Token Economy; Prisoners living the life of luxury?

Token Economy is a treatment program aimed at ‘unlearning’ maladaptive behaviour and replacing it with a more desirable one. It works on the principles of operant conditioning; in a nutshell, people will do good things if you reinforce them.


 The idea is that prisons draw up a list of all the actions they would like to see the inmates carrying out e.g. doing chores, complying with rules, and interacting positively. In return, for each good thing they do they receive a token. This elusive token can be exchanged for reinforcers such as sweets, yard time, fizzy drinks, and maybe even visits home.

 To me this just sounds far to patronising, prisoners are not children and this kind of a system is just simply too primative. Studies have shown that it works in the short term; it does reduce aggression, and the prisoners do comply with the rules. Hobbs and Holt (1976) found that when they introduced a token economy system in three juvenile delinquent centres there was a significant increase in the desired behaviours, compared to the control. However, Cohen and Flipjack (1971) recorded that, although delinquents who had been under a token economy system were less likely to reoffend after one year, after three all postive effects had diminished.

 In my opinion token economy is just a short term solution to a long term problem. Although it may reduce aggression in prisons, making the jobs of the officers a lot easier, it does nothing to reform the prisoners. My objection to token economy  is not along the lines of the tabloids; outraged that prisoners receive sweets and free time, perhaps believing instead it should be all punishment. Infact, it seems to me from my (not yet very intensive) studies of Psychology that punishment does little other than harbouring resentment and making people that little bit more twisted.

Perhaps the ideal solution would be one where prisoners are helped to change in the long term. It doesn’t seem very clever to me, and I may just be young and naive, that when angry and aggressive people do angry and  aggressive things we lock them up miles away from civilisation with lots of other angry and aggressive people, then let them fester in it. The label of prisoner is also hard to escape once they are free.

In an ideal world perhaps a better solution would be to help these people, try to introduce them to yoga or other areas of spirituality and education. Help them to educate themselves in all kinds of ways and not look down on them. Although I am fully aware I appear to be living in my own rose tinted world, where prisoners like to contort their bodies and become at one with their minds; however, perhaps that is the job of the young generation, to be open minded and suggest new things. Even if they are slightly far fetched 😛

Update: mark has done a post ‘prisoners on the path to enlightenment’ go check it out 😀