What Constitutes “Good Behavior” in Prison?

Answers to your questions about the news.
May 24 2012 5:36 PM

What Constitutes “Good Behavior” in Prison?

A guide to early release for Dharun Ravi.

Rutgers University student Dharun Ravi was convicted of bias intimidation after spying on his roommate, Tyler Clementi, during a romantic encounter.
Former Rutgers student Dharun Ravi has been sentenced to 30 days in jail, but can get out early for good behavior

Photo by Mark Dye/REUTERS/Newscom.

Dharun Ravi, the Rutgers student convicted of invasion of privacy and other charges after the suicide of roommate Tyler Clementi, was sentenced to 30 days in jail, 300 hours of community service, sensitivity training, and $11,000 in fees on Monday. Ravi could be released from jail after just 20 days if he does his chores and maintains “good behavior.” What constitutes good behavior in jail?

Making the bed, showing up for the head count, and keeping bodily fluids to yourself. On his first day at Middlesex County jail, Ravi will receive a list of prohibited acts that could result in what correctional officials call “institutional charges.” A disciplinary committee, made up of officials from the jail, rules on such charges and decides whether an inmate loses good-behavior credit, and how much. The list of prohibited behaviors in jail handbooks is long, but most of the offenses are obvious, like assault, extortion, hostage taking, “throwing bodily fluids,” indecent exposure, and drug possession. Some violations, however, are specific to prison life, such as possessing a mobile phone, “engaging in sexual acts with others,” “possession of money or currency,” “using abusive or obscene language to a staff member,” “failing to stand count,” loaning possessions, tattooing, and wearing a disguise. (Although, technically, several states prohibit disguises on public streets as well.) Failing to make the bed or mop the floor can also get a prisoner in trouble, as New Jersey jails prohibit “unsanitary or untidy” cells.

Simply following house rules is enough to get you good-behavior credits in New Jersey county jails. To be considered for parole from longer sentences, however, prisoners typically have to convince state boards that they have engaged actively in prison life. In New Jersey, for example, the parole board combines an inmate’s record of adherence to prison rules with his or her participation in work, education, and rehabilitation programs to come up with a somewhat subjective ranking of overall behavior. The four-point scale goes from “poor” to “above average.”

Advertisement

American prisons have been letting out well-behaved inmates early since 1817. The practice, also known as “good time” or “gain time,” was conceived as a substitute for the widespread use of executive pardons. In recent years, prison watchers say good-behavior credit has been increasingly used to alleviate overcrowding, with wardens sometimes releasing poorly behaved prisoners under the “good time” system just to get them out of the way.

Critics argue that the system grants individual prison officials too much discretion over an inmate’s sentence. In New Jersey, for example, there are a handful of somewhat vague prison rules—like “refusing to obey an order of any staff member” or malingering—that open the door to arbitrary or discriminatory enforcement. A national study in 1982 suggested that discriminatory enforcement might be a problem, because young, unmarried inmates were more likely to be punished than other inmates who faced disciplinary proceedings.

Advocates of the good behavior system argue that it provides an incentive for a prisoner to keep his or her head down and follow the rules, but there are few data to support the claim. One study of California prison inmates showed that expanding good-behavior credit opportunities had no impact on prison discipline. They don't have much impact on the crime rate outside of prison, either.

Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.

Video Explainer: Why Don't Women Sing in a Falsetto?

This video was produced from an original Explainer by Will Oremus. Want more questions answered? You can now watch video Explainers at Slate's News Channel on YouTube.

Brian Palmer is Slate's chief explainer. He also writes How and Why and Ecologic for the Washington Post. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.