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Three Concepts of Rehabilitation
By Gary F. Cornelius, First Lt. (Retired)
Published: 06/08/2020

Inmateclass2 scalled In corrections, we often hear the word rehabilitation. That word and ones similar to it are seen a lot in corrections. A citizen asks a jail superintendent ‘What types of rehabilitation programs does your jail offer inmates?’ A jail education teacher states that by attending her class, the inmates have a chance at rehabilitating themselves. Moreover, let us not forget the inmate who tells the judge that he is working hard at his ‘rehabilitation’. In November 2015, I wrote a column for the Corrections Connection: ‘Volunteers, Change and Cupid the Cat’. In this column, I would like to discuss change in more depth, as well as three concepts. They are rehabilitation, change and narcissism.

In my career, I have had the privilege of working in two areas: jail programs and teaching a college jails class. In both, I had to deal with the word rehabilitate followed by the word change. These two concepts are interrelated-to be rehabilitated, or go from behaving in a criminal way to a positive, law-abiding way, requires an inmate to change his or her ways. In addition, changing bad behavior to good behavior, specifically concerning criminal acts, is a big step on the road to rehabilitation. Unfortunately, many inmates are narcissistic-and have no interest in rehabilitation.

The first concept is the word rehabilitate, which has a clear, rather profound definition. According to Webster-Merriam Dictionary, the transitive verb rehabilitate means:
  • To restore to a former capacity, state or to good repute, such as becoming a law-abiding citizen.
  • To restore, or bring to a former capacity of good health or useful, productive activity.
In a jail, an inmate who is a substance abuser can sign up for alcohol or drug addiction programs, such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous. If inmates cannot read, jail programs are available to teach them how. If some do not have a high school diploma, jails offer GED programs. Some jails offer programs where crime victims talk to inmates about how crime has had an effect on their lives. Many jails offer vocational programs giving inmates opportunities to learn a marketable trade. Religion is also important- I have encountered, as well as many of you-inmates who have found solace, hope and guidance in religious programs. These include the Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths. As I have told jail staff, my students and my in-service classes-if an inmate is participating sincerely in religious programs-and means it-he or she most likely will not give you any problems. That is also true with participation in many jail programs.

In our careers, we all have seen some, and unfortunately not all, inmates look at themselves, the hole that they have dug for themselves, and the realization that their lives are slipping away. Some become bitter and angry, blaming others, but never blaming themselves. Some become manipulative and scheme to use programs as tools to gain sympathy or favors from staff or leniency from the courts. However, some seriously make the decision to be rehabilitated. They may not use that term, but may say that they are ‘tired of this ____’, or ‘this life is not paying off for me; my family needs me, etc.’ They see their children growing up, their families missing them, and realize that they have to do something. If they do not, they will continue going to jail, do longer stretches of time or may die, for example, from a drug overdose. Moreover, there are many staff and volunteers that can help them change their lives-if they want it. That is the one concept of rehabilitation, making the choice to do what is right for them and their loved ones. Many succeed.

Now let us discuss the word change, the second concept of rehabilitation. The dictionary defines change as to make different in some particular [way], to transform, make radically different, and to make a shift from one [position, behavior, etc.] to another.

Many inmates say to the counselors, jail deputies, volunteers, judges, etc., that they have ‘changed’. Saying that you have changed is ‘lip service’: inmates can make it sound sincere, honest and heartfelt. Many inmates wear ‘masks’ of remorse and contriteness to suit the situation and by doing so, try to gain the advantage for themselves. To the probation officer who is writing his presentence investigation report or the sentencing judge-the inmate sincerely says that he is making a change; he is changing, and so on. The end game is to get sympathy, a lighter sentence, a program instead of incarceration, a trusty position in the jail-who knows?

During my career as a jail deputy, including serving as a programs director and an adjunct college teacher, I was asked often my thoughts about inmates changing. Do I believe an inmate when he or she says that they have ‘changed’? Not necessarily. Why, I am asked. I discuss the following. Anyone–sworn or non-sworn-that interacts with inmates should ask several questions that counter the original question:

What efforts has the inmate actually made to change? Has he or she signed up for a program, attended regularly and completed the work? Has he or she stayed out of trouble in the facility? Have they participated in a program? Has he foregone the unit card game or the recreation basketball game to attend class? Have they taken the pre-GED test, for example, received a bad score and given up? Or-have they decided to try harder. Have they signed up for programs that can assist them post-release? Are they communicating with their families and making plans to stay out of trouble after release?

So the question is concerning inmates, rehabilitation and change-what is change? Change requires work. Change requires effort. So-now we know what rehabilitation is and is not, as well as what change is and is not. Rehabilitation and change require sincere effort; change is not just saying it, it is what the inmate actually does. The clearest example that I can remember is from my days as a jail programs director. An inmate with a drug history had to see me. He implored me to help him get into a drug program that we offered at the jail. His sentencing date is coming up, he says and he needs a program. I asked him one question: when is your sentencing date? In two weeks, he replied. How long have you been here, I inquired? He told me 6 months. So-a lesson here! He sits around for six months, taking advantage of television, card games, etc. However, WHOA! Court is coming and he has to show that he is participating in a rehabilitation program! It will look good. I told him to follow protocol and send in a request form-like everybody else-he receives no special favors.

Rehabilitation, Change and Narcissism

When discussing rehabilitation of inmates, a corrections professional must consider narcissism, the third concept when looking at rehabilitation. A good discussion of this can be found by Dr. Alan Godwin at People Problems, www.peopleproblems.org. He writes an ongoing column, The Drama Review in Relationships and Culture. I highly recommend it. In December 2019, he posted a column about rehabilitation (‘rehab’) and narcissism. He writes that often we hear of a celebrity being caught doing a despicable activity. The media reports that he or she enters ‘rehab’ and will be out of the spotlight for a while. After a time, the celebrity reemerges and resumes his or her career. The despicable behavior is mostly forgotten.

For some people-the sincere ones, rehabilitation and recovery are real. For others, they are worried more about their reputations being ‘rehabbed’. These-the manipulators-exploit the ‘rehab’ process for their own self-serving motivations. They want themselves to look good and by doing so, keep up an appearance of ‘change’. Jail staffs see this. For example, in substance abuse programs, the inmate may blame the police for arresting him, his family for not helping him, the probation officer for revoking his probation, his boss for firing him, and so on. It is always someone else’s fault-but he will go to rehab. Why? It looks good; he looks sincere. He can say: “See? I am trying.’ Dr. Godwin states-and I agree-that the manipulative inmate in ‘rehab’ is interested in ‘image repair’, and does not have the ‘guts’ to dig deep and grapple with the root causes of his problem behavior. He will not seriously humble himself; self-disclose his behavior and engage in transparency. While other inmates ‘bare their souls’, the schemer learns the right things to say, the right body language to mimic, and easily blames others. In court, he expects to be complimented for his ‘effort’, and likes the accolades and praise from the staff. The fact is that he has ‘buffaloed them with BS’. Dr. Godwin calls this a ‘surface level dusting’.

In closing, these concepts mean several things to the corrections officers and staff:
  • Do not take the inmate’s talk of change at face value. Hang back a little and see what efforts and actions the inmate actually does. The old adage is true; actions do speak louder than words.
  • Respect the programs staff: Many can see right through this type of fake ‘change’. Moreover, they continue their efforts. Sometimes, it becomes clear that the inmate is not sincere-and staff has to move on to inmates who do want to be rehabilitated.
  • Remember that not all inmates are like this. Many want to get a handle on their negative behavior, be released, go on productively with their lives-and stay out of jail.
  • These observations must be made clear to all staff in the jail, including volunteers. In my career, I have come to know and respect many good volunteers and programs staff. They give their time and talents to help inmates-but they need to know that the appearance of wanting to change may not be sincere in many cases. In my jail volunteer trainings, I discuss these views, not to discourage volunteers and program staffs, but to give them a sense of awareness.
Thank you for reading this and remember-rehabilitation does exist-only if the inmate wants it.


Godwin, Dr. Alan. “The Drama Review: in Relationships and Culture. December 15, 2019. People Problems, https://peopleproblems.org/
Merriam-Webster Dictionary. https://www.merriam-webster.com/

Lt. Gary F. Cornelius retired in 2005 from the Fairfax County (VA) Office of the Sheriff, after serving over 27 years in the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center. His prior service in law enforcement included service in the United States Secret Service Uniformed Division. His jail career included assignments in confinement, work release, programs and classification.

He has been an adjunct faculty member of the Criminology, Law and Society Department at George Mason University since 1986, where he has taught four corrections courses. He also teaches corrections in service sessions throughout Virginia, and has performed training and consulting for the American Correctional Association, the American Jail Association and the National Institute of Justice. His latest book, The Correctional Officer: A Practical Guide: Third Edition was published in April 2017 by Carolina Academic Press. He has authored several other books in corrections. Gary has received a Distinguished Alumnus Award in Social Science from his alma mater, Edinboro University of Pennsylvania and an Instructor Appreciation Award from George Mason University.


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