Psychologists offer ways to improve prison environment, reduce violent crime

U.S. prisons are too punitive and often fail to rehabilitate, but targeting prisoners' behavior, reducing prison populations and offering job skills could reduce prisoner aggression and prevent recidivism, a researcher told the American Psychological Association on Saturday.

"The current design of systems don't work," said expert Joel Dvoskin, PhD, of the University of Arizona. "Overly punitive approaches used on violent, angry criminals only provide a breeding ground for more anger and more violence."

Presenting at the American Psychological Association's 117th Annual Convention, Dvoskin discussed his upcoming book, "Applying to Reduce Violent Offending," which examines why prisons are failing and what needs to change.

"Prison environments are replete with aggressive behaviors, and people learn from watching others acting aggressively to get what they want," Dvoskin said in an interview.

Applying behavior modification and social learning principles can work in corrections, he said. "For example, systematic reinforcement of pro-social behaviors is a powerful and effective way to change behavior, but it has never been used as a cornerstone of corrections," he said.

Also, punishment can be effective in changing behavior, but it only works in the short term and immediately after the unwanted behavior happens, he said. While there is a place for punishment, it should be used in psychologically informed and effective ways. However, punishment should not be one-size-fits-all, Dvoskin said.

"We need to know what may be behind the to know what the best treatment is," he said. "A person who commits crimes when drunk but not when sober is likely suffering from an alcohol problem. Treating the alcohol problem may diminish the criminal behavior."

Decreasing prison populations needs to be more of a priority, Dvoskin said. "This can be done by paying more attention to those with the highest risk of rather than focusing on lesser crimes, such as minor drug offenses."

Finally, bringing work back into prisons can benefit prisoners by teaching them job skills and filling unmet job needs. With the increase in the criminal population and lack of increase in prison staff, "there is not enough supervision to allow prisoners to work and build skills," Dvoskin said. "This makes it very hard to re-enter into the civilian world and increases the likelihood of going back to prison."

With 7 million American adults in prison and almost 50 percent of them African-American males, many children are growing up without fathers and are at risk for continuing the vicious cycle of criminal behavior, Dvoskin said. "If we don't make the changes now, we will see these numbers go up."

Dvoskin, along with co-editors Jennifer Skeem, Ray Novaco and Kevin Douglas, wanted to find out what social science reveals about preventing and reducing violent crime. "Our intention," said Dvoskin, "is to avoid the extreme partisan bickering about whether to be 'soft' or 'hard' on crime, but to combine social science and common sense so that our correctional systems can more effectively change behavior. After all, isn't that their job?"

Source: American Psychological Association (news : web)

Citation: Psychologists offer ways to improve prison environment, reduce violent crime (2009, August 8) retrieved 20 January 2019 from
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.

Feedback to editors

User comments

Aug 09, 2009
Swedish prisons have started to use cognitive behavioral therapy to help prisoners make different choices when faced with a potentially confrontational situation. This has led to a reduction of recidivism. Another successful factor has been intervention by former convicts (an organisation named KRIS) to help "jailbirds" break with their habits and criminal social networks.

The most effective time to intervene is before the future criminals have grown up -teenagers in trouble require a lot of resources from society, but it is worth every cent if it can turn them away from a life of crime. In USA, a 1990s misdirected fear of a teenage crime wave which never materialized led to a very repressive regime of facilities for teenage criminals, which in turn led to a very high recidivism.

The lesson is, use the best available knowledge without giving in to populism.

Aug 09, 2009
The problem with psychology is that it can only address one person not 5,000 or 10,000, you cannot meet psychology in an office with 40,000 people. This is where common sense is failing-- Why spend more one on one time with a criminal in prison? prevention should be stressed, prison is too late--the psychologist should find a way to prevent before prison not while in prison.

Aug 09, 2009
The problem with psychology is that it can only address one person not 5,000 or 10,000,

Its Social science, which is a study of large groups. They are NOT suggesting individual sit downs with everyone to cry out their problems with on a couch. They are saying lets take ALL the prisoners and give them job skills so they don't come back in here because they don't know how to live clean and to provide an economical work force. Let's teach ALL the prisoners how to problem solve simple social situations. Lets split up the prisoners based easily on what they are in for and keep non violent offenders away from learning violent behavior from those that are violent.

Aug 10, 2009
The telling sentence from Dr. Dvoskin is "We need to know what may be behind the criminal behavior to know what the best treatment is". Psychologists, with all their training and experience, are clueless unless they themselves have been criminals or thugs or druggies or alcoholics and thus KNOW PERSONALLY why people do what they do- from a visceral personal experience. I assert that only then can psychologists be effective. Mental constructs and theories and social stratifications are nice fluffy ideas. I assert that healing comes from one-on-one contact between two people who both know what the deal is.

Aug 10, 2009
Those who can do, those who can't preach. I've been doing this work for a while now, and believe me, rehabilitation is truly an inside job; this is particularly true for the incarcerated inmate. All the kings horses and all the kings men can't do much to help most who end up in prison together agin. No matter what you believe about yourself, your positive genuine regard is insufficient - you can't have their conversion experience or facilitate that .. a ha!! moment, especially if you're someone the inmate perceive to be better, more educated, or some elitist rescuer that any street wise punk knows will get far more from the rehabilitation than the inmate ever will - anger and resentment will run circles around regression analysis and any CBT.

Aug 10, 2009
Ohhhhhhhhhhh k, here's the deal, doctors of psychology and criminology love this new what works stuff - first they tell ya what their gonna publish, then they publish, then they sign contracts for large amounts of money to produce reports that will tell you what they already told you ... and there never is an a ha moment, never, it's just the same old stuff, different venue ... people, wake up, these inmates make decisions based upon self that hurt others or put themselves in a place to get hurt ... they are mostly addicts and alcoholics looking for a high, and the most effective help they can get, if they want it, is at the end of a telephone - 1-800-CALAAYO

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more