Reinforcement vs. punishment: prisoners respond to the way they are treated

Jails and prisons ‘reap what they sow’

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Earlier this month, I was suddenly transferred from the relatively progressive environment of the D.C. jail to a Virginia county jail, on the way back to my U.S. penitentiary “warehouse.” I now am forced to readjust to what we call “doing time.” That means, in part, adapting to being repeatedly locked down as punishment for acts — or just suspicions of acts — with which I had no knowledge, much less involvement.

The other day, for example, one of the guys was found with a busted lip. He said he got it from playing basketball, but the COs assumed there had been a fight. So, they punished the whole block. They locked everybody down. They didn’t come in here and talk to us to try to find out what happened; they didn’t tell us anything. There was no communication.

This one incident is emblematic of the entire system that we call criminal “justice” in this country. It is entirely based on punishment — often very arbitrarily meted out — either in response to “acting out” or as a convenient way to deal with facility issues like understaffing (and the need for physical distance during the pandemic).

Punishment vs. reinforcement

But assuming that behavior change is really what the system is after (more on that later), is punishment even effective?

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Psychological research defines two broad approaches to influencing behavior: reinforcement and punishment. The differences can be subtle but are very important.

Reinforcement is practiced to increase the likelihood of a desired behavior. Positive reinforcement offers a reward in return. Negative reinforcement imposes a penalty when the behavior is absent. (For example, you may not like your job, but you know you’ll be fired if you don’t show up.)

In contrast, punishment focuses only on eliminating undesirable actions. Positive punishment (I know, that sounds like an oxymoron) imposes a penalty in response to unwanted behavior (for example, when a child is publicly reprimanded for talking during class). Negative punishment is meted out when a reinforcing (desired) stimulus is taken away.

Research shows that if the goal is to influence behavior, positive consequences are more powerful than negative ones. And yet jails and prisons operate almost solely with negative punishment.

Never-ending cycle

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Consider this: Another time when we were locked down (which seems to be most of the time), everyone was mad. We didn’t know why we were locked down. So, the guys did one of the few things we can do to protest: They plugged-up their toilets with shirts or trash and flooded the cells and halls. The COs responded by shutting the toilets down. In return, they shit in their Styrofoam food trays and threw them out of their cells or peed through the bars. We don’t have any control over what’s going on here, so the guys were letting off some steam. The lieutenants making the decisions didn’t come down and talk to us. All we got was more punishment.

Sometimes, the COs come in and say, “We smell smoke; lock down.” But if they come in the block and see a person smoking, why don’t they deal with the individual? Why do they lock the whole block down? They think that if they punish everybody, we’ll police each other. But that’s not how it works. Instead, it just creates animosity between the people who are involved in whatever is happening and those who aren’t. What does this all result in? Another lockdown.

In this county jail, there are those people like me, who’ve been in a long time and know how to “do time,” and most of the rest, who are new or in for short periods and are still doing what they did in the streets, because they have nothing to distract them. There are 24 of us in one very small block: Nowhere to really walk, no programming, nothing much in the way of books, only one TV and two phones. And nothing to do. So, they mess with each other, while people like me get punished along with them.

The other aspect of all these lockdowns is that you don’t know when they will end. It’s arbitrary. They do it until they decide to open back up. But to really serve as an incentive or disincentive, you need to understand how to make it stop. And a lot of the time, we don’t.

What’s the point?

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It’s a never-ending cycle; the constant rounds of punishment don’t lead to any change in behavior. And actually, I doubt if they even care. It’s punishment for the sake of punishment.

It doesn’t change or solve anything, and I don’t think it is designed to. If it was, I think it could be different. For example, in the D.C. jail, membership in the Young Men Emerging program, for which I was a mentor, was an incentive. If you don’t fight or otherwise get in trouble, you can participate (positive reinforcement). If you do, you’re dropped (positive punishment).

Endless negative punishment means there is no incentive to do anything good. There’s nothing to contrast it with. Even if we “behave,” we’re still going to be sitting in our cells all the time, bored, doing nothing. In fact, that actually incentivizes people to act out, like get hold of drugs and get high, because it allows them to get through the day. That’s one of the reasons why it’s not realistic to expect inmates to have clean records with no disciplinary infractions. The environment breeds these types of things.

Now, if you can go to school while in prison and earn a shorter sentence in return, or more visiting time with family, or free phone time — that’s an incentive. That’s positive reinforcement.

The Norway model

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A cell in Halden Prison

What would a prison focused on positive reinforcement rather than negative punishment look like? Norway shows the way.

BBC interviewed Are Hoidal, governor of the country’s Halden Prison. Before his arrival, he told the network, “It was a macho culture with a focus on guarding and security. And the recidivism rate was around 60-70%, like in the U.S.”

But in the early 1990s, the ethos of the Norwegian Correctional Service underwent rigorous reform to focus less on revenge and more on rehabilitation. Prisoners who had previously spent most of their day locked up were offered daily training and educational programs.

“We are prison ‘officers,’ not guards,” said Hoidal. “Of course, we make sure an inmate serves his sentence, but we also help that person become a better person. We are role models, coaches and mentors. And since our big reforms, recidivism in Norway has fallen to only 20% after two years and about 25% after five years. So, this works!”

And his prison is not unusual. All prisons in Norway offer education, drug treatment, mental health and training programs. In contrast, adequate funding for such initiatives is lacking in the U.S.

When Hoidal was asked about the level of violence in his prison, he looked genuinely surprised by the question. He scratched his head.

“Of course, in some of our older prisons there is occasional violence, but I really don’t remember the last time we had violence here. Maybe we had one or two incidences of spitting?”

I’d say that speaks for itself. You get what you incentivize — and how you treat people.

Since writing and publishing blog posts from a jail where I am in lockdown most of the time is difficult, this week’s installment was co-written with my editor/collaborator, Pam Bailey.

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Rob Barton has been incarcerated for 25 years. Pam Bailey is his collaborator/editor. Learn more at

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