On Sunday, National Public Radio’s Eliza Barclay published a story on San Quentin’s “Insight Garden Program”; an initiative that trains inmates in horticulture and landscaping as well as providing a modicum of reentry support upon release. The results have been laudable: according to the program administrators, only 10 percent of program participants return to prison versus 70 percent of the California prison population as a whole.
How can this be? Could the panacea to all crime been right under our noses (er, feet)? Unlikely.
Apples and Oranges: California’s three year return-to-prison rate (63.7 percent in 2012) includes ALL inmates released from a facility during the 2007-2008 fiscal year. This would range from the chronic jaywalker to the serial armed robber, and contain the vast distribution of risk factors this population holds. It is highly likely that inmates who already demonstrate a modicum of pro-social beliefs and personality traits will self-select into the gardening program while those who are high risk, criminogenically speaking, will pass on the opportunity or not qualify to participate.
“Black Box” Rehabilitation: The program has not been rigorously evaluated. The director’s graduate thesis, the only scholarly work on this program, relies heavily on qualitative data gathered through interviews with various stakeholders. While this serves as a good initial step, quantitative data must me gathered on those who participate and those who do not and, if similar enough to consider a comparison group, recidivism rates contrasted.
Perhaps gardening does clarify the inmate’s relation with the greater world and engenders a sense of responsibility. It may even reduce the inmate’s antisocial rationalizations of his behavior, leading him to rationally consider the outcomes of future deviant actions before they are committed. However, barring proper process evaluation, this claim is untenable.
Idealistic Goals, Unproven Results: The operant theory behind this program is that the inmate’s criminality is mitigated through their connection to nature. This is a common theme, extending back as far as Jeffersonian ideals of an agrarian society. Unfortunately, this simply is not the case.
Take rigorous wilderness programs for juvenile delinquents as an example. These programs are generally cheaper and less coercive than incarceration, and can be completed in a fraction of the time. Collective analyses have shown time and again that these programs are no more beneficial to public safety than doing nothing. Modest effects are only observed in programs with an extensive therapy component.
As with all modalities of rehabilitation, the onus is on the program’s proponents to demonstrate how it tackles a proven criminogenic risk factor – that is, an element of the offender that correlates with criminal behavior. Deviant personality traits, belief systems, and peer networks are largely unaffected by Insight.
The Insight program does have several positive qualities. It provides inmates with useable vocational training, skills for interacting with potential supervisors, coworkers, and clients, and invests the inmate in a long-term project that requires attention-to-detail and follow-through. This is to say nothing of the good that comes from the literal fruit of their endeavors. However, to deem this program a success is, at the very least, premature.