Breaking the Cycle: A Comprehensive Approach to Reducing Recidivism through Holistic Rehabilitation

The following brief explores the imperative of holistic criminal rehabilitation as an effort to strengthen the justice system. It focuses on educational, resource-related, and psychological models as a way of achieving the former. Furthermore, it discusses the varying stances associated with holistic rehabilitation in the United States alongside the shortcomings of the aforementioned models and the consequences related to avoiding humanizing our justice system.

Published by


July 4, 2023

At YIP, nuanced policy briefs emerge from the collaboration of six diverse, nonpartisan students.

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Prisoner rehabilitation molds the reintegration of incarcerated individuals into society after release. Programs that help rehabilitate prisoners not only help improve the well-being of a prisoner during their time in prison but positively guide the well-being of a prisoner after they are released as well. Despite their benefits, the focus on these programs in the United States has been long overshadowed by the focus on “punishment” and the stereotypes regarding prisoners that follow a narrow approach towards the criminal justice system. However, now more than ever, with some of the highest incarceration rates in the world and a recidivism rate of about 44%, federal policies surrounding prisoner rehabilitation in the United States stand an urgent need for revision and improvement. This brief discusses the history,  relevance, and future policy options for prisoner rehabilitation in American prisons.


Effective prisoner rehabilitation programs are critical at this point in time within American society due to many reasons. These programs play an essential role in helping to reduce the rates by which previously convicted individuals re-offend in the future. Providing inmates with vocational training and mental health support can help them gain important skills that could help them assimilate successfully into society after their  release. In the future, this can also help reduce the proportion of inmates that return to a life of crime, decreasing the burden of the criminal justice system while simultaneously improving public safety.

Tried Policy 

According to Craig Haney, a psychologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, until the 1970s, rehabilitation was a key part of the U.S. prison system. Inmates were encouraged to engage in recreational activities while in prison and work to build the skills to effectively reintegrate into society. However, around the mid-1980s, with the rise of the Reagan administration, which promoted “get tough on crime” policies, these rehabilitative programs were less encouraged. In the mid-1990s, the United States established supermax prisons, in which inmates were placed in prolonged solitary confinement. Inmates placed in these prisons faced high anxiety levels and did not effectively reintegrate into society upon release. While these extreme prisons have since become less popular, any prison-like environment is detrimental to inmates. According to the famous Stanford Prison experiment, after putting college students in a prison-like environment for as few as six days, they started exhibiting symptoms of mass depression and anxiety, even planning escape plots after just a few days of imprisonment. When prisons prioritize punitive measures rather than rehabilitation and reintegration, the results are most often higher levels of mental illness and incompetence in the real world.

Norway’s prison systems are a primary example of a system that effectively reduced recidivism through rehabilitation and humanitarianism. According to Sara Sullivan, the Project Director of the Vera Institute of Justice, the Norwegian prison model focuses on humanity. Norway’s maximum security prisons give inmates a fair amount of independence, including individual showers, toiletry, and kitchen appliances. The most important part of their plan is dynamic security, or interpersonal relationships between inmates and officers, in which officers manage a few inmates and facilitate their rehabilitation. These officers participate in a two to three-year college education, whereas in America, training may last a few weeks. Norway’s efforts have been tremendously successful, as Norway’s recidivism rate is now one of the lowest in the world, incarcerating approximately 60 out of 100,000 people as compared to America’s 655 out of 100,000. 

Some other effective programs have been prison theaters, increased access to education, farms or zoos, teaching/mentorship programs, and therapeutic classes such as yoga or meditation for inmates. The United States is making efforts to make education more accessible, encouraging inmates to develop job skills for effective reintegration, prioritizing mental health treatment, reducing solitary confinement and private prison usage, and making the transition out of prison as smooth as possible. Working to make prisons more humane and reintegration smoother while restricting the amount of strict punishment and isolation can work to reduce recidivism and keep people out of prison systems.

Current Stances 

Prisoner rehabilitation has been favored by many Americans. A survey from Marquette University Law School found that 74 percent of people viewed the rehabilitation of offenders as an essential priority of the criminal justice system. The Office of Justice Programs found that 87 percent of people favored rehabilitation-based prison models over punishment-only models. Clearly,  the vast majority of the public prefers a criminal justice system focused on rehabilitating offenders with the goal of re-introducing them into society over one that centers solely on punishing a criminal.

Policy Problem

A. Stakeholders 

Currently, there are 1.9 million people incarcerated in the United States. 803,000 are on parole, and almost 3 million people are on probation. This means that there are more than 5.6 million people in the custody of the criminal justice system. All of the 5.6 million people are stakeholders of rehabilitation, as the number of people in the criminal justice system should lower as more and more offenders become re-introduced into society. 

B. Risks of Indifference

Without changes made to the goals of our Criminal Justice system, then clearly prisons will become even more overcrowded, and more people will grow old and remain in prisons. Prison overcrowding itself has a harmful effect on the health of the inmates. Poor nutrition, inadequate ventilation, forced inactivity, the effects of violence, trauma, and solitary confinement, as well as the overcrowding and unsanitary conditions inside many correctional facilities, can have long-term detrimental effects on health that violate the constitutional rights of prisoners and detainees. 

Policy Options

Holistic rehabilitation has the ability to strengthen the justice system by addressing the contributing causes of criminal behavior and substantially reducing recidivism. It aims to provide an opportunity for non-quantitative human needs to be met and seeks to move the justice system to a more humanitarian ground. Holistic rehabilitation alongside education could possibly include psychiatric and psychological help. For instance, psychiatry could be used to assess an individual’s ability to participate in a trial and provides insight into their mental state at the time of committing the crime. This could help in understanding what motivates people to commit crimes and deliberate solutions of prevention at the very first stage. By providing varying psychological treatments to criminals, both individual foci like medication, therapy, counseling, etcetera, and group focus like mentoring, academic, and response modeling therapy.

Most of these programs could be correctional in nature in the sense that they seek to address offense-related factors in the offenders. For instance, for somebody with a history of drug abuse who has also previously partaken in physical violence, it would include correction addiction and anger-related tendencies. Implementation of cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) could prove useful. Moreover, special focus needs to be laid on specialized programs depending on different factors such as education, health, and employment ability of the offender and how they shaped them as a person. In addition to this, acknowledgment of the fact that these aspects and others, even as far and wide-ranging as political oppression, could motivate people to commit crimes and cause collateral damage should be emphasized.

In order to recognize how well prisoners will reintegrate into society after their release, one needs to consider their prison environment, their experience, and the effect of their time in prison on their personal characteristics and mental health. Prison experience can be traumatic and can take away from how valuable a prisoner would be to society and to themselves after their release. In addition, “more than 60% of all incarcerated individuals in the United States are fully illiterate”. According to the Department of Justice, crime and illiteracy are closely related. Prisoners who attend educational programs offered at prisons are 48% less likely to offend again than those who do not receive any form of education in prison. Education for prisoners allows them to focus and exist in a productive environment while being in prison, which positively affects both their prison experience and their mental health. Therefore, education for prisoners plays a crucial role in reducing recidivism and contributes positively to further prisoner rehabilitation. 

Unfortunately, only 5 states in the United States offer sufficient educational programs for prisoners, while 43 states have fewer than 10 programs. Inadequate resource allocation and a lack of attention to prisoner rehabilitation and the benefits of prison education have all been barriers to effective, quality education for prisoners in the United States. Even though the FAFSA Simplification Act of 2020 made confined or incarcerated individuals eligible for Pell Grants starting with the 2023-24 school year, providing hope for better funding of educational programs in prison. According to the Justice Center of the United States, “less than 1 in 3 states” effectively use funding streams, and “more than ¾ of states” impose limitations on access to postsecondary education. However, when used efficiently, funding for prison education can lead to effective change, as evidenced by the success of educational funding allocated adequately in New York and California, with New York awarding more than $7 million dollars for college education in prisons. California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation allocated nearly half of their program slots for “education-related purposes.” In addition to offering educational programs in prison, sufficiently allocating funding and resources towards educational programs is essential to the success of prison education and equally important in reducing recidivism. Education is pivotal for prisoner rehabilitation, and therefore, the need for government policies mandating access to and effective management of funds for higher/college-level education in prisons across the United States is just as crucial. 

In addition, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, “enhancing prisoner’s work” by promoting the national brands of prison serves as a beneficial strategy for prisoner rehabilitation. Supporting the national brands of prison and prison products contribute to generating income for the prisoners. This will also increase their self-esteem and can go a long way in supporting prisoners to positively live their life during and after prison, reducing recidivism and improving the prison environment. Raising awareness around prison products can also help reduce stigma around prisoners and reduce barriers for prisoners attempting to find their place in society again. 

Other rehabilitation programs, like redirective education and vocational training, could be based on behavioral and social learning theories. This would provide an opportunity for the offenders to move away from recommitting the offenses, work on their physical and mental health and seek employment-related opportunities once they are fully rehabilitated. All of this would make space for a substantial reduction of recidivism, strengthen the justice system towards a more humanitarian approach and ensure smooth social reintegration.

Overall, prisoner rehabilitation holds many different elements that influence the way it deals with the offenders in the system. One of the best ways to ensure that positive rehabilitation is occurring is through developing and implementing programs that give incarcerated individuals holistic rehabilitation, which in turn will help the said inmates grow and reintegrate in a better way when returning to their normal lives and society. Promoting and providing programs such as educational plans and healthcare facilities, among other factors, will ultimately improve the justice system as well as have a positive impact on individuals. Additionally, these actions will also help develop the way criminality is perceived and how it is dealt with in the future. 

Ahad Khan

Senior Advisor, Policy Media & Distinguished Fellow; Former Senior Vice President, Policy Media

Ahad is a student at Stevenson University studying Criminal Justice and Legal Studies. He serves as the Senior Vice President of Policy at YIP. In school, Ahad competes on Stevenson’s mock trial team, where he was recognized as an All-Regional witness. Ahad plans on going to law school and practicing criminal law.

Suchir Paruchuri

Policy Analyst