Prison reform in the context of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

I’m still thinking about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, but this time, I’d like to explore how that concept can be applied to prisons, or what are formally known as “correctional facilities”. As I’ve mentioned in a past post, the US has the highest incarceration rate in the world and one of the highest recidivism rates in the world at 60% or better.

As more prisons are privatized, the prison system in the United States has become a cash cow for the companies and unions that run them. Our correctional facilities have a revolving door for everyone that is on good behavior and a closed door for those who are not. It’s sort of a Hotel California, only not so nice. Privatizing prisons into profit centers has a corrupting influence on public policy and seems to lead to an interesting bias. When prisons become profit centers, the bias is on getting people into prisons, not keeping them out.

I see also that President Obama is the first sitting president to visit a federal prison and he’s talking about prison reform. It’s good that he’s taking a good long hard look at the problem, because we have a problem that’s been growing for 20 years and counting. Even former President Clinton admits he made a mistake by signing into law stricter and heavier sentencing guidelines for judges with very little latitude to work with.

It would seem that since then, the idea was to make prisons a hell hole and make it much harder to avoid — but if you have money — hey, you’re cool. You get probation. You get the country club prison. You’re isolated from the violent criminals doing hard time.

So let’s review Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs again. Here’s the same graphic I showed a few days ago:

Of the accounts I’ve read about prisons, prisoners can pretty much forget about anything above the first two levels of needs. Even safety is in question if a prisoner is stuck in a cell with a really big guy named “Bubba”. There is no privacy in American prison cells. Well, unless you’re in isolated confinement. Then you’re perfectly safe until you’ve gone for a few weeks without seeing sunshine or a human face. Privacy is a basic human need that is mostly denied in prison.

American prisons are not interested in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. They are interested in denying prisoners their needs except for the basic physiological needs. They treat prisoners like animals and seem uniquely designed for that purpose. Humans rose above animals because they developed the capacity to love and be loved. But in prison, love is denied. Fellowship is denied. And forget about real job training so that you can make a living when you get out. Prisons seem to be designed for job security at a buck a day.

Contrast that environment to Norway. In Norway, their recidivism rate is about 20%. Prisoners are taught skills to take care of themselves. They are given space to live in private. They can cook their own food, and are provided with their own private bathroom. They are treated as humans and are expected to act like one when they get out. They have skills to get a job when they get out. Prisoners in Norway are treated like adults, not adolescents.

Adolescence is often when people who go to prison first get a taste of what that is like. Adolescents can be the most challenging people we encounter. But they are also instructive in why we send them to prison when they commit crimes. Most crimes in America are committed during adolescence or during young adulthood, so if we’re going to fix the prison problem I think we should start there.

I believe that it’s time to change the way we think about challenging kids. Rather than assume they are challenging because they want to be, perhaps we might be better off understanding that when we’re confronted with a challenge from a young person, we’re dealing with someone who lacks the skills to adapt to the situation. They have a need but cannot articulate the need, so they offer up a challenge instead.

A few days ago, I happened upon a website called “Lives in the Balance”. I’ve been watching the videos and reading the materials and as a parent, I’m fascinated with this approach to raising kids, even challenging kids.

The organization is headed by Dr. Ross Greene, PhD, a man with more than 20 years of experience working with kids. His organization’s web site is a treasure trove of information on how kids behave and how to respond to challenging behavior. The overarching theme is that whether or not kids behave well is not a question of motivation. It is a question of ability. Kids do well if they can. If they can’t, then there is a lag in their ability to be flexible and adapt to the situation. They offer up a challenge when they lack the skills needed to adapt to the situation.

Adult criminals do the same thing. People turn to crime not because they want to, they do it because they think they have to. In our culture it’s easy to turn to “original sin” and think that people are just born bad. I disagree. People are born innocent. Almost everything we know about ourselves we learn from someone else.

I know this after watching the birth and subsequent growth of my two daughters. They are watching me and what I do when I’m around. They are watching their mother and how she interacts with me and them. They are learning how to live from me and their mother.

As a father, my job is to create an environment where their physical and safety needs are met. Then I work on love and belonging. I let them know every day that I love them in some way. I start my day with the intention to err on the side of peace and kindness with them. When the house is quiet and drama free, they can relax, absorb the environment and learn while they interact.

But when they present a challenge, it is my job to remember that the challenge means they are not able to respond to the demands of the of their environment. I will admit that what I learned from Dr. Greene is not new to me. For a long time, I’ve known about this way of life, but have not been able to articulate it until now.

As a country, if we really want to reform our prisons, we need to stop making the assumption that people aren’t motivated to do better. I believe that people are always motivated to do better, they just don’t know how. Instead, we can assume that when people are not capable of doing better, that the desire to do better has always been there, but the skills to do better are not. Better to assume ignorance before malice.

When our needs are met, we can learn and not before then. Getting our needs met is a skill that we must teach our children to keep them out of prison.

This is true of adults inside and outside of prison. Norway has proven that if you help the prisoner meet their needs by giving them the skills they need to get their needs met, they are less likely to return to prison. Dr. Greene proves that if you teach kids the skills they need to cope with the challenges they face, they will be far less likely to see the walls of a prison.

The question of prison reform is not a question of skills. It’s a question of motivation. We can choose between money and compassion. If we choose money, then we will get more of the last 20 years. If we choose compassion, we can help to end the suffering of millions of incarcerated Americans and prevent the suffering of countless more.

Originally published at on September 15, 2015.

Husband, father, worker, philosopher, and observer. Plumbing the depths of consciousness to find the spring of happiness. Write on.

Husband, father, worker, philosopher, and observer. Plumbing the depths of consciousness to find the spring of happiness. Write on.