What should society do with prisoners once they are convicted and ultimately incarcerated? Military camps? Public whippings (a.k.a. corporal punishment)? Dungeons? Hangings? Rehabilitate them? Prison?

Before we continue, here is a fact to consider:

“As of July 1, 2015, more than 70 million people have records indexed by the III” ( The III is the Interstate Identification Index, a database the FBI maintains of all convicted felons). This is according to “Just Facts: As Many Americans Have Criminal Records as College Diplomas” by Brennan Center for Justice by Matthew Friedman, 2015.

70 million people have criminal records. Does this number change your mind on what we should consider?

Human beings have a sordid history with imprisonment and the administration of punishment. We’ve tried everything. Dungeons, slavery, banishment, torture, genocide…and none of it worked. Those methods were initially practiced for deterrence purposes. As in, if the government makes it harsh enough, people will stop committing crimes but if that were true crime would have ended thousands of years ago. Newsflash, it hasn’t ended, what we’ve been doing doesn’t bring us to the result we’re looking for. It’s kind of like saying we should go to square wheels because we don’t know how to improve round wheels. It just doesn’t make sense.

So what do we do? What if we tried something totally new, a compassionate approach. Not to be confused with decarceration. I do want a society where incarceration is not normal or completely unnecessary. 70 million Americans is about 21% of the population by the way, thereby “normalizing” incarceration to a large degree. I hate this.

What do I mean by a compassionate approach anyway? We begin by creating 2 complete systems: prisons and rehabilitation centers. Prisons is for what’s known as Active Persistors (those who are still choosing to commit crime or change resistant), an Active Persistor will identify themselves via verbal admittances or actions such as failed drug tests, fighting, or other antisocial behaviors (antisocial does not mean ‘does not socialize’, antisocial means socially unacceptable behavior, or crime). Rehabilitation centers would be for those who want to change or are ready to begin change- known as Passive Desistors (those who aren’t committing new crimes but don’t know how to necessarily change to not ‘do it again’) or Dedicated Desistors (those who are committed to cognitive and personal change).

Divide or separate the two demographics. Obviously those in prisons would be harder to manage since they have opted for a negative and antisocial environment. Should they decide they want to change they would only need to say “I’m ready” and that process of moving them would be immediately started. They would be managed as prisons are currently, with one key exception, no funding would be allocated for their rehabilitation since they have declared they are against it. We, as a society, compassionately house them in the prison they have chosen.

On the other hand is Rehabilitation Centers where the terms “Offender”, “Prisoner” or whatever nonsense State’s choose is totally replaced with the term “Student”, period. First names will be used, unilaterally. Military terminology will be relegated to prisons only, staff dress will be that off collegiate or campuses dress codes, professional and in no way militaristic. A small team of military clad personnel will be on reserve for the rare instances they should be needed, but in no way have regular visible or audible contact with the students. The point would be to completely remove the “prison” and military feel to incarcerative settings where students reside and not prisoners.

What’s the point? In short, remove the idea of otherness from rehabilitation and those serving sentences will stop acting as other. Instead of housing criminals we instead focus our funding on those who want to rehabilitate and help them to reimagine their lives as something they want to live in. Foster autonomy and self-sufficiency. That way when the students release they have a better idea of where they want to go as returning citizens.

I like the idea of compassionate rehabilitation because it is the one piece that works. It’s also the one piece that when practiced among staff, those practicing staff members are all but exiled socially as compromised or soft when in fact they are simply acting compassionately.

Turning from prisons to a more effective methodology is simply a matter of trying. It means that one person has to make the leap of faith and I say that Washington State is perfect grounds because of the upcoming closures. Washington State could easily turn one prison that is about to be vacant, revamp it into a campus, remove any language from anything military, get staff volunteers to work there as plain clothed campus faculty and send a group of individuals there for their final 3-4 years of incarceration. Not a camp, which is just as hostile and militaristic as any prison, but a student campus. Offer anything rehabilitative. Sex Offender treatment, anger management, education, etc. Treat people there differently, see how much it improves the recidivism rate.

Think about it, it sure would have helped me.

With Love
Ruth Utnage