What happens when you continually punish a child when they do wrong, while never rewarding them when they do good? When has this sort of rearing method ever been known to produce a positive long-term effect on that child's behavior? Never. In fact, this overly punitive rearing method has been proven to produce negative long-term effects. Although offenders are not children, the "corrections" aspect of the criminal justice system can in several ways be likened to a form of rearing. Just as it is a parent's duty to rear their children into respectable adults, the justice system exists to rear criminal offenders into productive members of society. But where prison administrations go wrong is by acting as the overly punitive parents in response to offender behavior. Just as this practice always yields a negative long-term effect with child rearing, the same negative outcome can be expected with regards to offenders.
When offenders exhibit poor behavior, such as breaking institutional rules, staff are allowed to punish us in countless ways. They write infractions; put us in solitary confinement; fire us from our jobs; take our commissary, phone, email, and visitation privileges; order us to pay fines; transfer us to stricter, higher-level facilities; even add additional time to our prison sentences. The list of punishments at their disposal is too long to fit in this essay. And there is no limit to how much punishment can be doled out to any single offender; meaning if he perpetually displays poor behavior, he will continue being punished again and again and again for each incident.
Good behavior, on the other hand, goes largely unrewarded in prison. In fact, the only reward is being placed at the highest "good time" level. But this is not a genuine reward, as it simply allows us to remain eligible for our state's truth-in-sentencing percentage. Unlike the never ending scroll of punishments, they use for poor behavior, staff do not continue rewarding us for positive strides such as earning college credits and vocational trades, completing rehabilitative programs, making personal accomplishments, remaining free of infractions for extended periods of time, etc. For those deeds, we aren't hired for jobs or given pay raises. We aren't given extra commissary, phone, email, or visitation privileges. We aren't continually transferred to lower-level facilities to be among other model inmates. Most importantly, we aren't allowed to earn extra time off of our prison sentences. Unlike the near infinite punishments allowed for poor behavior, there are no substantive rewards given for good behavior.
At my very first ICA Review in 2011, I was designated as "good time" level 1, which is the best level, and security level 3, which is the lowest level for which I was eligible. Over the past decade, I have remained free of infractions, maintained employment, completed over three dozen vocational, rehabilitative, and college classes, earned four computer certifications, and written two novels and several short works which are published online. Despite the good behavior I've shown and everything I've accomplished, I am still to this day classified as "good time" level 1 and security level 3. This is my ceiling. I can't and won't be rewarded with better circumstances; but if I were to start breaking rules, I can and will be punished with infinitely worse circumstances.
The recidivism rate suggests that the criminal justice system is failing at rearing offenders into productive members of society, and this lopsided punishment/reward system may be a major reason why. Being overly punitive fosters anger and resentment toward authority (which undermines rehabilitation in every way imaginable) and neglecting to incentivize good behavior fosters indifference toward personal growth. Neither of these are good methods of molding people into productive members of society. There needs to be more balance between the two: Less of a focus on punishment and more efforts to create patterns of good behavior by incentivizing/rewarding good behavior. If the overall goal is truly to make society safer, maybe prisons should stop seeing punishments and rewards as direct, individual acts that we deserve or don't deserve, and start taking into account the long-term impacts these acts will have when we reenter society.