As the United States’ total adult correctional population begins to tip over 7 million—an increase of nearly 5 million people since a 1980 census by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics—the growing demand for lower incarceration rates is coupled with campaigns to introduce effective rehabilitation programs to prisoners, as over 90 percent will rejoin their communities within a few years of incarceration. More rehabilitation programs are now being designed specifically for incarcerated Millennials, to address the more than 75,000 18- to 35-year-old inmates in the federal prison system as of 2015.
According to a compilation of incarceration trends published by the NAACP, “Jail reduces work time of young people over the next decade by 25-30 percent when compared with arrested youths who were not incarcerated.” The NAACP further asserts that prison has “not been proven as rehabilitation for behavior, as two-thirds of prisoners will reoffend.”
To ease the transition of young people from incarceration to parole, and to prevent high rates of unemployment and recidivism, a new niche of rehabilitation programs has appeared in past decades to address Millennial rehabilitation, and to break the cycle of recidivism prevalent in low-income and high-crime communities.
WriteGirl Los Angeles, a program which connects professional writing mentors to young girls enrolled in at-risk Los Angeles schools, expanded their program in 2004 to include the Road to Success Academy, a school in Santa Clarita, CA which brings writing skills to incarcerated teen girls.
The Road to Success Academy expanded to two Santa Clarita juvenile detention camps for girls, Camp Scott and Camp Scudder, in 2011. Each center connects 100 girls to mentors each year; in total, over 600 girls have gone through the WriteGirl program since Road to Success’s inception.
Keren Taylor, WriteGirl’s Executive Director, explains that the program aims to equip incarcerated girls with writing skills, which she argues are hugely important in paving the way to life beyond incarceration.
“Writing and self-expression is perhaps the one skill that a young person needs the most, in order to advocate for their own path forward. Writing is a rich and profound activity—it allows the writer to more deeply understand themselves, but also communicate more clearly and powerfully with others around them,” says Taylor. “One of our girls said, ‘Because of WriteGirl, now I feel like I can write myself out of anything.’ I love that statement for the strength and self-assurance that it embodies.”
Though WriteGirl cannot maintain contact with Road to Success girls beyond their incarceration, Taylor says that the program has recently helped establish a new organization, the Art for Incarcerated Youth Network (AIYN), which aims to “investigate the whole process of youth transitioning back to their communities, and [find out] how we can best assist in that whole process.”
Combating recidivism rates among young people has become a chief goal of organizations like WriteGirl and AIYN, as rates of repeat crime have risen over recent years as rehabilitation programs have declined.
According to a 2015 study by the National Criminal Justice Reference Service, 18- to 24-year-olds are “especially likely” to be repeat offenders. The same demographic made up more than 21 percent of admissions to adult state and federal prisons in 2012.
“Because this subset of individuals drives a disproportionately large share of criminal justice activity, they should be an important focus of juvenile and adult justice systems alike,” the study reads. “But whereas considerable research exists demonstrating what strategies make it less likely an adolescent or, say, a 35-year-old adult will reoffend, similar research does not exist for young adults.”
Youth rehabilitation programs such as WriteGirl and AIYN are attempting to stray away from traditional punitive measures of youth incarceration—measures which some experts argue are ineffective.
Craig Haney, PhD, a psychologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz told the American Psychological Association (APA) in 2003 that according to his research, strict punishment in prisons led to “more long-term damage to both the individual and the system than it solves.”
“Many prisoners in supermax units experience extremely high levels of anxiety and other negative emotions,” according to the APA. “When released—often without any ‘decompression’ period in lower-security facilities—they have few of the social or occupational skills necessary to succeed in the outside world.”
This, Taylor argues, is where rehabilitation comes in.
“All prisons should incorporate rehabilitation and education programs into their systems, for both youth and adults,” she says. “To speak directly regarding young people, we need to give them the help, support, time and skills to find their own voice, skills, strengths, sense of humor, views and hope for their futures. Their stories, backgrounds and circumstances are complicated and deeply challenging in many different ways.”
Taylor insists that prisons need rehabilitation programs to introduce skills to the 3.2 percent of Americans under correctional control, who often leave prison lacking skills and resources to succeed in the workforce. To Taylor, Millennials express the most dire need for such programs, as opposed to strict punitive prisons. She says that, especially for young people who have only ever known the constraints of the criminal justice system, re-entering the community is nearly impossible without the support system that rehabilitation programs aim to provide.
“Youth are resilient. They seek knowledge, self-awareness, a sense of direction, a path they can step forward onto, role models,” says Taylor. “They are seeking to belong, they are in need of someone to listen to them with compassion and empathy and they are trying to make sense of where they are, and where they could go next. They are willing and able to change their views and choices, and we see them undergo small and large transformations right in front of our eyes.”
Taylor mentions a WriteGirl poem that stands out in her memory; “Change,” written by 17-year-old Road to Success participant, sums up Taylor’s insistence that people—especially Millennials—are capable of learning from rehabilitation.
“Change is a caterpillar to a butterfly/a girl to a woman/failing school to graduating/Change is getting tattoos/Transformation is from being at camp/to getting out /finishing school/finding a job/Change is from kickin’ it with the homies/to spending more time with my little brother/One step at a time.”