Federal Bureau of Prisons chief speaks to Duke Law students Oct. 25

October 26, 2007Duke Law News

Oct. 26, 2007 ― Providing inmates with work opportunities, vocational training, education, and substance abuse prevention programs is one of the key strategies for combating recidivism within the prison population according to the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Harley Lappin spoke to Duke Law students about the federal prison system on Oct. 25.

“Re-entry starts on the first day of incarceration,” said Lappin. “Our goal is to improve [inmates’] skills and decision-making systems so they can return to their communities and become responsible citizens.” There are, on average, 200,000 inmates in the federal prison at any given time, and 60,000 are released each year, he said.

The rate of recidivism in the federal system is about 40 percent, approximately 26 percentage points lower than that in state prison systems, said Lappin. Maximizing opportunities for prisoners to participate in skill-building programs works, he said, citing data showing an even lower recidivism rate for offenders who participate in prison industry programs and lower still for those who get vocational training certificates. Education and residential drug treatment programs, or any combination of programs, also have a significant effect on lowering rates of recidivism, he said.

“A huge indicator [of success] is having a willing participant,” said Lappin, noting that the possibility of sentence reductions offer strong incentives. Mandatory military-style “boot camp” programs were scrapped after being widely used for more than a decade because they were found to have no effect on reducing recidivism, he said.

The system is now starting to focus on building skills that individual inmates lack, said Lappin. “The warden’s responsibility will be to make sure that there are programs at every facility that will improve the skills of prisoners who have deficiencies in those areas,” he said.

Having started in the prison system as a case manager, Lappin recalled asking inmates what they liked to do. “That was the wrong approach. We should be targeting those things that they don’t do very well and giving them the skills that they lack.

We have to teach them how to work, and what is expected of them – to come to work on time, how to produce, to reap the benefits of good work and suffer the consequences of poor work, and the huge benefit of a work rotation [in prison]. The learn those work skills. If they leave [prison] without those work skills, they will struggle. Teaching inmates how to use leisure time productively is also essential to re-entry, he said.

Mr. Lappin also addressed Professor Robinson O. Everett's Sentencing & Punishment Seminar.