TRENDSPOTTING – Motivating the Village


At the sixth annual Kids Philosophy Slam in May, a young woman named Mindy Lu from the famous Milton Hershey School was asked the question: “Which is more powerful, fear or hope?” She answered with a prize-winning argument that outlined why fear trumps hope every time.

According to this violinist and future architectural student, “Fear is what really gets people to act, to make things change.” Since reading the article, I have spent more than just a little time thinking about her response relative to my personal and professional life.

Since summer is here, maybe we can afford a few relaxed moments to ask that question relative to the state of corrections. Just what does motivate prisoners’ behavior and how should our answer impact the choices a society makes on the management and design of prisons?

Operating from Fear

Ask 10 people to describe the mission of corrections and don’t be surprised if a larger percentage responds that fear is either a part of the purpose or a result derived from incarceration. After all, one of the three most recognized aims of incarceration is punishment, and the very word has a fearful context. Inmates feel it; staff feels it; and, evidently, neighborhoods within a shrinking radius of a facility feel it. I would not risk arguing that the emotions of any of the three villagers are baseless, but that we often use the fear to “make things change” to restrict the search for innovation in our correctional systems.

As an example, take the controversial issue of the private sector’s role in the management of prisons or the supervision of offenders in the community. The United States initiated the modern version of private management in the mid-1980s and, among the world systems, remains at the top of the bed-space count. A dozen other nations are now following our lead by including privately managed facilities and services within their systems. Yet, for a variety of reasons, politicians, administrators, correctional officers and the public fear the emergence of this concept as a mainstream solution.

I have limited experience with private prisons in America, but had the opportunity to become involved from the early days in the United Kingdom. A major difference between our two approaches is that the United Kingdom established a role for the private sector through public policy while the United States leaves individual jurisdictions to be persuaded by the interventions of fearless private entrepreneurs.

Audited outcomes appear to reflect the different attitudes towards the private sector’s role. This is not to suggest that the private sector’s role in corrections is universally welcomed in the United Kingdom. However, several independent audits of publicly and privately managed prisons have substantiated Sir Winston Churchill’s pronouncement that “we have nothing to fear but fear itself.”

Even as the most entrepreneurial nation ever conceived, the United States has remained steadfastly reticent about embracing a significant role for the private sector in managing correctional facilities. The question is whose fear, and of what, drives this sanctioned reluctance. While not for a moment suggesting that the public sector is not task-worthy, the thesis is that to “make things change,” shouldn’t we welcome the innovation of the private sector as a partner rather than a profit-inspired predator? The intersection of private sector innovation and public sector practicality could offer corrections the best opportunity to acknowledge the values of our society regarding human potential. An investment in hope is a critical requirement to achieve this intersection.

Hope Springs Eternal

While recently helping a foreign government choose a private firm to manage a new large prison, visits were made to private facilities in the United States and the United Kingdom. Politicians and correctional officials who fear that the private sector is incapable of managing prisons with at least the same zeal and skill as the public sector would do well to afford themselves a tour of a few private prisons. (By the way, gaining access to private facilities on either side of the Atlantic proved to be much less complicated than an invitation to tour public prisons).

The overarching characteristic of the private prisons is the evidence of hope acknowledged by staff and prisoners alike. Staff who had never been in a prison before leaving the coal mines in South Wales spoke passionately about their responsibility to not only supervise prisoners, but to participate with them in the painful process of change. Inmates in northern Ohio spoke freely of a partnership with staff in jointly working toward a common goal of skilled employment following release. In the United Kingdom Midlands, a former national snooker champion turned prison director manages an establishment of more than 1,000 high- and medium-custody occupants with such innovation and imagination that the facility received the coveted Business Excellence Award for 2004. In all three of these instances, the corporate emphasis upon hope as the motivator has produced measurable results.

Most of us recognize that hope requires a belief that the “playing field” is close to level; that given a reasonable expectation of fair play, we have at least an even chance of achieving our goals. Obtaining our goals, then, becomes a combination of our choices and prevailing circumstances. Imprisonment emphasizes this and to not level the playing field for private sector innovation is to minimize, to some degree, the expectation of hope.

The Courage to Leap

While preparing this article, I contacted a longtime California friend who experienced fear and hope up close and personal in Vietnam as a combat-decorated Navy Seal. Harry Munyon, of TRG Consulting, said that for him the fear of failing to meet a responsibility combined with an optimism derived from hope was his major motivation, even in the worst of situations. He added that something beyond both fear and hope, however, drives the chance of success, and that is the undercurrent of belief, or faith, that all the preparation has brought you to the point of accomplishing the mission.

These privately managed prisons provided specific examples of how individual and collective belief systems, inspired by hope rather than fear, are changing the patterns of re-offending. The public sector can and does accomplish similar results, but the historical fear of the private sector’s motives has left this imaginative and capable resource largely untapped.

The youthful observations of Mindy Lu led her to conclude that fear is a better motivator of change than hope. We all should spend a little time answering this question. But relative to the future of corrections, why should we fear innovative options from public or private sources?

The ability to inspire individual and collective hope, to offer a sense of optimism that rehabilitation is not only possible, but essential, is not the sole responsibility of the government. Obviously, a village is required. Experiencing the feeling of hope through the words of privately managed prisoners informed me that the private sector deserves more than a token role in the process of change. n

Stephen A. Carter, AICP, is principal of Carter Goble Lee LLC in Columbia, S.C.



%d bloggers like this: