“The conditions in which [inmates] live are the poorest possible preparation for their successive reentry into society, and often merely reinforce them in a pattern of manipulation and destructiveness.”
The above is an excerpt from a report written by 19 criminologists commissioned by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965 to conceive a radically different American law enforcement system. The criminologists recognized a truth our lawmakers are hesitant to act upon: brutal mass incarceration does not work. Standard prison systems, specifically in the US and the UK, operate to prevent bad behavior, when they should really be operating to prevent bad intentions. Inmates released from brutal mass incarceration prisons are dangerous, having been hardened by years of violence and solitude. According to the National Institute of Justice, in the US, nearly 44% of criminals reoffend within the first year after release, a number that only increases as years pass.
In the UK, the most recent reoffending rates, measured over the two years since release, record 29%, a number nearly as high. The UK’s prison population has risen by 69% over the last 30 years — without a lower correlation in crime levels.
We’ve all heard of the placebo: something that becomes true simply because we believe it to be so. What many of our legislators fail to realize is how the placebo effect manifests itself in our prison systems and reoffending rates. Mass incarceration prisons were established under the assumption that prisoners are and will be violent irreparable offenders. The ideological foundations of our prison systems simulate the Pygmalion effect, which addresses the relationship between expectations and behavior: how we feel expected to act influences how we do act, whether consciously or subconsciously. Inmates are no different.
Treating inmates as violent offenders by returning violence to them creates a sort of a placebo effect, in which prisoners behave according to expectations. Rutger Bregman recalled one former California inmate’s comments on his treatment in the American incarceration system, “The vast majority of us become exactly who we are told we are: violent, irrational, and incapable of conducting ourselves like conscious adults.”
Rather than reforming individuals and preparing them for reintegration into society, our current prisons create a self-reinforcing cycle of violence and crime. Bad behavior is punished, but bad intentions remain. But it does not have to be this way.
The criminologists commissioned by President Johnson recommend that we redesign our prisons to create institutions that resemble normal residential settings as much as possible. This starts with allowing inmates to build skills and develop the confidence that they’ll need to succeed in the real world — something that third sector organizations like the Clink and Glasshouse understand.
From behind bars to Michelin Stars, The Clink Charity is forging career paths for hundreds of inmates across the UK. Clink operates four restaurants in collaboration with prisons, aiming to provide inmates with the culinary training needed for a guaranteed career in hospitality after release. Applications open to inmates in the last 18 months of their sentences, and graduates obtain a City and Guilds qualification upon release. The restaurants are impressive even in the absence of charitable pursuit: The Clink Restaurant at HMP Brixton is frequently rated as a Top 10 restaurant in London on TripAdvisor. Lack of employment after release is regarded as the most likely predecessor to reoffending, and, due to consistently high labor turnover rates in the hospitality sector, Clink graduates face no shortage in job offers.
In the post-Brexit economy, employers eagerly turn to Clink to fill the holes in the hospitality industry previously claimed by immigrants. Andrew Phaedonos, one Clink graduate interviewed by the FT, ultimately went on to establish his own cocktail bar and restaurant in London. And, yes, some of Clink’s graduates are now working in Michelin-starred restaurants.
Traveling southeast, we stumble upon another third sector organization with a similar mission: the Glasshouse. The Glasshouse is a social enterprise on the grounds of HM Prison East Sutton Park in Kent, whose mission is to reduce reoffending through horticultural training and employment. In the past, it was easy to find a prison that grew its own food, but, after prison agricultural schemes were cut in the UK in the early 2000s, only five out of 117 UK prisons now do so. Glasshouse is making use of one of the abandoned glasshouses to train female convicts for an RHS level 2 horticultural qualification. The students care for plants, manage the website, process orders and gift cards, and interact with customers.
Glasshouse intentionally operates on a small scale to maintain personal, needs-based relations that focus on growing inmate confidence: according to co-founder Kali Hamerton-Stove, “A lot of people come in just to ask questions and talk to the women. It’s been a good way for the community to break down preconceived notions – and for ex-offenders to realize they can be successful and welcomed out in the world again.”
The triumphs of the third sector may prove to be an enlightenment for Parliament. In December 2021, the UK government mirrored the aims of organizations like The Clink Charity and the Glasshouse in releasing the Prisons Strategy White Paper, which solidified a goal to renovate the UK prison system towards a stronger focus on individualized education and employment plans for inmates.1
Parliament’s new vision for the prison system has promising potential to abrogate the cycle of violence that has plagued our prisons for so long: by treating inmates as responsible citizens and students, rather than violent offenders, the White Paper is the first step to reversing the placebo effect that has maintained high reoffending rates for so long.
Whether it is a student, a criminal, or a chef, we become who we are told we are.