Correctional Officers Can Lead the Way Out of the Tough-on-Crime-Era

Report argues steep drop in incarceration positions frontlines workers to provide rehabilitation

Correctional Officers Can Lead the Way Out of the Tough-on-Crime-Era

A new report from MassINC, Viewing Justice Reinvestment from a Correctional Officer’s Perspective, finds that Massachusetts has an unprecedented opportunity to make better use of limited public safety resources by reducing the incarcerated population and reinventing correctional practices with more leadership and direction from those on the frontlines.

In July 2020, state and county correctional facilities held just over 12,000 prisoners, which is roughly half of the 2008 population peak. While incarceration rates remain significantly higher than pre-tough-on-crime-era levels, Massachusetts is finally positioned to operate prisons in a manner that provides rehabilitation and reduces repeat offending.

“It was not that long ago when we had people sleeping on mattresses on the floors and judges ordering superintendents to release prisoners,” says Ben Forman, Research Director at MassINC and lead author of the report. “The evidence suggests sending people to prisons with those inhumane conditions made them more likely to reoffend.”

For the first time in a generation, prison crowding is no longer endemic in Massachusetts. Currently, just one facility op­erates above its design capacity; a decade ago, more than one-third of state prisons and nearly half of county correctional facilities housed at least 50 per­cent more prisoners than they were built to accommodate.

Similarly, a decade ago correctional facilities in Massachusetts were understaffed. This is also no longer a limiting factor. While the number of prisoners has shrunk by half at both state and county facilities, the number of correctional officers has fallen by just 20 percent at state-run prisons and only 5 percent, on average, at correctional facilities operated by county sheriffs. There are now just 1.8 prisoners for each correctional officer in the state system and 1.5 per prisoner in the counties.

With amble space and low staff ratios, the commonwealth has an opportunity to rethink corrections and refocus on recidivism reduction. Achieving this policy goal, however, is conditional on correctional officers, a group that is often left out of conversations on criminal justice reform. The report argues that this omission is misguided both because the success of therapeutic models hinges on buy-in from correctional officers and because these frontline workers stand to benefit directly from reforms aimed at making prisons more rehabilitative.

To underscore this point, the study cites a 2020 study by Northeastern University researchers that found officers working in the state Department of Correction are four times more likely to die of suicide than those with similar demographics nationally.

“Massachusetts has the resources to make prisons therapeutic environments for prisoners and far healthier places for correctional officers to work. But it will take a lot of effort to get there. Correctional practices still reflect a very different orientation that was built around the realities of the past,” says Forman.

With a legislative commission currently undertaking a thorough review of funding needs for all state and county correctional facilities, the paper argues that now is the time to devise plans to resource prisons in a manner that positions them to fulfill a therapeutic function.

“Thankfully, we’ve moved away from the idea that we can just lock up all of our problems. But there’s still so much work to do to figure out how we operate prisons that return people to the community in better shape than they enter. Policymakers can’t answer this question alone. We must position correctional officers on the frontlines to help us get there.”

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