4 Questionable Tricks to Stop Convicts From Doing More Crimes

We used to give prisoners nose jobs to improve their prospects post-release
4 Questionable Tricks to Stop Convicts From Doing More Crimes

Prison is good at removing criminals from our immediate vicinity, and at giving them a bad time, but is it any good at rehabilitating them? And if it’s not good enough at that, what else can we do to reduce the chance that former prisoners will return to a life of crime?

Some people suggest a foolproof solution: Simply never release anyone from prison. Either that, or we release them all and immediately kill them. But even without turning to those measures, we have some options, which run the spectrum from “neat” to “horrifying.”

Plastic Surgery

Imagine an ex-con. Next, imagine that exact same ex-con, except now, their face has transformed to be more attractive. Would you say they’re now more or less likely to return to crime? On one hand, a sexier parolee would find some types of crime more easy (e.g., infiltrating a rich household and murdering everyone there while avoiding detection). But on the other, if they now enjoy the benefits of better looks (being treated better, a greater chance of being hired), they may now have less reason to commit crimes.

That second argument was why, during the 20th century, the American government gave half a million prisoners free cosmetic surgeries. We straightened their noses, ironed out their wrinkles and stuck in implants to strengthen their chins. Limited studies suggested that these prisoners really did go on to reoffend at lower-than-average rates. 

Stateville prison

You might find this whole concept bleak — for several reasons. Maybe you don’t like this implied link between beauty and morality. Maybe you don’t like beauty standards being officially defined and enforced. Maybe you don’t like government doctors cutting into people’s faces as a tool for social control. None of those were why the practice fell out of favor, however. That happened because a 1989 Houston Chronicle report about the surgeries sparked outrage — among people envious of the convicts. Why should they get facelifts and nose jobs, paid for by tax dollars, while the rest of us have to go without?

Earlier, a few poster boys for the program had received more sympathy. In 1948, a Cleveland burglar named John Glaefke was reported in the press like this: “His head was enormous, his ears huge and protruding, his eyes hooded and sullen, his nose grotesque, splayed, twisted like an animal’s, his mouth a monstrosity.” When the state gave him plastic surgery, he became a celebrity, and people cheered him on. The New York Times covered his eventual wedding with this headline: “‘Ugly’ Burglar Married.”

Magic Mushrooms

Psilocybin mushrooms can rewire your brain permanently, for the better. At least, that’s what advocates say, and the historical chief advocate of tripping was surely Dr. Timothy Leary. Early in the 1960s, Leary ran an experiment at Concord State Prison in Massachusetts in which doctors gave mushrooms to a bunch of prisoners up for release. 

The doctors sat with the inmates and took mushrooms right along with them. Some might say that delegitimizes the whole experiment, but Leary argued that this was essential, so the inmates saw themselves as the doctors’ equals rather than as subjects. At the time, inmates released from this prison stood a 64 percent chance of returning. With this group? The study reported that 25 percent of these men ended up back behind bars, which was a superb improvement from the norm. That settles it then. Shrooms for everyone!

Victorgrigas/Wiki Commons

Conveniently, mushrooms grow naturally on the prison’s damp walls.

That improvement was remarkable. Suspiciously remarkable, in fact. So, decades later, someone looked again at whichever prisoners could be tracked down and found that no, the improvement wasn’t nearly as good as the study claimed. Still, even if the prisoners went on to reoffend, at least they’d have more fun doing so, thanks to the mushrooms. 


When an inmate is pregnant and is due to give birth while still incarcerated, that’s not a great situation. The mother may give birth while in cuffs, the baby shower features the lamest gifts and afterward, there’s the question of where the child goes. The majority of the time, some relative of the inmate (often her parents) become the temporary guardian. The kid might also enter the foster system. But here’s an alternate idea: What if we let the mother keep the child with her in prison, at least for the first year? 

A handful of states have tried this out, and it’s not been that hard to implement, compared with all the other stuff prisons must routinely deal with. An inmate must fulfill certain conditions to be eligible for this — for example, she must not be in prison specifically for murdering babies — and it seems quite believable that taking care of your own baby might help you shed some of your antisocial tendencies. A pilot program reported that only two percent of these mothers went on to reoffend after they were released. 

crying baby

Katie Smith

Because they’d been punished more harshly than most inmates. 

The harder question isn’t whether raising a baby in prison is good for the mother but whether it’s okay for the baby. You can probably think of some obvious reasons that a prison may not be the best environment for a child’s first months, but the matter isn’t so settled as you might think. For starters, the outside home a prison baby goes to might not be so great either. Also, a prison isn’t designed to inflict general pain but to punish you by restricting your freedoms, and childcare at that age is already all about restricting their freedoms.  

We don’t know if babies fare poorly behind bars, but if they do, every parent who owns a crib is in trouble. 

Learning to Code

One big issue ex-cons face is trouble getting jobs. If every job you seek turns you down because you have a criminal record, you’ll find that your time in prison has left you with more reason to commit crimes now, not less. A program in California called the Last Mile seeks to address this by teaching prisoners tech skills like web development and video editing. The inmates emerge from prison, not just more qualified than a typical ex-con but more qualified than someone who graduates college with a B.A. 

Three-quarters of them get placed into tech jobs post-release. The more surprising part may be that some of them work as coders even while still incarcerated. And we know prison labor doesn’t have the greatest reputation, but we’re going to be so bold as to say that if you’re in San Quentin on a murder charge, working for a Silicon Valley company is actually good for your long-term prospects. Naturally, the companies benefit by paying less than the market rate for software engineers, but these prison coders were getting $16.79 an hour, even back in 2017, which is hardly slave wages. 

Prisoners work in a UNICOR (Federal Prison Industries) program producing uniforms

Federal Bureau of Prisons

The current minimum wage for Cali inmates is 8 cents an hour

Today, the Last Mile boasts a recidivism rate of less than 4 percent among the 1,200-plus inmates who have completed the program. One major problem with the program, however, is that it risks turning cool criminals into a bunch of boring nerds. We’re not sure we’re okay with that. 

Follow Ryan Menezes on Twitter for more stuff no one should see.

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