California prison shakeup reveals urgent need for reform, expert says

The recent shakeup in the troubled California Department of Corrections reveals the resistance to a badly needed overhaul of the nation's largest prison system, says a leading expert on prisons and the psychology of incarceration.

The resignation of Corrections chief Roderick Hickman, hired two years ago by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to overhaul the dysfunctional system, underscores the challenges facing would-be reformers, said Craig Haney, professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

"The governor took on this incendiary issue when his political capital was high, and the departure of his hand-picked champion of reform is a huge blow," said Haney.

Scathing media reports of overcrowding and mistreatment of inmates in the largest prison system in the country, coupled with high-profile court cases over prison conditions and abuse in a number of states, have triggered calls for prison reform in many parts of the country. "Prisons are intended to deprive inmates of their liberty," said Haney. "Anything more--unnecessary deprivations, indignities, and ill treatment--represents gratuitous pain and can have harmful psychological consequences."

In his new book, Reforming Punishment: Psychological Limits to the Pains of Imprisonment (Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, 2006), Haney critiques the "fundamentally flawed prison policies" that have dominated U.S. prisons for much of the last 30 years, and he points the way to systemic reform.

Reform must be based on the results of decades of psychological research into the real causes of crime and the consequences of imprisonment, said Haney. "We now know a lot about why people commit crime, but prisons do nothing to address those issues--and may actually make them worse," he said. Exposing prisoners to overcrowded and inhumane conditions has adverse psychological consequences, and the effects can be long-lasting, said Haney.

With 2 million people in custody, the U.S. incarcerates more people than any other country, including unprecedented numbers of mentally ill and nonviolent prisoners, and a grossly overrepresentative number of minorities. Huge numbers of state and federal prisoners are nonviolent offenders, and many have been incarcerated for drug or drug-related crimes, said Haney.

"Our nation's overreliance on incarceration to control crime is doomed to fail," he said. "Spending so much on imprisonment siphons money away from the kind of crime-prevention programs we need."

Moreover, Haney points out, most inmates are eventually released, and far too many come out much worse off than when they went in. "Many incur severe psychological costs as they adapt to the dehumanizing effects of modern prison life," he said.

Prison-based rehabilitation, including educational, vocational, and counseling programs, would require upfront spending but would generate long-run benefits, said Haney. Incarceration rates average upwards of $30,000 a year per inmate, according to Haney, who said inmates also need a lot of community support and other kinds of help after their release to successfully reintegrate into society.

"Adverse conditions inside prisons and the absence of effective rehabilitation programs contribute to problematic behavior inside prison and dysfunctional behavior after release," he said. "As a society, we can't afford to pursue this wrongheaded approach much longer."

In the long run, prison reform would generate bottom-line savings as well as benefits to society, said Haney. Recidivism rates would drop, parole costs would decrease, and the prison system itself would shrink, he said. A fair and effective approach to crime control would require shifting resources from punishment to prevention and must address the social and economic injustices that punish the poor and people of color, said Haney. But prison reform will be crucial for the many people now locked inside, he said, identifying the following steps toward real reform:

. Repeal mandatory sentencing laws to give judges more discretion over who goes to prison and for how long.

. Develop alternatives to prison for the mentally ill, certain drug offenders, and those convicted of minor crimes.

. Give all prisoners access to vocational, educational, and other forms of prison programming, as well as proper medical care.

. Ensure that prisons adequately address the treatment needs of addicted, mentally ill, and developmentally disabled inmates.

. Improve overall conditions of confinement by reducing overcrowding and minimizing the use of psychologically destructive practices like punitive isolation.

. Provide extensive postimprisonment assistance and community-based programs and services.


One of the principal researchers in the landmark "Stanford Prison Experiment," Craig Haney has studied the psychological effects of living and working in actual prison environments for more than 30 years. He can be reached at (831) 459-2153 or via e-mail at, or through Jennifer McNulty in the UCSC Public Information Office at (831) 459-4399 or