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At the end of their legislative session, Vermont lawmakers charged the Department of Corrections to “develop a strategy and long-term plan to address systemic racism, bias, and diversity and inclusion.” While this is a noble goal, it is worth remembering that many well-intentioned policies end up hurting the very persons they were intended to protect. In the rush to end a social injustice, lawmakers too often resort to mandates, rather than respecting an individual’s dignity.

I speak from experience. Soon after Vermont passed its version of the Violence Against Women Act, those of us working in the shelters discovered the bitter truth of criminal justice reform: in winning the legislative battle, we had diminished women’s autonomy. Prior to VAWA, a woman controlled the legal process. She could drop the case. She could decide to return to her partner and the state left her alone. After VAWA, a “No Drop” policy was instituted. Women who filed more than one restraining order were investigated by child protective services. Yes, the state was taking domestic violence seriously but that didn’t translate into respecting the choices of women within their relationships.

The proposal to change the Department of Corrections from one of surveillance and punishment to a “human services approach” sounds humane in theory, but what will that look like in practice? Under the condition of state supervision, interactions with human services can feel like just another form of coercion. Consider the difference between attending a 12-step program because you realize that your life has become unmanageable and being mandated to attend because it is a condition of your release.

Not surprisingly, studies have shown that mandating what should be voluntary behavior reduces the effectiveness of the lesson. The psychological theory behind this is known as “self-direction theory.” If you respect a person’s decision-making capabilities, they are more likely to feel included in our common life.

This is particularly true for trainings designed to reduce racial or ethnic prejudices. In 2011, psychologists at the University of Toronto published an article in a peer-review journal, entitled “The Ironic Effects of Anti-Prejudice Messaging” which surveyed 100 non-Black undergraduates who had participated in two types of “prejudice-reducing interventions.” Programs that emphasized external control did not just fail at decreasing prejudice, they created more explicit and implicit prejudice than not doing anything at all. By contrast, programs that gave participants the “autonomous motivation” to regulate their prejudice, displayed less explicit and implicit bias than doing nothing at all. The authors observe that “despite the billions of dollars spent annually on prejudice-reduction interventions, prejudice is rarely reduced.” The irony is that mandatory trainings reliably backfired. Instead of achieving the results the university desired, these trainings actually made things worse.

Another popular intervention for reducing prejudice is the use of implicit-bias tests. One gubernatorial candidate declared that, if elected, their administration would mandate implicit bias tests for all state employees. Not only does this policy suffer from the absence of self-direction, the test itself was never designed to be used in this manner.

Mahzarin Banaji, the scientist who developed Harvard’s on-line questionnaire, has publicly distanced herself from most of the current applications. She created the test so that police departments could get a general sense of the atmospheric prejudices in their precincts in order to respond more rationally. Much to Banaji’s chagrin, this toolbox has become a diagnostic tool of personal failure. Problems rooted in prejudice, Banaji told The Hidden Brain reporter Shankar Vedantam, cannot be solved by finger-pointing. “One of the difficulties we’ve had in the past is that we have looked at individual people and blamed individual people. We’ve said if we can remove these 10 bad police officers from this force, we’ll be fine. And we know as social scientists — and I believe firmly — that that is no way to change anything.”

Rather than increase racial prejudices with mandated programs, I hope that the Department of Corrections uses a community-based public-health approach for serious discriminatory behavior. Using the template of the Turning Point, which dignifies its members with the grace of self-direction, Vermont might try “meeting white supremacists where they are.” Instead of spending money on professional anti-racist trainers, DOC might provide support for racist recovery coaches, inmates within the general population who have come to see how their lives were restricted by their prejudices and now want to help others make that transition.

I can already hear the counter-argument. People with addictions are compelled out of necessity to change their behavior. White racists feel no such compulsion. It is up to the state to confront them with their racial privileges and their blind spots! To which I reply, you are right that racism does not necessarily lead to an awareness that one’s life sorely diminished; you are misguided if you think that mandated trainings will help.

I also urge the Department of Corrections not to mandate implicit-bias tests or anti-racism workshops for their employees. Being forced to sit through a workshop or to take an on-line survey has a tendency to increase resistance to the lesson. Instead, I suggest you follow the template of Paolo Freire, who begins with open-ended questions to draw out the first-level of intelligence. What strategies have corrections officers used to get beyond initial prejudices?

Luckily, Vermont’s Department of Corrections is already guided by the principle of self-direction. DOC’s stated purpose is to “render treatment to offenders with the goal of achieving their successful return and participation as citizens of the State and community.” Giving individuals the space to reach their own conclusions is the guarantee of citizenship. People who recite the dogma of the rulers are subjects. People who think for themselves are citizens. Given that noble goal, I hope that DOC will not bend to the political pressures of the moment but will keep steering in the direction of dignity.

Meg Mott teaches politics at Emerson College and is Putney’s Town Moderator. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.


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