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Prison Yard Logic

argues that prisons should teach emotional intelligence.

Kaja’s post about the med school murderer in Sweden has sparked a fascinating debate about the purpose of criminal sentencing itself.


prisoners fighting and gambling, London, 1650I agree with Matt that the relevant question is what's best for society and whether the criminal is likely to harm others in the future. And I agree with Matt and Carlin that the purpose of the criminal justice system should be not to inflict suffering on prisoners, but to rehabilitate and reduce recidivism.

But the fact is that right now, prisons have precisely the opposite effect. As author Daniel Goleman puts it in Social Intelligence:

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Prison is a hellish realm, where convicts struggle in a tooth-and-nail battle; everyone fights to get respect, and toughness wins prestige. The prison yard becomes a jungle where the powerful prevail and fear rules. It’s a psychopath’s paradise, where coolheaded cruelty wins the day… Survival there demands an amygdala that is set for paranoid hypervigilance, plus a protective emotional distance or outright distrust, and a readiness to fight… Prisons are colleges for criminal activity, strengthening an inmate’s predilection and skill sets for criminality. Younger prisoners make the very worst kind of connections in prison, typically becoming mentored by more seasoned inmates, so that on their release they are hardened, angry, and endowed with greater skills as criminals.

When prisons are crime schools that foster hostility, impulsivity, and violence, and the majority of released convicts wind up back in prison, the term “corrections” is a sick joke. Young prisoners suffer most of all. They’re plunged into this environment when their social brains are at their most plastic. No wonder cumulative lifetime recidivism is highest for prisoners 25 and under.

prisoners fighting and gambling, London, 1650But it doesn’t have to be this way. As Goleman points out, many people who wind up in prison are no doubt there as a result of neural deficits such as impaired empathy and impulse control. Why not create prisons that teach self-awareness, self-control, empathy, emotional regulation, and thinking before acting?

Studies show this can work. Juvenile prisoners who learn how “to stop and think before reacting, to consider solutions and the consequences of different responses, and to stay coolheaded” wind up in fewer fights. In schools, programs that teach conflict and anger management, empathy, and self-management drastically reduce schoolyard fights and bullying.

I’m all for prisoners learning the skills they need to earn an honest living once they’re released. But we should make sure they’re also learning the emotional skills they need to stay out of jail.

Jay Dixit is a science writer based in New York.

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