: Prisons were first introduced to America in the late 18th centuray as a more human form of punishment to the old world law codes. Before prisons, most criminals were publically shamed, tortured, and executed. As a new democratic nation, America saut out methods of reformation rather than deterant punishment.  Thus the modern prison was born.

The Problem Today:

Although we have very title data on the effectiveness of the first prisons, it is clear that the modern prison system is not fuctioning as it should. A majority of ex-convicts go back to prison one or more times. These statistics show a major faliure on the part of the government to continue to let prisons oppwrate with these statistics. One might argue that this is a good thing, in that it keeps violent offenders off the streets, but in reality most recidivists are not violent. Many have the deck staked against them before they even leave the prison.

The most common convictions in the prison system are drug crimes. About half of all convictions are drug convictions, although only  in sixteen percent of cases was the drug conviction the highest conviction (Keller). If we want to solve the recidivism rate, it is important that we address the root cause of the crimes. About a quarter of women entering prison are diagnosed with a mental illness, predominantly addiction (Jordan). Without treatment of these conditions while incarcerated, one might expect patterns of behavior among ex-convicts once released. 




Many people see release from prison as a joyous event. Why would they not? The media portrays the event as a happy occation where prisoners are reunited with their friends and family and get to be reunited with their family.

But the reality for many is quite different then the movies. One study found that up to 20% of people being released from prison planned on going strait to a shelter. Without family or friends to bring them resources, people find themselves far from home, without money, transportation, food, or shelter. This dire situation can leave people little choice but to reoffend to make money (Flatow).

The main source of recidivists new sentences is actually not new crimes, but violations of probation and patrol from the original crime. Take a look at the graph below. The green section represents the recidivists with new convictions, where as the blue and pink sections were those who violated parole or probation.

Probation and Parole alternatives to prison that can be a part of your sentence or a condition of early release. During parole or probation, one might be required to meet with a probation/parole officer around one time per month, refrain from drinking alcohol or doing drugs, submitting to drug tests, wearing a GPS tracking device, doing community service, and/or being “gainfully” employed. If someone violates one of these conditions or does not show up for a court date, he or she may be sent back to prison or jail. If one has trouble finding a job due to background checks or can not visit his or her parole officer due to scheduling, one can find themselves violating the conditions of their parole/probation. One’s experience with parole can vary wildly based on the state you he/she lives in. While some states have one unified system, others contract out to private companies. The lack of a national set of guidlines allows states to place other conditions of parolees, even making them pay for their own parole in some states. These payments can be hard to manage fresh out of prison, when it is already hard to find a good job. Seperate state systems means that most people on probation or parole cannot move between states. This condition can seperate families and limit job oppunities.



Although it is a complicated problem, there are specific aspects about the data that can help influence policy and how we help convicts while in prison to prevent re-entry. The US data shows that people without high school diplomas are ten percent more likely to be arrested than those with diplomas and 40 percent more likely to be rearrested than those with college degrees (Keller). Offering programs for prisoners to earn GEDs in prison expands job opportunities which in turn reduces reconviction. To reduce reconviction it is important to target the root causes of some crimes. Check out this program which recently got new computers to help teach the GED program.

Image result for GED in prison



To combat drug crimes, programs for the treatment of addiction should not only happen in prison, but be part of recovery after release. A study conducted by the Society for the Study of Addiction found that patients were less likely to re-enter prison after completing a post-release residential program (Hiller et al.). Programs like these disrupt the cycle of addiction and therefore give ex-convicts paths other than reconviction. Post-release care could also be a good solution of people convicted of sex-work or other crimes associated with risk taking behavior. A study published in the Journal of Women’s Health and Gender-Based Medicine studying a program for high risk inmates in a which developed a personal bond with a physician and social worker and the inmate who continued care after release. These inmates were twenty-seven percent less likely to re-enter prison than the low risk control group (Vigilante et al.).


Transitional housing could also be benificial for people without a home to go to after release. With the resources to survive while people look for perminent housing and jobs, people would be descouraged from  recommiting crimes in the first few months of freedom. Another reformation that could drastically help the prison population is a rehaul of the parole/probation system. Creating a set of national guidelines, rather than statewide and privite guidelines, might help to boost the effectiveness of these programs.

There are many more solutions that could overhaul the entire prison system, but these are some concrete steps we are already halfway to accomplishing to benefit the lives of ex-convicts and reduce the incarcerated population.

What you can do:

  1. Call your representative! If you feel that prisons should be regulated better, why not call the people in charge of regulations? Don’t know who your representatives are? Click on the following links:
    3.  To find your state representatives, look on your state legislature page
  2. If you want to help with your dollar, donate to organizations who are helping in their communities:

Works Cited:
Bender, Jeremy. “RANKED: The World’s 20 Strongest Militaries.” Business Insider, Business Insider,
3, Oct. 2015,
“Federal Bureau of Prisons.” BOP: Population Statistics,

Hiller, Matthew L., et al. “Prison‐Based Substance Abuse Treatment, Residential Aftercare and
Recidivism.” Society for the Study of Addiction, Carfax Publishing, Taylor & Francis Ltd,
3 May 2002,

“In Depth.” BBC News, BBC, 20 June 2005,

Jordan, Kathleen B. “Prevalence of Psychiatric Disorders Among Incarcerated Women.”Archives
Of General Psychiatry, American Medical Association, 1 June 1996,

Keller, Bill. “Seven Things to Know About Repeat Offenders.” The Marshall Project, 16 Nov.

Kenney, Kathleen M. “Annual Determination of Average Cost of Incarceration.” Federal Register, 19 July
Schrager, Allison. “In America, Mass Incarceration Has Caused More Crime than It’s Prevented.” Quartz,
Quartz, 22 July 2015,

“Recidivism.” National Institute of Justice, 17 June 2014,

Vigilante, Kevin C., Mary M. Flynn, Patricia C. Affleck, Julia C. Stunkel, Nathan A. Merriman, Timothy
P. Flanigan, Jennifer A. Mitty, and Josiah D. Rich “Reduction in Recidivism of Incarcerated
Women through Primary Care, Peer Counseling, and Discharge Planning.” Reduction in Recidivism of Incarcerated Women through Primary Care, Peer Counseling, and Discharge Planning | Journal of Women’s Health, 28 May 2009,


Share this project
  1. April 28, 2018 by Sydney Martin

    I like your project, Madelynn. I think it has great ideas. However, you have many spelling errors and your google form isn’t open for me to respond in. A simple proof-read can fix this though, so at least it’s a simple problem to fix. Your solutions to this problem are pretty cool since it seems like you came up with more than one and are open to listening to more ideas for solutions. Pretty good job, Madelynn.

  2. May 02, 2018 by Moshe Heletz

    I also like your project, Madelynn. I recommend you talk about the prison-industrial complex, as it is a big reason that these issues are going on. It is in the interests of large corporations that build prisons and provide services for them to have large numbers of prisoners. Prisons need to hire people to run them, build the facilities, and spend money taking care of their prison population. This requires large amounts of spending in the private sector, regardless of whether the prison is private or public. Additionally, there are private prisons which are run for a profit. Additionally, it is good to note that the US has the world’s highest incarceration rate and number of prisoners of any country. This also happens in our military (the military-industrial complex), but that is a different story.

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