What works article Prof Lucia Dammert

The importance of rehabilitation: What works?

Rehabilitation is a long-term goal that most countries have not begun to address. Although some have redesigned their institutional mission to include a clear objective of rehabilitation and social reintegration, this would only be a first step towards a more humane and integrated prison system.

Indeed, changes in discourse are more related to symbolic processes than to structural modifications. The care and supervision of inmates are one of the primary goals of correctional services. To this end, it is necessary, as stipulated in article 10.3 of the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, that “the penitentiary system shall consist of a treatment whose essential purpose shall be reform and rehabilitation” (1976).

For this reason, it is also necessary that, once they are immersed in a context of confinement, inmates receive appropriate prison and post-prison tools and programmes to enable them to benefit from rehabilitation and reintegration into society.

One of the tasks of prison management is supposed to be using the time of incarcerated persons to provide them with the necessary skills to increase their chances of finding work, accommodation and establish support mechanisms that they can use in the community once they are released.

It has not yet been demonstrated that deprivation of liberty alone can directly contribute to the reduction of crime. However, many practitioners and academics still doubt that reducing recidivism rates should be the main objective of prison systems (1). In any case, budgets for rehabilitation programmes face constant challenges and constraints.

Over the past decade, some countries have raised expectations about the contribution that establishments can make to crime reduction strategies. In fact, the increasing number of inmates and high levels of recidivism have become part of a vicious circle of increasing levels of violence in society. For example, existing research shows high rates of recidivism, ranging from 10.4% in El Salvador to 68.7% in Chile (2).

The public policy response was to design specific programmes and educational activities (3) with the understanding that they could make a difference in the lives of inmates. In Latin America, prison is still considered a place and space for punishment, which relegates rehabilitation and social reintegration to a disadvantageous position.

Existing data reveal that institutions are violent, vulnerable and precarious, and contradict themselves in relation to their institutional missions. Despite this precariousness, some prisons have rehabilitation and reintegration programmes, although there is still very little evidence of their effectiveness.

Despite the structural problems that the system faces in Latin America, there are many cases of innovation in relation to special rehabilitation programmes for inmates. Most programmes lack institutional funding, are limited in scope or are in the early stages of evaluation but show the possibility of developing coherent initiatives even under the most adverse conditions.

Rehabilitation, in the criminal context, refers to the idea that the offender is a person “with a disease in the social sphere” who should be rehabilitated. The term has been the subject of extensive debate since the early 1970s. As noted above, criminologists are rather sceptical about the effectiveness of reforming offenders through criminal policy. At the time, studies about rehabilitation impact indicated that a few interventions had minimal effect on subsequent criminal behaviour; this period was called Nothing Works (4).

In the early 1980s, there was a paradigm shift process associated with the What Works movement, which was based on studies demonstrating the effectiveness of rehabilitation in prisons, understanding that social adaptation is the most effective strategy for post-prison prevention. This line of thinking suggested that rehabilitation tends to focus on three factors, in which:

  • Intervention is explicitly planned or assumed; it is not simply an accidental event;
  • Objectives focus on the modification of behavioural aspects of the offender that are believed to cause his or her criminality, such as attitudes, cognitive processes, personality or mental health processes, social relationships, educational skills, vocational training and employment;
  • It is expected that the offender will decrease his or her likelihood of committing criminal offences in the future (5).

The above factors or criminal needs, such as criminal attitudes and employment skills, are expected to have a positive effect on offenders. Therefore, the change proposed by the What Works theory goes hand in hand with the assumption that eliminating the underlying causes of criminal activity is essential for a successful resocialisation programme.

This achievement requires the implementation of complex measures, such as risk assessment and the implementation of special individualised intervention programmes aimed at eliminating criminal factors.

The What Works line of thinking focuses on five areas that are essential for rehabilitation: a) Evaluation, b) Treatment, c) Drug monitoring and detection (in the treatment of drug addicts), d) Concomitant disorders, and e) Relapse prevention.

Taking these elements into account, system-level interventions can be targeted at the entire population of the community (population-based and community-based), at systems affecting those populations, and/or individuals and families. The first intervention changes norms, attitudes, awareness, practices and behaviours in the community. A change in the system usually has a more effective and lasting impact than a personal change.

Considering the capacity of the standard punishment at prisons, in Latin America, it is necessary for the exercise of rehabilitation to become the central nucleus of change in criminal behaviour, in order to exert a positive influence on the personal abilities and capacities of offenders (6).

Furthermore, the duties of prison service do not end in the provision of rehabilitation tools during the period of confinement but should also include post-prison programmes. In other words, the support provided to offenders during the initial process of reintegration into society is key in order to position them in productive sectors that allow for labour sustainability.

Coyle, A. (2009). A Human Rights Approach to Prison Management. Handbook for prison staff. London: International Centre for Prison Studies.
(2) It should be borne in mind that there is no standardised criterion for measuring recidivism. UNDP. (2013). Comparative study of the prison population. New York.
(3) The learning of a trade, educational levelling, religious programs, recreational activities, among others.
(4) CESC. (2008). Prison Debates 06. Prison Debates, 1-3.
(5) Cullen, F. T., & Gendreau, P. (2000). Assessing Correctional Rehabilitation: Policy, Practice, and Prospect. Policies, Processes, and Decisions of the Criminal Justice System. (p. 109-175 ). Washington: National Institute of Justice; U.S Department of Justice.
(6) Vermeulen, G., & Dewree, E. (2014). Offender Reintegration and Rehabilitation as a Component of International Criminal Justice? Antwerpen; Apeldoorn; Portland: Maklu


Lucía Dammert is a sociologist and holds a PhD in Political Science from the University of Leiden, The Netherlands. She is an Associate Professor at the University of Santiago de Chile. She has published articles and books on community participation, citizen security and social conflict, among other topics, on both a national and international level. Between 2005 and 2010, she served as Director of the Security and Citizenship Programme of FLACSO Chile. She has participated in citizen security programmes in several countries of the region and has advised several governments and the Organization of American States. She has also acted as a consultant for the Inter-American Development Bank, the World Bank and the United Nations Development Programme, among other regional and multilateral organisations. She is the only representative of Latin America at the United Nations Secretary-General’s Advisory Board on Disarmament Matters for the 2017-2020 period. 

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