Rehabilitate or Incarcerate: How to Help Convicted Felons From Becoming Repeat Offenders

August 15, 2017

Incarceration vs rehabilitation: which is better? It’s an age-old discussion topic, and when that isn’t likely to go away anytime soon. Society is finally starting to realize the impact of mental health, and there are few areas of society that could benefit more from a mental health focus than crime.


Right now, convicted felons have relatively little help to avoid becoming repeat offenders. Depending on the crime, rehabilitation might be an option, but for the most part, the default is incarceration. Even felons convicted of lesser crimes who could be rehabilitated are often incarcerated instead because of the support necessary to rehabilitate.


Options for Rehabilitation

If a felon commits a higher degree of felony, there’s often no recourse in the current justice system for rehabilitation. Serial murderers are almost always incarcerated unless they’re found mentally unfit to understand their crimes – and even then, these felons still end up incarcerated in a prison for the criminally insane, where they can receive professional psychiatric treatment.


For most felons convicted of lesser crimes, there are a number of programs that promote rehabilitation. Some of these begin before the sentence has been completed and extend into the community to which a felon plans to live and work. In certain prisons, convicted felons may begin these programs from the first day of their entry into the penal system.


White collar felons have perhaps the most options for rehabilitation. These felons may sometimes be incarcerated, but they almost always have rehabilitative support available to them to prevent recidivism. This is especially true for first time offenders.


The Past is Prologue for Convicted Felons

In William Shakespeare’s, “The Tempest,” he wrote the phrase, “What’s past is prologue,” in a scene where two of the characters believe their pasts led them to commit murder. This phrase is found once again in Washington, DC, on a sculpture called “Future” at the National Archives.


The sentiment behind this line is important. The overriding problem among most first-time convicted felons is their inability to ‘fit into’ the society. For many, this lack of fitting in stems from birth or education, and results in anger or frustration at their situation. Eventually, that anger and frustration can develop into violent behavior directed at those they blame for their circumstances. This stems, ultimately, from issues in early childhood.


For others, the lack of fitting in might become a complete withdrawal from society, while harboring criminal thoughts and feelings.


The Rat Park Study

In 1978, a Canadian psychologist, Bruce K. Alexander, conducted the Rat Park study. This study was aimed to learn more about drug addiction. Previous drug addition studies used rats in isolated environments, with a lever that they’d push to get the drug. These isolated rats pushed the lever frequently.


In the Rat Park study, however, the rats were put in a social environment with many other rats, given plenty of food and toys. These rats had two choices for water: plain water or drug-laced water. The Rat Park rats were 19 times less likely to choose the drug water than the isolated rats. Even more interesting, rats who had been isolated and given only the drug-laced water for almost two months willingly went through withdrawal when they were moved to Rat Park.


While this study was aimed toward drug addiction, it speaks volumes about how socializing, interaction, and connection plays a part in this.


The Importance of Connection

Love and connection is a basic human need. I once heard a story about an orphanage with a number of infants who were ill. Every time the maid would clean the room with these infants, she would take a break by the window and hold the infant closest to it, rocking the baby for a few minutes each day. Over time, all the babies died from their sickness except the baby closest to the window. That baby received love, even if it was just for a few minutes.


Childhood is critical for more than just physical and cognitive development. If a child is deprived of food growing up, they will be weaker than they would’ve otherwise been in adulthood. Cognitive development works similarly. Why should it be any different for mental health? If a child is neglected and/or abused, that child is more likely to develop mental health issues later in life.


Incarcerate Smarter, Rehabilitate Harder

Many of the current rehabilitative options open to convicted felons don’t allow felons to reconnect with society. They’re isolated from society, stuck in prison for the most part. Work duties in prison may be geared to make felons able to contribute to society when they’re released, but how many business owners are willing to hire felons?


Readjusting to society can be hard enough when you’ve been isolated for years, but an added stigma makes that readjustment even harder. Worse yet, many of these felons were deprived of something as simple as love while they were young children.


In many cases, rehabilitation should be more of a priority. The focus should be less on isolating offenders and more on reconnecting them with society. Teaching them how they can contribute meaningfully, and helping society accept them in return. This should particularly be the case for most first-time offenders, but even some repeat offenders could benefit from this type of rehabilitation.


Some felons may never take to rehabilitation, though, and this is where isolation through incarceration is still important. However, it should be used as a last resort rather than the default punishment.



Isolating convicted felons only exacerbates the mental health issues they have and contributes to the stigma surrounding offenders. Promoting rehabilitation programs to connect offenders to society and help them work through the problems in their childhood, we can decrease the number of felons who continue to repeat.


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