Prison and The Social Learning Theory

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I had always been a firm believer in justice and felt that if you had disobeyed society's laws and rules, then you deserved to be locked away, sort of a "tough love" scenario. I had been raised to believe that prisons were a necessity in order to protect society and detour criminal behaviors. Now, with record amounts of people being incarcerated and new inmates being detained for extended periods of time on minor charges, it makes me wonder if being so "tough" on crime is actually helping or hurting society.  Over the last 23 years in California, a new prison has been built each year to keep up with growing number of inmates. This is primarily due to the "Three Strikes Law", which means if you are convicted of a felony three times it is an immediate 25 years to life sentence, that was passed in 1994. This law was meant to only pertain to serious and violent felony crimes, but over 70% of the inmates being held under the "three strikes law" were convicted for petty theft and possession of a controlled substance, not a serious or violent felony. These minor criminals were being placed in prisons with major criminals causing them to be exposed to higher levels of violence. With this type of justice set up, we are in essence training minor criminal to be major ones with no solid evidence to prove that it is helping to detour crimes.

By placing typically lower level, non-violent criminals in the same vicinity of higher lever, violent inmates, new behaviors and characteristics began to emerge in the non-violent criminals. This began to cause a new social issue, primarily because of the social learning theory. This theory states that a person will act accordingly to learned behaviors from their environment and peers (Schneider, Gruman, & Coutts. 2012). The non-violent inmates had to change their ways of thinking and behaviors in order to "fit in" so to speak, with the more aggressive, violent inmates. They began to mimic the actions and deviant behaviors that they witnessed being committed successfully by their peers in order to gain acceptance and protection. This is especially a concern with the rate of juveniles being placed in adult prison systems. They are being exposed to situations and behaviors at a crucial developmental stage that sometimes programs them for a life of criminal behaviors. The longer they are exposed to this type of social environment, the more likely they are picking up these deviant traits and permanently modify their behaviors.

The amount of time an inmate is incarcerated has risen exponentially in the last few decades. According to a study done in 2010, inmates released in 2009 spent on average more than 9 additional months behind bars than those incarcerated for the same crime in 1990. (Bloom, 2012) This not only costs millions of additional tax dollars, but it also does not seem to make our communities any safer. Over 60% of the prison population is being held for nonviolent, non-serious crimes. Researchers found that if the justice system released just half of these nonviolent offenders, the prison system could save over 17 billion a year and cause no additional effect to the crime rate (Bloom, L. 2010). Criminologists also argue that mass incarceration promotes crime, not detours it, as represented with the social learning theory. The longer someone is detained, the likelier they are to become institutionalized. Once the inmate is institutionalized, they are no longer able to function normally in society. They lose proper socialization skills and coping abilities to handle the stresses and pressure they encounter once they are released. Many times they cannot get a job or assistance in finding somewhere to live, so they turn back to life crime because it is the only thing they know, thus completing the vicious circle. While extended periods of incarceration alone do not seem to reduce or detour criminal behaviors, research has shown that rehabilitation programs along with shorter prison stays are more effective in preventing crime than mere punishment alone.

To many people in our society, the idea of special programs like: rehabilitation, education, mental health care programs, and vocational training for prisoners seems indulgent and unfair. I mean, they are in prison to be punished, not to better themselves right?  Society wants to believe that the criminals of our world are incased in cold, cement and iron cages with no freedoms and rights as punishment for their crimes. The problem is this type of punishment is not effective for the mass majority of the people that are currently incarcerated, and most importantly, society as a whole. We are spending an exurbanite amount of money to punish these criminals and then just setting them loose with no life or job skills to become productive members of society again.  They in turn go back to criminal activities and end up right back in the justice system.

Numerous studies have shown that rehabilitation programs, education, therapy, and vocational training have a significant effect on not only bettering the inmate, but on society as well because they are able to become productive members of society, rather than hindrances. The average benefit of rehabilitation programs for society is about $13 dollars put back in for every dollar spent on those programs. This means rather than depleting our economic resources, we can increase them exponentially (Schneider, Gruman, & Coutts. 2012). By teaching them job skills and coping abilities, we are preparing them to be able to function normally rather than just returning them to the streets, often times even more dangerous than when they first detained. Many of these non-violent offenders have addition issues or mental disorders that can be monitored and taken care of through mental help services, which are only a fraction of the cost that incarcerating someone is. Many of the inmates that have been able to go through rehabilitative programs give back to the community by being a mentor for someone else in need as well.

We cannot change the behavior by locking it away and forgetting about it, this much has been proven already. There are those criminals that defiantly need to spend their lives behind bars and deserve probably far worse than even that, but for the mass amount of those incarcerated, change needs to happen. We need to invest in more rehabilitation programs for our juveniles and adult inmates that are convicted on non-violent, non-serious offenses so we can start putting money back into society, rather than taking it away and stop the cycle. 


Schneider, F. W., Gruman, J. A., & Coutts, L. M. (Eds.). (2012). Social psychological theory. In Applied social psychology [2nd ed.]. California: Sage publications.

"When will the United Stated States stop mass Incarceration" (Bloom, Lisa. 6/2012)

Crime Rate Statistic's, 2010

Legal Analyst Office, 1995 "Three Strikes Law"


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I have often wondered how many incarcerated individuals receive psychological care. If an individual commits a crime, especially a violent crime, they are in need of help. I view the prison system as one that promotes rather than deters crime. By throwing individuals together into a prison you are providing an environment ripe with social learning that enhances criminal behavior rather than eradicating this behavior. According to Schneider, Gruman, and Coutts (2012) there are prisons that have been created as therapeutic communities that draw on social ecological, social learning, and humanistic theories to promote personal growth and development of the inmates (269). The idea behind these types of prisons is to change the attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that lead to healthy and adaptive lifestyles for individuals after they leave the prison system. Inmate participants cannot be a high risk and they must be willing to participate in the environment which is highly structured and works on building relationships with others. Because antisocial behavior and an inability to comprehend what their actions have done to their victims are problems for offenders, this program teaches offenders about their antisocial attitudes and values and creates victim awareness. In addition, strategies are developed to help the offenders learn how to avoid returning to the prison system. This type of program sounds like it can help offenders build positive social skills through social learning and provide an opportunity for these individuals to learn how their interaction with the environment can elicit behaviors both good and bad. As a result, this could reduce the number of individuals who return to prison (Schneider, Gruman, & Coutts, 2012, p. 269).


Schneider, F.W., Gruman, J.A., & Coutts, L.M. (2012). Applied social psychology: Understanding and addressing social and practical problems (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

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