Defining Rehabilitation

The basic features of Colorado’s flagship prison, Territorial, later the Colorado State Penitentiary, have changed little since its 1871 conception—always the bars, the walls, the inmate numbers.[1] Less permanent are the institution’s and the surrounding society’s ideas about those devices of confinement. Meanwhile definitions of crime and perceptions of the criminal have continually shifted so that prisons have expressed many successive identities. What does it mean to be a criminal? Do we incarcerate to punish or to correct? We must, writes one warden in a thoughtful 1932 letter to the Colorado governor, decide “for what purpose the penitentiary exists.”[2]

In an era when our prisons are regulated by an agency mindfully titled the Department of Corrections (DOC), Coloradoans—like Americans more generally—seem, at least on the surface, to have made our choice. The state’s prisoners are no longer behind bars for punishment, but because of a broadly shared, humanitarian desire to reform criminals into persons capable of functioning peacefully in society. Colorado prisons today offer Alcoholics Anonymous meetings for alcoholics and other substance abusers, vocational training programs for the unskilled, seminars on willpower for the unmotivated, and prescription drugs for mental illnesses. The contemporary emphasis on penal rehabilitation seems to stand in stark contrast to the limited prison education and rehabilitation programs we see only in black-and-white photographs. A century ago most mental illnesses did not yet exist as formal legal diagnoses, let alone receive treatment in prison. Parole, a simple form of rehabilitation by reintegration, was in its infancy. No drug prevention programs existed. By all appearances, we have come to embrace rehabilitation as a key component of incarceration, so the barbarism and ignorance of yesterday’s penal systems appear to have given way to kindness, forgiveness, and faith in the future of persons behind walls. But closer investigation shows that Territorial and its successor prisons have had a long and prosperous history of hope—in large part unfulfilled. Although it is certainly true that the purpose of rehabilitation has evolved since 1871, a close look at rehabilitative programs in the early territorial prison suggests that rehabilitation is a longstanding ideal.


Early rehabilitation

Work programs intended in part to keep prisoners mentally healthy, a simple, practical form of rehabilitation, have existed as long as Cañon City’s principal prison. “Convicts during confinement need constant employment to keep from destruction and degradation,” writes an 1896 warden.[3] But early rehabilitation programs extended beyond time-consuming and economically productive labor to education for inmates. In 1882 the chaplain of the newly renamed Colorado State Penitentiary began a night school available to prisoners with good behavior records. The program’s purpose was straightforward: to provide inmates with the skills they would need after they returned to ordinary society, where literacy and math were key to employment.

True to the warden’s word, efforts were made to provide educational opportunities to inmates.[4] Overall progress was “excellent” according to the chaplain who taught, and illiterates and non-English speakers made “extraordinary” leaps and bounds, progressing from “entire ignorance of letters” to a second or third-grade reading level in the span of a single quarter.[5] The prison’s administration even in the early 1880s evidently believed strongly in its inmates’ ability to change, and was deeply concerned with their well-being. Early rehabilitation programs then grew as prison funding did. By 1896 Warden Tynan was suggesting a rehabilitation program providing cash start-up funds for those reintegrating into society, as “the truly repentant should be given assistance in some manner, until he has strength enough morally and physically to stand alone.”[6] In this same report, the warden noted that “The school and library, under the able care of Chaplain Bake, are an aid to the discipline and progress that cannot be overestimated, and have afforded a remarkable stimulus to individual development.”[7] Mention of the school reveals early ideas about this method of rehabilitation in prison. Far from existing purely as an institution of punishment, Cañon’s major prison even in the late nineteenth century was committed at least in part to the humanitarian ideals of change and personal reform. Its rehabilitative night school expressed institutional commitment to granting struggling inmates the same opportunities as those outside of prison walls. Rehabilitation helped inmates rise above criminality by helping them, in the characteristic language of the period “progress.”

The early definition of rehabilitation in Colorado incarceration facilities remained essentially unchanged in the subsequent decades. Rehabilitation has remained education generally understood, along with manual labor, even though the scope of rehabilitative programs offered to offenders is larger now than it was a century ago.  As it did in 1882, “prison [school] exists to turn lives around” in the middle and later twentieth century, and those in penal educational programs aimed to “improve themselves.”[8]  Rehabilitation of contemporary offenders still seeks “to assist the inmates in their progression through the correctional system and back into society,” a goal grounded in the belief, unchanged at Territorial since the 1880’s, that “inmates are always looking for help when they come in here.”[9]


Recidivism and the repeat offender

While general patterns of rehabilitative thought remain the same, however, close examination of the Colorado State Penitentiary prison archives reveals key changes in the language of penal rehabilitation. First, rehabilitation has become more and more a mechanism to prevent recidivism and less for the direct improvement of the inmate. A century ago prevention of recidivism was not an explicit rehabilitative agenda. Warden’s reports documented whether inmates were first-time or repeat offenders as early as the 1900s, but these records are fundamentally unrelated to the intentions of rehabilitation.[10] 1930 saw the first record of recidivism as an element in rehabilitative thought, when wardens began to suggest programs focused on providing inmates with a stipend for their work in prison with the intention of keeping them from returning to the penitentiary. Yet even this attention to recidivism was more an attempt to relive overcrowded conditions in prisons than it was responsiveness to the misery of individuals seemingly compelled to return there.

Second, rehabilitative language began through the course of the twentieth century to redefine the role of the ‘criminal’ within ‘crime.’ A century ago, criminals—at least male criminals—were thought to commit crimes because they were to some degree lacking in moral character. In the 1881 biennial report of Colorado State Penitentiary, the warden reported that “very many [inmates] come here debilitated by excesses, or diseased by a dissolute or immoral life.”[11] As a result, early rehabilitative programs focused on improving personal character but were general inattentive to the circumstances in which those criminals lived, assuming that the solution to criminality lay in improving a criminal’s moral standing rather than that some may need rehabilitation for circumstances beyond their control.

The model of rehabilitation as personal moral reform had changed by the end of the twentieth century as the paradigm of individual criminality has gradually shifted to a social causation model. The origins of the belief that the criminal was himself the victim—or at least not the sole agent—of his crime can be traced, in the Colorado system, to a warden’s report in 1900 surveying and analyzing the social factors common to inmates. The report concludes that forty-six percent of inmates then at CSP left home before age sixteen, seventy-six percent of inmates did not have a spouse, and that sixty percent were incarcerated “directly or indirectly” through alcohol.[12] In the next century interest in the social causes of criminal behavior would develop into a fully-fledged belief in social causation. Criminals began to be represented as, to a large extent, victims of societal neglect or negative cultural pressure, and were no longer seen as morally inferior from a rehabilitative perspective.


Social model of crime

Rehabilitative language reflects this shift. News articles reporting on rehabilitative programs no longer speak of moral “progress,” but of combatting the social conditions triggering incarceration. Prisoners are perceived as people with reparable weaknesses, victims of “drug addiction and little family support.”&lt>[13] One local 1970’s rehabilitation program focused not on changing the prisoners themselves, but expressed an “effort to overcome [inmates’] histories as sex offenders or drug and alcohol abusers.”[14] Another local program a decade later sought to help inmates deal with their anger and develop life skills, such as learning how to hold employment or get a driver’s license. Education programs underwent a shift in intention as well: no longer were prison schools essential pastoral programs intended to improve inmates’ character, rather they sought to bring about broad moral growth, an agenda suggesting a belief in social causation. In this new landscape, “the biggest disability” in penal institutions is not immorality but “[a lack of] self-confidence.”[15]

Contemporary rehabilitation policies designed to keep the criminal from returning to jail result from our caring enough to help our underprivileged citizens escape the cycle of incarceration.  Now rehabilitation programs combat drug addiction and self-confidence deficiencies because we are sufficiently progressive enough to recognize the criminal as a social victim—or so we congratulate ourselves. While it is of course true that rehabilitation “has a strong humanitarian and moral appeal,” however, we should be careful not to confuse superficial appeal for change with actual drivers of change. The truth underlying the evolution of rehabilitation may be more complicated, and may interrogate our initial perception that humanitarian values have been the primary catalyst for penal change. Economic factors and changes in the nature of incarceration itself are powerful stimuli of change in rehabilitative thought and policy.

Prevention of recidivism has a rehabilitative agenda with economic elements for nearly a century. The first mention of combating recidivism as a rehabilitative goal at CSP came in 1930. Warden Crawford suggested a program in which inmates receive a small stipend for their work at the prison, so they can “have a chance to maintain themselves. . .after leaving here.”[16] His intention seems motivated by humanitarian values, but the following report fails to build a program on his substrate of kindness for prisoners. Crawford only notes that the prison is getting “very crowded again.” The connection between overcrowding and recidivism had been made clear in the 1929 prison riots, a violent and economically destructive event caused by an overblown, unmanageable inmate population and a lack of funds to support such a large number of prisoners. This recent event suggested to Crawford that a recidivism-reduction program would have practical economic benefit.  To reduce the number of inmates returning to their cells was the easiest and most effective way to reduce future prison populations. Relatedly, the 1930s warden’s report was the first to include a section on maintaining high parole success rates.

Crawford had good reason to be worried.  By 1938, when second-offenders comprised fully twenty-six percent of the CSP prison population, overcrowding was the most debilitating issue facing prison administration.[17]  Prison funding began to stretch even farther to accommodate the surfeit of prisoners.[18] Overcrowding and underfunding worsened throughout the twentieth century and up to present times. Current prison populations are overwhelmed with repeat offenders nationwide. The issue has recently prompted the federal government to force California to reduce its prison population by 40,000 in two years.[19] The increased attention paid to recidivism-prevention oriented rehabilitation programs in recent years is, as it was in 1930, due at least in part to the towering cost of incarcerating so many Americans.

Another primary cause of the changes in rehabilitative thought over the last century, however, has been changes in the definition of crime. In 1900, crimes represented in CSP intake records were heavily for violent offenses, such as murder, assault, and “robbery with force.”[20] This focused definition perhaps limited incarceration rates. However, by 1930, when recidivism-reduction programs became of interest, the spectrum of crime had expanded to include many less violent crimes, with a corresponding uptick in incarceration rates again resulting in prison overcrowding. In the last thirty years, “tough on crime” shifts in recent years have exacerbated this problem, leading to huge increases in incarceration numbers as minimum sentencing laws and strict drug laws have created mass incarceration in poor and racialized urban areas.[21] The economic incentive for lowering recidivism rates has now become even more important.

Changes in the definition of crime itself may also have been the motive for the change in rehabilitative ideology from an individual causation model to a social causation model of crime. As more and more criminals have filled our jails and funds become increasingly strained, the U.S. government and state incarcerations facilities alike have had strong motivation to improve success rates of all rehabilitation programs. Many inmates are now low-level offenders–drug possessors, victims of deinstitutionalization and racial injustice, and high-school students with DUI’s—so it makes economic sense to adjust rehabilitative policy to reflect the needs of this new inmate demographic. The Colorado DOC has done just this. A more comprehensive rehabilitation system and language appropriate to its transformed goals have been fully adopted, affirming recognition of the prevalence of drug abuse and mental illness in incarceration

Rehabilitation has come to encompass the beliefs that criminals are made, not born, and corrections systems should focus on helping criminals escape the cycle of incarceration, so triggering broad changes in the scope of rehabilitative practice. Modern rehabilitation encompasses hundreds of different programs under thousands of different names. Prisons now offer GED programs, college classes, and schools for the blind. Vocational programs in prison address nearly everything: heavy machinery operation, wastewater management, motorcycle manufacture, programming. Every prison has a staff of psychologists and psychiatrists determined to rehabilitate the mentally ill. Contemporary penal systems are progressive enough to send some low-level inmates to rehabilitative community corrections programs instead of prison. Economically incentivized or not, it seems that we have come a long way from an 1880s Territorial, where opportunities for rehabilitation were limited to a small night school for education and farm labor for vocational training. But this assumption may be incorrect.

Rehabilitation, like other social programs, is historically and culturally contingent.[22] Today we live in a very complex society that asks a great deal of its citizens. In the late 1800s, when Colorado was a frontier state, a prison did not need the kind of rehabilitation system it does now. There was no need for heavy-machinery training when heavy machinery had not been invented yet. There was no need for higher education programs when the ability to read, write, and add was all most jobs required. Rehabilitation in 1880, simple as it was, was not necessarily any less successful or humanitarian than rehabilitation today. In 1932, the Colorado State Penitentiary chaplain spoke of “the spirit of justice and sympathy” in his prison. We cannot discount the experiences of these men, who fought hard to further the humanitarian goals of rehabilitation. The morality we see in our prisons and our society today is not limited to the twenty-first century. To forget this is to disregard the human compassion of our predecessors.


[1] Originally researched and drafted by Bryce Riffenburgh-Kirby.

[2] State of Colorado, Board of Corrections, Biennial Report. . .1931-1932, 1.

[3] State of Colorado, Board of Corrections, Biennial Report. . .1895-1896, 24.

[4] Interestingly, the school was not just successful due to the efforts of the administration, but also due to the interest and dedication of the prisoners. Daily attendance remained above 95% of those enrolled for the fifty years in in which careful records were kept. A 1902 Chaplain reports happily that “as a rule the men are anxious to attend school,” and that inmates “greedily took advantage of opportunities to learn.” Inmate responsiveness has important implications for the validity of penal rehabilitation as an effective mechanism for social change. The willingness of the prisoners to “better themselves through education” suggests that rehabilitation is worth the investment.

[5]  State of Colorado, Board of Corrections Biennial Report. . .1907-1908, 64.

[6] Biennial Report. . .1895-1896, 26.

[7] Ibid., 5.

[8] David Vickers, “Inmates Learning Educational Rewards,” Pueblo Chieftain, August 31, 1989.

[9] “Doing Time Can Prove Creative,” Pueblo Chieftain, October 18, 1988.

[10] State of Colorado, Board of Corrections, Biennial Report. . .1899-1900, 12.

[11] State of Colorado, Board of Corrections, Biennial Report. . .1881-1882, 24.

[12] State of Colorado, Board of Corrections, Biennial Report. . .1889-1900, 159.

[13] Chris Woodka, “Prison Rehabilitation Programs,” Pueblo Chieftain, December 11, 1988.

[14] Tracy Harmon, “Inmates but a Lid on Little Leaguers,” Pueblo Chieftain, April 12, 1978.

[15] John Lemons, “Inmate Education: Main Goal Is to Change Attitudes,” Canon City Daily Record, March 30, 1987.

[16] State of Colorado, Board of Corrections, Biennial Report…1929-1930, 9.

[17] State of Colorado, Board of Corrections, Biennial Report…1939-1940, 3; State of Colorado, Board of Corrections, Biennial Report…1937-1938, 3 and 24.

[18] George Skelton, “Prison Overcrowding and Underfunding Lead to More Local Burdens,” October 6, 2011,

[19] “Prison Overcrowding: California,” American Legislative Exchange Council, 2015, accessed November 8, 2015,

[20] Biennial Report…1899-1900, 68-69.

[21] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: New Press, 2010), 71.