Wicked Problems: Inmate Rehabilitation and Its Possible Causes and Solutions

As part of their course LFCS01, first-year LFC students have written policy solution papers about wicked problems. Wicked problems are issues that are difficult or impossible to solve. Students were asked to detect and discuss a wicked problem and develop possible policy solutions to overcome the problem. Next we will publish some of the students’ works.

Wicked problems are defined as “complex, unpredictable, open ended, or intractable” (Head & Alford, 2015). Social problems are inherently wicked, as they are concerned with governmental and policy planning, which depend on political judgement (Ritter & Webber 1973). Therefore, they are not subject to a final solution, but demand constant reassessment. Here we present some possible causes and solutions to inmate rehabilitation.

Criminality, fragile policies, prison conditions, and societal and cultural aspects are all relevant factors in inmate rehabilitation. Criminality is the pivotal aspect that relies on imprisonment, and it can be considered as a wicked problem. Among its causes are social injustice, health issues and inequality, poverty, mental, neuropsychological and biological conditions, lack of education, impaired cognitive abilities, trauma, substance abuse, poor childhood conditions and environment. According to Watts (2013), political efforts have been aimed at tackling social exclusion and promoting social justice, whilst in fact the implemented fiscal and social policies have aggravated inequality and crime rates.

Secondly, policies to re-introduce inmates to society have proved a number of times not sufficient enough to tackle rehabilitation issues. In his work, Watts (2013) also highlights the evaluation of the criminalists’ credibility as a sensible topic. Reasons for this can be a lack of political interest in the matter, low resources, or the inadequacy of the solutions suggested. The prison conditions are a critical element that concerns several countries. Th case of Brazil provides an example of this. According to Birchall (2019), the nation has the third-highest incarcerated population and some of the most dangerous prisons. The journalist has described the country’s situation as a death scene. According to him, rebellions, gang wars, and even jails that are ruled by prisoners are the means to violence and riot. Moreover, the living conditions are deplorable, impelling in poor sanitation conditions. However, the author highlights overcrowding as the main cause of the recurrent massacres in Brazilian jails. In that sense, it is questionable how those conditions allow inmates to rehabilitate.

A decisive aspect in the struggle for inmates’ rehabilitation is society. Integration works only if the cultural and social contexts allow it. In the first research meant to provide statistics on unemployment of former prisoners in the United States, Couloute and Kopf (2018) found that this rate goes higher than 27%, which, as they point out, is “higher than the total U.S. unemployment rate during any historical period, including the Great Depression”. They highlight the role of structural obstacles faced by former inmate jobseekers, and the consequences of other wicked problems like poverty. The perceptions of inmates need to be considered and tackled in order to secure rehabilitation, but as explained above, social issues are wicked, and therefore the possibilities of finding solutions are limited.

“Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but good-or-bad” (Rittel & Webber 1973). Policymakers’ cognitive limitations and imperfect information, and time constrains limited them to understand wicked problem thoroughly (Pekkola, 2020). Their pressure to offer solutions satisfy the contradicting public opinions and preferences, the values of public easily become their values and intervene the evidence-based approaches (Cairney, 2015).

The possible policy solutions to crime prevention are adequate subsistence, habitual, holistic physical, and mental examination alongside of equal education. For rehabilitation purposes it has been studied by RAND Corporation (2013) that inmates who participated in education programmes during incarceration had 43% lower odds of re-incarceration. Thus, policies that offer equal opportunities for education and employment have positive effects on inmates and should aim to develop the individuals’ full potential in terms of morale, self- esteem, negative effects of incarceration and increase the chances of re-integration to society (UN Human Rights Council, 2009). Yet, policymaking and reforms considering wicked problems have flipsides, and the effects of educational and vocational programmes have to be observed from the humans rights perspective that prohibits slavery or forced labour with the exception of detention and community service (Humans Right’s Act, 1998), as commissioning free or cheap labour leaves room for corruption (DuVernay, 2016).

Inmate rehabilitation intrinsically includes the idea of personal change. Gunnison and Helfgott (2013) suggest that “persistent lifestyle habits that are influenced and reinforced by substance abuse, childhood trauma, social and economic disadvantage, mental health issues, and situational contexts are extremely resistant to change”. Giving up criminal life is occasionally sudden, but usually it is the result of a long history of many unsuccessful attempts to change.

Gunnison and Helfgott (2013) also highlight the complexity of integration and the unique needs that groups have based on their differences such as gender, race, or social class. They suggest that “one-size-fits-all approach is not relevant at the integration stage of the criminal justice process but rather individualized intervention and attention to “small” changes in ex-offenders’ thinking, behaviours, or interactions have the potential to turn into the “big” recidivism changes and cost reduction that policymakers and the public ultimately seek as a measure of success”.

Petersilia (2003) refers to policies’ “need to protect the public and not to decrease individual’s motivation and ability to change”. Giving these two sides, policy solutions must include the perspectives of the individual, as well as of the surrounding society. Cases of crime is also sensitive because it touches upon every citizen’s sense of justice, of right and wrong and need for safety. Thus, morals largely affect our views on policy change.

Given the tricky definition of the problem, inmate rehabilitation is also an overall economic dilemma. It becomes a challenge of policymakers to direct the money effectively and precisely to the problem, which can be difficult to define. Cairney (2015) points out that policymakers “weigh up not the evidence on impact but also the cost and value for money, the opportunity cost, and political feasibility”.

In our opinion, it is more favourable for the society to reduce further expenses of a felon and help him/her to quickly adapt to society, become a taxpayer and not to commit more crime. It is reasonable to provide supportive solutions to avoid further crime. This views inmates as capable of change if provided enough help. It is also good for the individual’s sake to prevent a lifelong stigma and marginalization along with unemployment. It encourages the policymakers towards principles of the right to ‘normal’ living, lifelong learning, individualized personal support and holistic integration.

Policy solutions to inmate rehabilitation and crime prevention differ in various penitentiary and political systems. The flaws in private, profit maximization seeking correctional facilities have become familiar in popular culture during the past few years, revealing the other side of the fence. As the underlaying causal and correlating issues in emergence of criminal behaviour as well as correcting it are wicked themselves, policymaking is like walking on eggshells. In conclusion, there is and will be no final solution to inmate rehabilitation. Defining inmate rehabilitation as wicked problem leads us to several other wicked problems such as poverty, criminality and social exclusion. Policies have suggested that maximizing the chances for normal life after imprisonment, such as opportunities for education, employment, mental and physical treatment, lay the foundation for successful solutions. Successful inmate rehabilitation includes the idea of both individual and structural societal change.

This solution paper was compiled by Bianca Salvatori, Bohui Lian, Joona Tornberg, Laura Naud and Tiia Tuovinen.


Birchall, G. (2019, July 30). Death sentence: Inside Brazil’s shockingly overcrowded prisons where dozens of inmates are beheaded and butchered each year as gang turf wars rag. The Sun. https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/2540444/inside-brazil-prisons-gang-wars/

Cairney, P. (2015). The politics of evidence-based policy making. Palgrave Macmillan UK.

Coulote, L., & Kopf, D. (2018, July). Out of prison & out of work: Unemployment among formerly incarcerated people. Prison Policy Initiative. https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/outofwork.html

DuVernay, A. (Director). (2016). 13th [Film]. Kandoo Films.

Gunnison, E., & Helfott, J. B. (2013). Offender reentry: Beyond crime and punishment. Lynne Rienner Publishers.

Head, B. W., & Alford, J. (2015). Wicked problems: Implications for public policy and management. Administration and Society, 47(6), 711–739. https://doi.org/10.1177/0095399713481601

Rittel H. W. J., & Webber, M. M. (1973). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences, 4(2), 155–169. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF01405730

Humans Rights Act 1998. (1998). Article 4. Prohibition of slavery and forced labour. https://www.equalityhumanrights.com/en/human-rights-act/article-4-freedom-slavery-and-forced-labour

Pekkola, E. (2020). Policy change and knowledge [mp4]. https://panopto.tuni.fi/Panopto/Pages/Viewer.aspx?id=21369c97-f8bb-4db5-844d- ac4700ce3e90

Petersilia, J., (2003). When prisoners come home: Parole and prisoner reen. Oxford University Press, Incorporated.

RAND Corporation. (2013). Evaluating the effectiveness of correctional education – A meta-analysis of programs that provide education to incarcerated adults. https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/research_reports/RR200/RR266/RAND_ RR266.sum.pdf

Rittel, H. W., & Webber, M. M. (1973). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy sciences, 4(2), 155–169.

Winchester Prison buildings ‘unsafe’ and ‘dungeon-like’. (2020, October 5). BBC. https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-hampshire-54418015

UN Human Rights Council. (2009, April 2). The right to education of persons in detention: report of the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education, Vernor Muñoz. (Report No. A/HRC/11/8). https://www.refworld.org/docid/4a00419d2.html

Watts, R. (2013). On fictions and wicked problems: Towards a social democratic criminology project in the age of neo-liberalism. International Journal for Crime, Justice and Social Democracy, 2(2), 113–132. https://doi.org/10.5204/ijcjsd.v2i2.103


It was very interesting to read that generates some useful causes and solutions of wicked problems. Thanks to the authors.

Md Mashiur Rahman

20.11.2020 07:30

Thank you for your comment Mashiur!

Julia Bethwaite

25.11.2020 14:12

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