Rewarding Positive Behavior Promotes Reform in Prisoners
We have heard it from childhood: If you do the right thing, you are rewarded. If you do the wrong thing, you are punished. We are further socialized in this thinking when we earn college scholarships for good grades, lower insurance rates for good driving, and higher wages for good work, to name a few examples. We also receive failing grades when we don’t study, get tickets for speeding, and lose jobs for poor performance. 

Most people appreciate positive reinforcement and try to avoid punishments. If we make poor choices, well, we pick ourselves up and work hard for the positive reinforcement again. Few people would argue against this system–reward good behavior with positive things, and deter bad behavior with negative things. 

Prison is a negative thing meant to deter bad behavior. People who end up in prison are here because we did something that the law required to be punished. Prison itself is the punishment, but ought that punishment continue within prison? Shouldn’t prison be used as a place of reform by encouraging good behavior using positive reinforcement and discouraging bad behavior with punishments? Unfortunately, people who come to prison continue to be punished for their crime once they are here, and positive reinforcement is scantily used. 

Take, for example, my friend who received five days’ loss of privilege (LOP) for having a single tomato on his windowsill last summer. This was a very minor infraction that required nothing more than corrective instruction, or if he refused to correct the behavior, something more; however, he received nearly the maximum allowable punishment for the least severe class of misconduct–after going ticket-free for five years. This gross disparity for a minor infraction is a classic example of corrections staff using large “sticks” for correction–it’s an abuse of power. These same staff members also complain or antagonize prisoners when they receive positive reinforcement, such as being allowed to take part in college programs or vocational training, two excellent examples of positive reinforcement for prisoners who have shown they can follow the rules. 

Prison as a punishment for crime ought to be used as a deterrent. But behavior is best changed through the use of positive reinforcement. This includes positive reinforcement within prison–praise, extra privileges, and looser restrictions, for example. The strongest incentive that Michigan’s prisoners had to behave well, was eliminated by referendum when good time was abolished and by legislative action, when disciplinary credits were done away with. 

If prison is to be more than simply punishment, if it is to be a place of rehabilitation as well, Michigan must (re)introduce more positive reinforcements for positive behavior changes. Bringing back PELL grants (even provisionally) is a good start, but Michigan can do more to reduce its corrections budget by bringing back good time and disciplinary credits. Studies have shown that longer prison terms do nothing to lower re-offense rates, and those who show positive changes in their behavior should have that transformation reinforced with reductions in prison sentences. 

Let’s keep deterring crime, but let’s also reinforce positive changes prisoners make to become productive, contributing members of a free society. 

For more information about a current package of bills in the Michigan House of Representatives to reinstate good time credits, contact your state representative and ask about House Bills 5665, 5666, and 5667. You may also search these bills at

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Author: Bryan Noonan
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The opinions expressed within posts and comments are solely those of each author, and are not necessarily those of Women Against Registry. Women Against Registry reserves the right to edit or delete any content submitted.