interview with Matthew DeMichelle
For or against death penalty?- that is one of the tough questions I asked Dr. DeMichelle, in a recent interview concerning the prison system.
Briefly, could you explain what is meant by "Supermax prisons" and how do they differ from maximum security? In general, what does the research data indicate about the rehab capabilities of Supermax prisons compared to max security?
Good question Jamie, but the reality is that supermax prisons are not meant to have any rehabilitative effects. These institutions are designed to keep individuals locked-up for nearly the entire day. I believe typically folks in such institutions are locked down for 23 or 24 hours a day, and when they do get out, they are segregated to small fenced in areas. The point to these facilities is security and incapacitation of offenders, not post-release success. I don’t believe there is any real research on success of individuals released from supermax vs. other prisons. Supermax prisons are warehouses or storage facilities for offenders deemed too dangerous to be housed with others. Interestingly, these distinctions are not made solely based upon convicted offense, but rather on institutional behavior. That is, if an inmate attacks a guard or other offender, they might get moved up in security level. To a certain extent, supermax prisons is the correctional system throwing up its hands and giving up on reintegration of offenders, and saying let’s just lock these folks up away from everyone. This is problematic, however, when we start to realize that many of these people will be released back into communities. So, while the prison system may give up, the community is left to deal with these folks again. With all this said, though, the US correctional system gave up on the notion of rehabilitation a long time ago. In fact, there is a well-known piece of research by Robert Martinson (1974) in which he argued that ‘nothing works in correctional rehabilitation.’ Martinson analyzed more than 100 research articles on correctional rehabilitation with juveniles and adults, and he argued that offenders going through these interventions did not perform significantly better than similar offenders not exposed to the interventions. This research was used as fodder to support conservative policy designs to remove any attempts at resocialization from penal institutions. Instead, it was argued that if rehabilitative mechanisms do not work—then, why bother? Why not just lock people up and throw away the key? Well, unfortunately, Martinson did not intend for his research to be applied in this way; instead, he was saying that better reintegrative mechanisms were needed, not fewer. But, we should realize that the late 1970s and early 1980s were a time of increasingly neo-liberalizing economics and political arrangements that fostered a punitive turn in social policies. At any rate, we’ve experienced a nearly seven-fold increase in incarcerated populations since the early 1970s---with incarceration rates per 100,000 population moving from around 100 to more than 700. This is amazing and it significantly outpaces our Western counterparts. In fact, the only other nations with such levels of incarceration are found in places such as Soviet Russia and South Africa. I say all these things because it is important to understand that incarceration and crime policy in general are not so much rational responses to public threats as much as they are shaped by larger contextual realities (e.g., economy, politics). At any rate, supermax prisons were part of this punitive turn, and they serve to house offenders that, essentially, had problems in other facilities and/or they were repeat violent offenders. But, researching their success upon release is not something that I aware has much research—probably because we know how these folks will do upon release, don’t we?
Does the death penalty aid in lessening crime? How is the death penalty used differently in the USA compared to other countries?
For or against death penalty?
Which country executes the most people?
Boy, oh boy, Jamie, couldn’t you give me some easy questions? Now you throw these three or four on the death penalty. First, the data on the death penalty reducing crime is a difficult question to unpack. I mean how could we measure crimes that folks might have committed if it had not been for the death penalty. These counterfactuals are nearly impossible to measure. I mean let’s assume that someone comes home to find their spouse in bed with someone else. Now, the news will tell us about the times when an individual goes to their closet and gets out their pistol and shoots someone—probably without every rationally calculating their actions, but we do not know, nor can we measure, the times when someone processes the potential consequences of shooting and killing someone in such a scenario. Simply, the deterrent effects of crime policies are difficult to measure accurately. Some research, however, suggests that crimes increase in areas following the commission of a death penalty, and if we look at states within the US that use the death penalty the most, we see elevated violent crime rates.
Second, the only western (or at least quasi-western law country) that uses the death penalty is Japan. The others got rid of the death penalty sometime ago, which is not to say that the public is not in favor of the death penalty in these other places. We should remember that most of Europe has a different memory of WWII than the US, and they may have a heightened sense of fear of the government’s ability to kill people legally. With that said, however, criminal justice policies and practitioners are protected from politics in that these are not elected positions in many other countries. Consider how the multiple elections of prosecutors, judges, sheriffs, and other criminal justice professionals shape crime policy and rhetoric. During election times, we all see the commercials in which someone claims that he or she is much harsher with criminals than their counterpart, or how another person is soft on crime. There is a famous case in which George Bush was running against Michael Dukakis for president, and Bush used the situation of a work furlough program that operated in Massachusetts when Dukakis was governor in which an offender was out and committed a brutal rape and murder of an elderly woman. While this crime was horrible, Bush did not mention that the furlough program had a small recidivism rate and was considered successful overall. Now, do not misunderstand me, no one is in favor of brutal offenders being released, but we cannot create rational policies to prevent the irrational from occurring. I mean does anyone think that we can eliminate crime? Policies cannot make all crimes go away. Crimes and violent forms of predation are much bigger social and psychological issues that can be addressed through policies, but we should not expect to get rid of crime. This would be like expecting medical doctors to eliminate death.
Third, am I for or against the death penalty? I am not in favor of how the US operates the death penalty. This is not to say that I do not see individuals that I believe should be executed. We see these sensational and horrific cases in which a young child is kidnapped and abused for decades, or someone kills and rapes someone, or some other horrible act, and I believe many people are in favor of using execution to handle these folks. But, unfortunately, in a large modern society it is not possible to conduct executions that way. Instead, we have a constitution that provides specific forms of protections to all of us, and these are a good thing—many of these rights are what separates this country from others, and it is what makes the US a special form of democracy. We should admit why we would want to use the death. That is, we do not use the death penalty to deter so much as to get retribution and revenge, which I am not saying is a wrong thing necessarily, but we should not expect to get anything else from it. Also, we know that hundreds of people on death row have been released due to prosecutorial misconduct, lack of adequate legal protection, and DNA evidence suggesting that someone else committed the crime. I mean does anyone believe that O.J. didn’t murder his ex-wife and her boyfriend? And, was acquitted, not because people believed he was innocent but because “the glove didn’t fit.” So, we see that money for a fancy legal defense is important, and we know that most of the individuals on death row had a public defender, not a hired attorney. This does not seem right to me. We also know that there are situations in which prosecutors fudge evidence to get conviction—to make sure they have a high prosecution rate and get reelected. And, DNA evidence has proven that many people on death row did not do the crime in the first place. Eyewitness testimony is weak at best. I suppose I’d be in favor of the death penalty if I were able to pick on a case-by-case basis who was to be executed, but until that time comes, it seems to be a flawed policy due to understandable human errors.
Fourth, I really don’t know which country executes the most people. As I mentioned above, the US and Japan are the only western law countries to execute, and it is really hard to compare the non-western countries with us. Not to mention in many other countries there are very shady sorts of things that happens due to a lack of due process and civil liberties.
Why solitary confinement? According to scientific data it doesn't look promising.
Solitary confinement is used as a punishment for offenders that do not get along once they are incarcerated. We know that historically this was used as a way to soften prisoners up. Now, it is what happens when administrators do not know what to do with prisoner. Maybe they are too violent or are problematic in other ways. I’m not saying it should or shouldn’t be used, but let’s be honest about why we use it. I mean it is simply a way to punish folks it has not interest in making people better. With that said, however, the correctional system gets something of unfair mandate because they are to correct folks that should be somewhere else. That is, after deinstitutionalizing the mental health system in the US, we simply just put these folks on the criminal justice system to deal with them. The reality is that mental illnesses are serious psychological problems that need specialized care and treatment, not simply locking them. Also, we have to realize that correctional administrators have a real challenge of trying to control and house so many individuals in such a small space, and with the long sentences that many offenders receive there is a growing sense in prisons that they have little to lose. This creates a dangerous place to work, so I’d say that solitary confinement is used as an administrative way to gain control over inmates that do not want to abide by the rules.
If you were told you were responsible for designing a new plan for running the US prison system, what would a brief outline look like?
Hmm…this is a difficult question. I’m so used to critiquing policies, but I’m rarely asked what a good prison would look like. First, it is important to ask what causes crime. I mean we don’t really think that crime is the outcome of “bad people” necessarily, which is not to say that people don’t do bad things. But rather, I believe that we must look at macro effects on human behavior, and recognize that human decision-making needs to be understood as multilevel (incorporating both psychology and sociology). We know that social disorganization, strain due to relative deprivation, limited legitimate education and employment opportunities, and other forces breeding hopelessness and frustration are related to anti-social behavior. This is not to say that we need to “hug-a-thug” but to simply recognize what research has shown since the 1920s-1930s. A holistic approach would be needed to combat these forms of street predation. Which brings me to one of my pet peeves when talking of crime policy, that we focus nearly exclusively on street level crimes when we know that white collar and corporate crimes and malfeasance are more dangerous and costly. Think if we spent half as much effort in investigating the latter as we do the former. This would create a fundamentally different criminal justice system.
Second, we should look to other similar countries and see what they are doing with offenders. Some of my recent research focuses on Scandinavian countries that identify the negative effects of capitalist hierarchies through welfare and mental health systems set up to catch folks before they enter the CJ system. Then, once an individual is incarcerated the central point to incarceration is not to dehumanize them in horrible conditions. One historian, James Q. Whitman, wrote an interesting book a few years ago in which he talked about the degrading nature of US punishment and how this differs from the fundamental purposes of European models that seek to normalize prisoners life with that which they will meet once released. Instead, we seek to make prisons as austere as possible, to degrade prisons, to stigmatize them upon their release. It is almost as though we do not want people to be successful.
Third, we need to return to some of the earlier policies that existed in the US, namely indeterminate sentencing. That is, while mandatory minimums and determinate sentencing sounds good on its face, these policies strip criminal justice officials of having any carrots to shape inmate behaviors. Indeterminate sentencing allows for apply punishment ranges to offenders, so if they do certain good things they can get out earlier, but if they do not do good things they won’t. Instead, determinate sentencing tells inmates that it doesn’t matter what they do while they are locked-up because they are serving their entire time no matter what they—this seems silly to me because we know through much research in conditioning that positive reinforcers work to shape behavior (and are probably more effective than negatives or punishments). At any rate, some sort graded system of release would be in order—depending on individual needs—in which offenders would receive additional freedoms—that includes family visits, conjugal visits, and work release opportunities—as they meet various requirements. And, no doubt, we must encourage educational and employment trainings opportunities to inmates. As it currently operates, prisons simply force inmates to sell and use drugs, join gangs, and live in hyper-violent state, in which most of us would relegate to the most basic human impulses of survival. The prison system is broken. Does anyone really think that folks leave prisons in a better condition than when they went in? I’d say not.
According to your research how does religiosity correlate with crime rate?
I really don’t know how crime rates and religiosity relate. We do see that in states that have larger conservative Christian followings that they punish more harshly, which is not to say that they have higher crime rates or not. It has always seemed ironic to me that the most Christian are typically the most punitive. I suppose this has something to with the emphasis on Old Testament readings, as opposed to New Testament, which focused on Christ and the idea of forgiveness.
About the Author
Matthew DeMichele, PhD is a Senior Research Associate at the American Probation and Parole Association. He is working on several projects related to the community corrections field, with his recent work focusing on reentry, DWI risk assessment, gang member supervision, and agency workload issues. Dr. DeMichele has several publications related to technological issues in the community corrections field, most notably Offender Supervision with Electronic Technology: A User’s Guide, 2nd edition (2009), as well as articles addressing unintended consequences and strategies for fostering and maintain law enforcement and community corrections collaborations when working with technology in the field. In addition, Dr. DeMichele is working on several projects using comparative-historical approaches to explain cross-national and temporal changes in crime control policies and naturalization strategies. His most recent publications appear in the Journal of Criminal Justice, Federal Probation, the Prison Journal, and Corrections Today. He also is an adjunct professor at the University of Kentucky (Department of Sociology) and Eastern Kentucky University (Department of Criminal Justice).