Imprisonments Effect on Recidivism

The subject of recidivism in the Criminal Justice System has been long studied. It has also been argued over as to the extent of its effectiveness. Recidivism is defined as the repeating of a negative action after experiencing negative consequences from that action or receiving treatment for that action. In regards to the criminal justice system, recidivism occurs when one is rearrested after serving a sentence. With this in mind, recidivism is only discovered when an arrest and or conviction has occurred. Therefore the true number of recidivism cases only covers reported cases. The question develops of just how does incarcerating criminals affect the rates of recidivism?

As of mid 2008 there was approximately a population of 2,310,984 held in federal or state prisons or jails in the United States. Of these 1,540,805 were serving out sentences under federal or state jurisdiction. There was an increase of 509 from 506 sentenced prisoners per 100,000 United States residents from yearend 2007. This was an overall increase of 0.8% from the previous yearend. This was however less than the average increase of 2.4% annually for the years 2000 to 2007. (1) These numbers show the growth of the United States inmate population which leads to problems with overcrowding. Within the next year the Federal Bureau of Prisons will open three federal correctional institutions which can hold an approximate 10,500 federal inmates at maximum capacity. (2) According to a national study in 2003 showed that seven out of ten male prisoners that were released will return to prison. (Viser)

The question of how does incarceration effect recidivism seems to be obvious. It doesn’t have an impact on those who serve there sentences in prisons or jails. However there are factors that could influence those who serve time and thereby have an impact on recidivism. The dependant variable of the articles reviewed is recidivism itself in the reincarceration of those who were released. The independent variables found were substance addiction, mental illness, and readjustment to society after release.

One problem in an inmate’s rehabilitation is dealing with addiction. In 2002 half of jail inmates were held for drug as well as violent offenses. Drug offender population was up by 37% and more than two thirds of the population growth in local jails was due to the increase of those charged with drug law violations. (4) In a personal interview with a federal inmate I was told that most of those who are in violation of drug laws of possession and trafficking do so to support their own drug addiction. This inmate had been in and out of the judicial system since 1972 stating that “every time I get out I end up on the dope again”. Because of this problem substance abuse treatment has become implemented into the recovery mind set of incarceration. A qualitative study over a five year period tracked a cohort of nonviolent inmates participating in an alcohol and drug treatment program in Monroe County. The success of this program was shown through the finding that of those who participated in the program were less likely to recidivate within the first year than the control group (Turley).

Mental illness is another problem impacting recidivism of inmates. A number of studies have shown that many inmates have shown signs or have been diagnosed as having mental disorders in comparison to other inmates. In a study of 79,211 inmates serving sentences from September 2006 thru August 2007 information on mental disorders and history of incarceration during the previous six years was collected from statewide medical information system and studied. It was found that inmates that had major mental disorders including depressive disorders, bipolar disorders, schizophrenia, and non schizophrenic disorders had a substantially increased chance of reincarceration .Inmates with bipolar disorders were found to have a 3.3 times more likely to have had four or more previous incarcerations than those without the disorder. (Baillargeon)

One issue that arises is those who have been labeled as “career criminals” or those who have the label of being psychopathic. Psychopathy is defined by an uninhibited gratification in criminal, sexual, or aggressive urges and being unable the make improvements with treatment. Those who have this disorder receive gratification and to some extent pleasure from their antisocial behavior. These subjects are also found to have little to no remorse for actions. This includes the not only the consequences for their victims but for themselves as well. It has also been shown that those with psychopathy have a 2.5 times higher probability of being released from incarceration than those who are undiagnosed as suffering from this disorder, even though they are more likely to recidivate. This is in part to the findings that psychopathy is mostly unaffected by not only punishment but rehabilitation techniques as well. Not only does rehabilitation not affect psychopathic individuals but incarceration leads to them becoming better at hiding their disorder and their behavior. (8)

Yet another reason that many inmates find themselves incarcerated multiple times is that they have a hard time adjusting to life after being imprisoned. Many inmates become accustomed to the structured life that imprisonment establishes with set times and procedures for working, going to school, eating, and sleeping. In a majority of cases those who are released from incarceration are released under parole and under some extent of supervision. The planning for ones release should begin before their release as well as afterwards. According to an analysis conducted by the Florida Department of Corrections based on 18,414 inmates from 1996 to 1997 showed that those who completed reentry programs including education, vocational, and substance abuse programs were less likely to recidivate than those who did not participate or complete these programs (7). The success rate was increased when reentry programs were continued after release.

Part of the hardship with reentering society after being imprisoned is the reintroduction to an environment that brought about their original incarceration. While it is important for those who are incarcerated to distance themselves from the environment and those within that environment that lead to their incarceration it is just as important to for them to strengthen their relationship with those who support them and support their recovery. A study was conducted in Florida with 7,000 inmates who were released to observe the testing of the influence of visitation on recidivism. They looked at whether visitation occurred, the frequency of visits, as well as whom the visitors were (family, friends, or other). They also took into account the inmates age, sex, as well as the reason for incarceration. Overall they found that visitation did have an impact on the amount of time recidivism was delayed over a two year period after release. Within this the closer the visit was to the end of incarceration and the visits of spouses over other family and friends had more affect on the amount of time between recidivating.(9)

The results of research seem to show that incarceration itself has little overall effect on recidivism rates o prisoners. It is only with rehabilitation programs that any improvement can be found. Even so the success that is found is more in extending the amount of time between recidivism than with reducing it. Substance addiction issues require long term treatment after release in order to increase the rate of recidivism for these offenders. Recidivism rates with those who suffer from mental disorders are a more difficult problem to control. The problem is more due to the lack of diagnoses and the treatability of the disorder than the matter of long term treatment. Review of articles shows that while incarceration is not the answer to recidivism the treatment and training that inmates receive while incarcerated improves the time between recidivism if not the chances of recidivism. To see more improvement there needs to be an improvement not so much with the treatments and programs provided but in the duration of these treatments and programs.


(1) (n.d.). Retrieved October 1, 2009, from

(2) (n.d.). Retrieved October 15, 2009, from
(3) Viser, C. A. (2003). “Transitions from Prison to Community: Understanding Individual Pathways”. The Urban Institute, Justice Policy Center, District of Columbia Washington, 20037.
(4) Retrieved October 15, 2009, from
(5) Turley, A., Thornton, T., Johnson, C., & Azzolino, S. (2004). International Journal of Offender Therapy & Comparative Criminology, 48(6), 721-728.
(6)Baillargeon, Jacques, Ingrid Binswanger, Joseph Penn, Brie Williams, Owen Murray:
American Journal of Psychiatry; Jan2009, Vol. 166 Issue 1, p103-109,
(7) (n.d.) Retrieved September 16, 2009, from
(8) (n.d.) Retrieved October 2, 2009, from
(9) Bales, w. D., & Mears, D. P. (2008). Inmate Social Ties and the Transition to Society Does Visitation Reduce Recidivism?. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 45(3), 287-321.