Rehabilitation and Corrections in the Era of Mass Incarceration

A Chat with Citizen Critic Dr. Rita Shah about The Meaning of Rehabilitation and Its Impact on Parole: There and Back Again in California

Routledge Innovations in Corrections series
Routledge/Taylor and Francis Group, 2017, hardcover; Routledge/Taylor and Francis Group, 2018, paperback

Image provided by the author.


Heather Ashley Hayes is an assistant professor of rhetoric at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington focused on race, violence, and political change. She has taught in public high schools, prisons, and university spaces for more than 17 years. She is the author of Violent Subjects and Rhetorical Cartography in the Age of the Terror Wars (Palgrave MacMillan, 2016).

Rita Shah is an assistant professor of Criminology at Eastern Michigan University. Her book, The Meaning of Rehabilitation and its Impact on Parole: There and Back Again in California (Routledge, 2017), queries the concept of rehabilitation to determine how, on a legislative and policy level, the term is defined as a goal of correctional systems.

Heather: Thank you so much for joining us, Dr. Shah, to talk about your book, The Meaning of Rehabilitation and its Impact on Parole: There and Back Again in California. It’s just out in paperback and our readers can find it at Amazon, on Routledge’s website, or they can check their local university or public library for a copy.

I’d like to start with your research on corrections, rehabilitation, and parole. What led you to begin researching and writing in this area?

Rita: Thank you for having me! There are three things that led me to studying parole and now, community corrections more broadly. First, I was drawn to both juvenile justice and reentry issues. As I learned more about the field, I realized juvenile justice is fairly well covered, but there is still a lot about reentry that we don’t know. In particular, the idea of there being a state-run and mandatory reentry program (i.e., parole) intrigued me.

Second, I moved to California in 2005 to start my PhD program. That same year, California passed a reorganization of their department of corrections (now the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation). They also put the word “rehabilitation” back into their mission statement. Parole is supposed to be about rehabilitation, so it raised questions for me about what exactly it means to “put rehabilitation back in” to a system when it was always supposed to be there.

Finally, I love the movie Shawshank Redemption. A part of the movie that stuck with me is the scene where Red (played by Morgan Freeman) is up for parole and is sitting in front of the board who can grant it to him after years in prison. He tells the board he thinks rehabilitation is “a bullshit word.” That really stuck with me, even as I learned more about rehabilitation and corrections from an academic standpoint. No one seemed to define rehabilitation, even as many analyze the term. It is assumed that we all know what we are talking about when we say it. And since we as academics always talk about “operationalizing our terms,” that seems like a big oversight. Given California’s reorganization of their corrections system, defining it—particularly as a legislative goal—seemed even more important.

Incidentally, that Shawshank scene is how I start the book.

Incarcerated companions Red (Morgan Freeman) and Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) in The Shawshank Redemption. Image: Age of the Nerd.

Heather: Yes! And it is such a poignant opening, especially considering one of the characters in Shawshank, Brooks, ends up committing suicide when he cannot learn to adapt to life outside prison.

So, California has a mandatory reentry program. You also close the book with the idea of whether rehabilitation will always be a “bullshit word,” which is something I want to talk with you about, too, from the perspective of your book. You spend most of it tracing how the concept of rehabilitation has been shaped, over time, by the institutions of corrections in California. What is your overall argument about this process?

Rita: Well, California used to have a mandatory program. That changed in 2011 (sort of), but I’ll save that story for people who read the book!

And, sure!

The book presents four main arguments: 1) What we think rehabilitation means is limited and we need to expand our understanding if we’re really going to talk about rehabilitation. At the same time, when looking at rehabilitation as a legislative goal, it is never a goal for its own sake. 2) We often argue that rehabilitation is what drives practice, but that’s not necessarily the case. As the meaning of rehabilitation changes, arguably it would lead to a rethinking of practices. Instead, penal practices (e.g., imprisonment and supervision) are simply reframed to “fit” the meaning of the time. 3) On a legislative level, there are some interesting links between rehabilitation, reorganization, and indeterminate sentencing. We rarely discuss the relationship between these three and doing so would likely offer more insight into what is needed to reform the criminal justice system. 4) Understanding and supporting rehabilitation for those convicted of a crime may require a fundamental rethinking of rehabilitation and what is necessary to achieve it. Such a reframing will likely need an expanded and interdisciplinary approach that links correctional, legal, and social rehabilitation. It may also be necessary to think ourselves out of the correctional box and envision an entirely new means of addressing rehabilitation.

Central California Women’s Facility, the largest female correctional facility in the United States. Photo: California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Wikimedia Commons.

I also specifically define rehabilitation and the associated process in the book.

I argue that rehabilitation as a legislative goal includes a combination of various definitions. First, it is a process. In other words, it doesn’t happen overnight. An analogy I use often is that of a recovering alcoholic. Alcoholics are always in process because something can trigger a relapse. The same can be said about crime. If circumstances change (e.g., lose a job; medical emergency; abusive relationship, etc.), committing a crime might seem like a viable option. And, more importantly, the state sees it this way. It usually takes decades before one can receive a pardon or, in California, a Certificate of Rehabilitation, which is the only official way of being stamped “no longer an offender.” It takes time.

The process generally includes three things: 1) a change for “the better;” 2) a return to a former self; and 3) some form of help. In terms of a change for the better, I label that as correctional rehabilitation, meaning one no longer commits crime. That is viewed in the legislation as changing for the better (which makes sense since criminality is judged as negative). In terms of returning to a former self, this takes the form of reintegrating into society, but also takes the form of legal rehabilitation, or, regaining the legal rights lost because of a conviction (e.g., the right to vote; the ability to serve on juries). Finally, the idea of help from an outside source. In the case of California, the outside source is defined in legislation as the parole system, but can include other sources such as social agencies, family, friends, teachers, etc. What we see over the years is that the process by which someone achieves correctional and legal rehabilitation, and the role of parole in that process, changes a lot.

Spoiler: We’ve essentially reached the point where the individual is almost solely responsible for all of these changes and the parole system is there to help if the individual seeks help and accepts it. Legal rehabilitation takes decades to achieve, if ever.

Heather: People should definitely read your book to find out the evolution of rehabilitation programs in California, but suffice it to say, they are NOT currently mandatory in the state, correct?

Rita: Technically, parole is no longer mandatory in California, but the way the 2011 realignment changed the requirements still places a large number of released individuals on some form of community supervision.

Heather: I really valued your insight about how limited our discussions of rehabilitation are. In your view, is that part of what is missing from the current conversations in America about corrections and/or mass incarceration? What aspects of the issues of rehabilitation and parole might everyday Americans not think about because of the ways the issue is handled in our civic and political discourse?

Rita: I think there are two major things missing from current conversations about corrections. First, the idea of social rehabilitation. It doesn’t come up as a legislative goal, but it should. The idea of social rehabilitation is essentially that society is partially responsible for the rehabilitation of those who commit crime in two ways. 1) That society (and by extension the state) needs to address the reasons behind criminality (e.g., inequality; poverty; addiction) and 2) society needs to allow people to come back to society so that the only sanctions are the legal ones (i.e., there are no collateral consequences to crime beyond sentencing). How can we expect people coming home from prisons to have a chance at a different life if they are going back to the same realities they were in before being incarcerated? As I have said, this is not really discussed as a legislative goal but needs to be. Activists are working on this issue, but it has yet to enter conversations about reform, policy changes, or emerge as a topic of serious conversation in the general public.

The second concept missing from the conversation about corrections is an overall conversation about mass supervision. Conversations almost always focus on mass incarceration, but mass supervision is a much larger problem in terms of sheer numbers. Over 80% of individuals under correctional control are on probation or parole. This is by far the largest number of people caught up in the criminal justice system. It’s a hidden aspect of corrections even within the field of criminology and barely gets discussed in the public. My current project is looking at some of this hiddenness. We can’t understand the scope of the correctional system without discussing mass supervision.

Heather: This is a really important point I think, and I appreciate the way your book has this undercurrent running throughout. With this in mind, as I read your book, I was thinking about how a number of works have been published and have garnered popular attention around the issue of mass incarceration in the last decade or so. Some would think of texts like Michelle Alexander’s bestselling The New Jim Crow, looking at disproportionate rates of incarceration for Black Americans or James Forman Jr.’s Pulitzer Prize winning Locking Up Our Own, which examines historical roots of the criminal justice system and its racialized origins and support. How do you see your work as part of the recent national conversations about corrections and mass incarceration? Especially considering, as you say here, much of the aspects of probation and parole are not adequately discussed in this national conversation?

Rita: My book is also an historical analysis, but from a different angle. Rather than looking at the rise of mass incarceration and creation of these systems as these brilliant authors have done so well, I wanted to look at the history of how we justify these systems. In other words, I wanted to look at one of the whys that drives correctional systems. Almost from its inception, correctional systems and especially parole has maintained that those who commit crime (really, those that are convicted of committing a crime) are in need of rehabilitation. But I don’t know that I’d ever seen anyone actually define what rehabilitation means in that context (at least, not until I started working on this book). There always seemed to be an assumption that rehabilitation means “you messed up; something is wrong with you; we must fix that something.” But, given how heavily governments use rehabilitation to justify correctional systems, that assumption seemed too easy. And, turns out, it is too easy. It’s not as simple as “we have to fix you,” but a slew of other things that need to happen before one is viewed as “rehabilitated.”

The other thing I think my book adds is a more in-depth understanding of how correctional systems are justified. Books like Alexander’s and Forman’s cover justification through a racial lens and that lens is absolutely important to understand. But what if there was another lens that also helped justify these systems? What if there was race or class neutral language that also provided justification for mass incarceration and supervision? I argue rehabilitation offers just such a race and class neutral justification. While I don’t discuss race or class in developing my argument, I note in the conclusion that there are serious implications for the racist and classist disparities we see within corrections systems. In terms of addressing probation and parole in the national conversation, part of why I focus on parole is because it is so hidden from the national conversation. Yet, it plays a huge role in the lives of those convicted of crimes in the US. My hope is that by tying rehabilitation to corrections generally and parole specifically, a conversation around parole can start to emerge. Thankfully, I am not alone in this. Michelle Phelps is one scholar who is trying to bring mass probation to the fore, as one example of someone working to confront this problem.

Heather: You’re referring to Michelle Phelps’ academic work on mass probation that is featured by The Prison Policy Initiative?

Rita: Yup! Her work is great on US-based probation issues.

Also, Gwen Robinson has a piece on the Cinderella complex of community sanctions that captures how and why mass supervision isn’t discussed much within academia.

Heather: Excellent. Our readers without academic database access can find Robinson’s work here. Based on your work and the work of your book, is Phelps’ idea of mass probation at the center of any of your policy recommendations, in terms of rethinking narratives around rehabilitation and parole in this country?

Rita: I don’t actually make any specific policy recommendations in the book because I think we first have to completely rethink our narratives about rehabilitation, and those new discourses will also require a complete rethinking of how we respond to crime. Any policy recommendation I make would simply be a tweak rather than the larger rethinking we need to do about our goals, what we mean by those goals, and the best way of achieving those goals. We need the blank paper approach.

I can offer some recommendations to accomplish those tweaks, but I’m not convinced tweaking the system will actually achieve anything.

Heather: That actually really makes sense from the perspective of what we try and do here at Citizen Critics, in terms of confronting use, abuse, and misuse of language in the political and civic sphere. I know you confront a lot of narratives around crime, punishment, and corrections in the book. What narratives in US public discourse most surprise or concern you around the issue rehabilitation and parole in America? Which ones would you direct readers to really watch for and critically confront as they hear them?

Rita: In terms of surprises, I admit I was not expecting the way bail reform has popped up the last few years and especially how that has led to nationwide bail funds and some district attorneys even running campaigns on the need to address bail costs and burdens on the people in jail awaiting trial. Given the classist nature of bail and how bail can literally force someone to accept a plea deal (regardless of guilt) and then they are affected by the lifelong consequences of that deal, this is a key area for reform. I’m glad it’s getting the recognition it needs.

In terms of concerns, I have two. As I mentioned earlier, the lack of discourse around community corrections is a huge concern. We talk a lot—both as academics and in the general public—about the dangerous impact of mass incarceration (e.g., racial disparities; financial impacts; privatization). But that is only one part of the story. As one of my favorite scholars says [note: this is from Gwen Robinson’s Cinderella complex of community sanctions piece, linked above]: “community sanctions have an important but underestimated role to play in the stories we tell about the changing penal field. Without them, we have only a partial story. A key character is missing.”

In other words, it’s good that we’re talking about reforming corrections and that we may be thinking about the process of decarceration, but if we really want change things for the better, we have to think about everyone under correctional control. We need to think not just about those in prison, but also about those on probation and parole, because that number is really freaking big.

Graphic: Prison Policy Initiative, 2018.

My second concern: While I am excited by the criminal justice reform efforts occurring across the nation, it concerns me that much of those reforms are more tweaks than a broader reconsidering of our system as a whole. We’ve had this same system for hundreds of years. And while there are some good theories underlying the system, we never really stop and think “is this really the best way?” As I argue in the book, we tend to simply reframe the system to fit the current narrative. (In another project, I’m seeing this in terms of the “smart on crime” discourse, too.) Again, there are activists and some academics pushing for totally new systems like those of restorative and transformative justice, both of which would require a rethinking of the system we have. But it concerns me that those conversations have not yet become a bigger part of reform conversations.

Heather: This last bit really seems to be reflected in the end of year bipartisan effort where President Trump signed the First Step Act, a criminal justice reform bill largely based on pushing through minor reforms to the federal system. Yet, in the 2018 midterms, a number of more sweeping state-based criminal justice related campaigns and bills were successful. A few include Florida’s Amendment 4 restoring voting rights for formerly incarcerated people in the state and Colorado’s Amendment A, which ended the state’s ability to extract labor from people incarcerated inside prisons without paying them. Based on what you’ve said here, do these campaigns fall prey to the problem of reframing you’re identified in the book? Or is it possible another narrative may emerge from these campaigns?

Rita: These campaigns are incredibly encouraging because at the root of them is the argument that people who are convicted of committing a crime are still human, they are still members of the community, and they should be treated as such. That’s a huge achievement, especially since these measures were voted on by the public at large, not just a representative legislature. As I note in the book, rehabilitation as a legislative goal includes the idea of “legal rehabilitation,” or the restoration of full citizenship rights following a conviction. The two campaigns in Florida and Colorado are examples of working towards legal rehabilitation.

So, these two laws have the potential to expand how people and legislatures think about rehabilitation. But those expansions are meaningless if they don’t also ask, “If this is what we think rehabilitation means, does our current system achieve that? And if not, what would?” So, I think there’s a possibility for another narrative to emerge. But there’s also the real possibility that laws like these will simply be reframed as justification for the current system (i.e., you did the crime, so do the time). Yet, it was “the time” (i.e., often long sentences and difficult to navigate conditions of supervision) that requires these laws in the first place. That problem, and narrative, is what needs to be confronted. If we confront that, then I think laws like these have the potential to help. That said, we’re already seeing moves in Florida to undermine Amendment 4, which suggests real progress is still in the future.

Heather: That citizenship rights point you’re making seems so important in this political climate, in terms of discourse, especially for those incarcerated who are already undocumented or those who are in the process of seeking legal citizen status.

Rita: Absolutely.

Heather: Your book is an analysis of rehabilitation and parole in California, a state institutional system. How does this influence the book’s conclusions? You close the book arguing that we may need to “link correctional, legal, and social rehabilitation” in order to ensure rehabilitation is not a lost cause altogether. Is this possible on a state by state basis in places like California, in terms of the narrative, or is a national narrative necessary for change? Put another way, in your view, considering the national crisis of mass incarceration, is a larger national project of reforming or reframing rehabilitation possible or is this a state by state project for activists, lawmakers, and citizens?

Rita: While California is the case study, I think there are lots of similarities across states and on the federal level. If you listen to people talking about criminal justice reform, you also hear comments about ensuring people regain citizenship (e.g., arguments around voting rights; arguments about what should and shouldn’t be criminalized in the first place; arguments about serving on juries), which is similar to legal rehabilitation. Decarceration activists and prison abolitionists point to social transformations as a solution. These are similar to social rehabilitation. So even if you don’t see it in legislation (though I suspect it’s embedded there as well if we took the deep dive), the link between correctional, legal, and social rehabilitation pops up in various parts of the national conversation. It’s not always a coherent or consistent argument—or even a part of mainstream conversations—but it is there.

As to the question of a larger national project, I do think it’s possible, but I don’t think it’s probable. We have at least 51 criminal justice systems. This fact means we have at least 51 systems to reform and reframe (and that’s not counting differences on county and city levels). We are seeing small, local changes (e.g., Larry Krasner’s work as district attorney in Philadelphia; Wesley Bell’s work as the first Black county prosecutor in St. Louis County just outside of Ferguson, Missouri) that are beginning a reframing of rehabilitation, but those efforts are facing pushback. I think it’s going to be a while before that version of thinking about criminal justice and rehabilitation becomes mainstream and then even longer before it takes hold across the nation, if it ever does.

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner. Photo: Krasner for District Attorney.
Saint Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell. Photo: Vote Wesley Bell.

Heather: That pushback seems significant, and it seems to happen for many reasons. One of these appears to be the ways private corporations have entered the corrections market and now, wield significant lobby power in fights over legal reforms around mass supervision. Considering the ways that privatization of American prisons and the carceral state has increased in the last two decades, how do you believe parole and rehabilitation have shifted as a result of that trend?

Rita: Privatization is really hitting rehabilitation and community corrections broadly, not just parole. For starters, private prison companies are seeing the calls for reform and diversifying. GEO group has already entered the rehabilitation and reentry game. In other words, these private companies will continue to make bank off the criminal justice system. We’ve also already seen several states outsource probation (or pieces of probation) to private companies, including my own state of Michigan. The cycle convicted individuals get caught in while on private probation means they can never leave as a result of legal financial obligations (and leaving probation and parole is hard enough without those additional burdens).

John Oliver has a great piece on this cycle, actually, that aired back in March of 2015.

The other side about privatization, though, is how it gets linked to larger criminal justice reform efforts like implementing fees and fines instead of other forms of community sanctions. John Oliver’s piece does a great job tying it all together. This is why I don’t offer policy suggestions but instead, call for a rethinking and new discourses. The current system, even if we make changes, is ripe for privatization and all the problems that come with it. But if we actually rethink our whole system, and especially rethink what we mean by rehabilitation and how academics (and policy makers) utilize the term, then we would be forced to confront the question of privatization as well.

And, it is important to remember, none of what I’ve just said covers the way that adjacent rehabilitative services like drug testing, counseling services, or ankle monitoring are each individually privatized, often through multiple different companies a newly released individual may be indebted to, as well.

Two good pieces about privatization, if readers want to learn more, are: one from Human Rights Watch about corporate control of probation services and one from scholar Karol Lucken on privatization of treatment services in community corrections.

Heather: That makes sense and your work points to the important ways that rehabilitation and parole within the problem of mass incarceration are massively broad and sweeping issues in need of critical rethinking. Thank you for this important intervention. Finally, Dr. Shah, if readers want to find more of your work on this issue, where may they turn? And if they want to further inform themselves about corrections, rehabilitation, or parole issues, what sources should they seek beyond what you’ve already discussed here?

Rita: A great book that I’m reading now is Reimaging Rehabilitation: Beyond the Individual by Lol Burke, Steve Collett, and Fergus McNeill (the other authors and work they cite are also amazing).

My work can be found at my professional website at A few other sources that readers can turn to are: The Brennan Center for Justice, The Marshall Project, ProPublica, The Equal Justice Initiative, Vera Institute of Justice, The Prison Policy Initiative, and The Appeal.

If readers are active on Twitter, a few active users to follow on this issue include (and this is a VERY short list): Scott Hechinger (@ScottHech), Ashley T. Rubin (@ashleytrubin), Fergus McNeill (@fergus_mcneill), Allison McKim (AllisonMcKim), Alex S. Vitale (@avitale), James Forman, Jr (@JFormanJr), Michelle S Phelps (@MichelleSPhelps), John Pfaff (@JohnFPfaff), Clint Smith (@ClintSmithIII), and Mariame Kaba (@prisonculture).

If readers are podcast listeners, three podcasts that may interest them include Justice in America hosted by Josie Duffy Rice and Clint Smith III, Criminal (In)justice with David Harris, and Ear Hustle, a podcast made and produced entirely inside California’s San Quentin prison. In addition, readers may know that Sarah Koenig and the team at Serial podcast focused season three entirely on the criminal justice system in just one city: Cleveland, Ohio. I haven’t had a chance to listen to it yet, but it comes highly recommended and I’m looking forward to taking a listen myself. And, speaking of Larry Krasner, Chris Hayes did a great interview with him on his podcast Why Is This Happening? Finally, for readers who want to learn more about private prisons, I recommend the interview with Shane Bauer (season 1, episode 3) on Politically Reactive with Hari Kondabolu and W. Kamau Bell.

Heather: I thought the third season of the Serial podcast was quite good. I can recommend it to listeners looking for a well told introduction to the complexities of the criminal justice system, especially those new to the topic.

Excellent! Dr. Shah, thank you so much for talking with us. Readers can find your book, The Meaning of Rehabilitation and Its Meaning on Parole: There and Back Again in California, on Amazon, at the Routledge website, and at a local or university library near them. It’s newly out in paperback. We appreciate your time!

Rita: Thanks so much to you and to the Citizen Critics team for the opportunity to discuss it!