Should Prisons Shift from Custodial to Self-Help Corrections Systems?
Date:  09-08-2014

Leading expert on “addict-inmates” believes such a move would be more effective
Last month David Kerr sent out this blog. Reentry Central would like to share it below, believing while Kerr’s idea is sure to be the subject of controversy, there is certain merit in his reasoning.

Custody with Part Ownership by Inmate-Addicts, Could Promote Early Release, Less Crime and Longer Recovery

What more might addict inmates do in prison to help themselves and to work with and assist custodial staff in actually running the prison?

By David H. Kerr, August 29, 2014

My belief is that addict inmates should and can do much to help themselves, their fellow recovering addict inmates and the prison custodial staff. Prison for addicts should not be seen as a punishment or sanction but rather as an earned responsibility. Their crimes earned them the right to “attend” prison but their attitude and what they do while in prison must be their incentive and responsibility to earn their way out. To the extent that they accept and demonstrate this responsibility, our system should allow for their early release.

I’m not talking about community based criminal justice halfway houses for addict inmates. We have these already and they play a key role for many addict inmates in completing the mission of “corrections” from prison to the community. Rather, I’m talking about a true paradigm shift within our prison walls from custodial, to a far less costly self-help corrections system. This change must be felt by an addict inmate on the first day in prison. The job functions of existing staff would change dramatically from primary custodial to primary trainers and facilitators. Should the addict inmates run the prison? No, but maybe close to it.

Within our laws and statutes the prison system should be redesigned with the built-in incentive for early release of addict inmates who have earned the right to work with prison staff in actually running the prison. Some Therapeutic Communities and Halfway Houses have been doing this for decades in the community, but the time may be right to move that working community based paradigm into some of our high-walled, long standing, minimum security state prisons. In fact, it’s already being done in some states. Click here.

Summary - How this can work:

The key to making a shift like this effective, beyond the state’s buy-in, is that the addict inmates themselves must be given some latitude, with coaching from prison staff, to design it and make it work. In some ways, addict inmates should be seen as colleagues with corrections staff. These inmates best know their own craftiness as well as the manipulations of other addict inmates. What should be noted is that this addict-inmate led approach has been applied in many states and researched over time as more effective than our present custodial system. (See Addendum below.) In addition, yearly costs are half that of traditional custodial prisons which are now costing taxpayers nearly as much as a year at Harvard University! See the following charts:

Tuition and Cost to Attend Harvard University

From CollegeCalc Best Value Colleges - 39th1

2014-2015 Tuition Preview Item Price 2014/15 Tuition $43,938

2014-15 Room and Board $14,669

2014/15 Books and Supplies $1,000

2014/15 Fees $59,607

There are many experienced and degreed recovering professionals in New Jersey and in other states who will likely agree with my comments and who could add their voices and expertise to corrections staff in designing this new more cost effective correctional model for and with addict inmates. Let’s begin the process of creating a pilot in one of New Jersey’s existing minimum security correctional institutions, to be used in the future just for addict inmates. A much better use of existing bricks and mortar would be to help addict inmates who represent over half of the prison population. The initiative started in prison will then be enhanced by continuing and even expanding the referrals to existing community based halfway houses and long term TC’s and other less costly licensed rehab programs. Ownership by recovering addict inmates in this prison-to-community long term TC continuum model will pay off in turning around the lives of thousands of presently incarcerated addict inmates for a far longer time period. Those inmates who fail to participate will be referred to one of our state’s more traditional custodial institutions to do their time. With careful planning, organization and ownership, the ramp up and training time in preparation for this new system should not take more than three years. Let’s start this change by challenging our present prison addict inmates to come up with their own thoughts and actions and a specific plan. We might be pleasantly surprised by the depth and capability of their ideas along with their predictable interest in such a project!


This article by the New Solutions Campaign, supports non-prison alternatives as a better option than incarceration for many arrestees. Read more.

Executive Summary, New Solutions Campaign

The New Solutions Campaign: Bail Reform Click here.

We are working in New Jersey to transform the state pretrial justice process into a system that meets general requirements of fundamental fairness, relies on evidence-based practices designed to promote rehabilitation and reduce recidivism and is fiscally responsible.

In particular, bail reform is sorely needed in New Jersey. At the moment, arrestees are typically assigned a money bail amount that is often pre-determined using a state-wide bail schedule. Individuals who are unable to pay these often nominal sums simply remain incarcerated for months pending trial, at enormous cost to the state. There is no process in place to make individualized determinations of the actual risk these people pose to the community, whether they are likely to appear for future court dates absent incarceration, and whether they are at risk of re-offending if granted release

Promoting Fair & Effective Criminal Justice Strengthening Families & Communities

Unfair and Ineffective Criminal Penalties Are Wasting Taxpayer Dollars, Filling New Jersey Prisons and Jails with Nonviolent Offenders and Weakening Communities. Over the last three decades, New Jersey’s prison population has grown at a staggering rate, increasing from around 8,000 to more than 23,000. At the same time the corrections budget has skyrocketed from $289 million a year to over $1 billion a year.

The overuse of incarceration tears apart vulnerable families and communities and permanently excludes large segments of the population from gainful participation in the workforce. Individuals with prison records earn 30 to 40 percent less than those without prison records—if they can find jobs at all—and are often unable to support themselves or their families. These unfair and ineffective policies disproportionately impact New Jersey’s already marginalized communities. While African Americans and Latinos make up less than 30 percent of the state’s population, they account for more than 80 percent of those incarcerated. It costs our state about $50,000 a year to incarcerate one person and New Jersey spends more than $300 million annually just to imprison individuals for nonviolent drug offenses. Not only is prison expensive, it may also have the unintended consequence of hardening low-risk offenders. At a time when the state and municipalities are laying off police officers, firefighters and teachers and cutting essential education, health and community programs, we cannot afford this wasteful and ineffective criminal justice spending.

A Growing Consensus: The System Is Broken and We Need New Solutions. As with any government program, the corrections system must be held accountable for achieving results and using taxpayer money wisely. Elected officials, judges, prosecutors, criminal justice experts and advocates from across the political spectrum are speaking out against ineffective and costly policies for nonviolent offenses and calling for the adoption of more appropriate penalties and alternatives to incarceration.

A key solution to fixing our broken system is reforming parole eligibility. At the moment, only 20 percent of inmates are paroled at the date they first become eligible. Incarcerating individuals for nonviolent offenses beyond the time needed to reduce recidivism and ensure public safety is wasteful and ineffective. Senate Bill 677 encourages rehabilitation and rewards good behavior by allowing for the release of nonviolent offenders at their first parole eligibility date, provided that they commit no serious disciplinary infractions while incarcerated and participate in rehabilitation programs. Senate Bill 677 will Build on Previous Successful Reforms

New Jersey has made progress. Over the last several years, New Jersey has decreased its prison population, reduced recidivism and cut crime. By encouraging rehabilitation and saving taxpayer money, S677 will build on these successes and ensure a fairer and more effective justice system.

David Kerr was the founding president of Integrity House. After his retirement in 2012 he began working on innovations in recovery with The Recovery Advisory Group.