What is a State Department of “Corrections”?

A conversation I had recently with two retired pastors raised some questions about the vocational career in which I’ve been engaged for forty-plus years. They asked me, “What exactly does it mean to ‘correct’ a person? What is a ‘corrected person’? …and why do we call the State Department best known for operating prisons a “Department of Corrections“?

Good questions! …for which we in the Criminal Justice System should have answers and explanations. The Reverends R. Alan James and William Yueill asked the questions when planning for an upcoming meeting of “The Institute of Theological and Interdisciplinary Studies” at Macalester College in St. Paul. Rev. James founded The Institute years ago as a forum for continuing learning. Institute programs have featured physicists, judges, college presidents, researchers, physicians, writers, farmers, musicians and theologians.


So what about their questions? We Americans deserve a clear answer. $80 billion of our taxes go to support federal and state corrections in this country!

Corrections is that part of the Criminal Justice System responsible for

  • Administering the Court sentence.
  • Agencies, Institutions, & Programs using techniques & activities intended to provide security, safety, change, “correction,” & rehabilitative functions toward the goals of protecting society, reducing criminal behaviors, and changing
  • Institutional Corrections includes Jails, Detention Centers, and Prisons.
  • Community Corrections includes Probation, Parole, and community residential alternatives.
  • Measurable, observable outcomes: Ex-offenders who have “paid their debt” to society by completing their sentence and all conditions; and are productive, legally-employed, law-abiding citizens.

This last point attempts to define a “corrected offender.”

Can prisons “correct” criminal offenders? That’s their objective. Prisons punish criminals by restricting their freedom through incarceration in living conditions that most of us would find intolerable. Tough living conditions in prison are intended to be a deterrent to future crime. It works to deter some offenders, but not all.


It’s fair to ask whether “correctional institutions” are in fact “correct.” Are prisons the best way to “correct” criminals? Not exactly. Confining a thousand convicted felons in tight quarters to “correct them” makes as much sense as putting all the worst persons in the state together in ten prisons and hope they get better!

To be clear, prisons do provide security and public safety from threats and assaults from dangerous offenders as long as they are confined. The problem: only convicted murderers who receive a life sentence without parole are never released. The majority of prisoners will be released back into the community to live among us, so we want some assurance that they come out better than when they went into prison!

“The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”

                –Fyodor Dostoevsky, in The House of the Dead, 1862.

The famous Russian author Dostoevsky spent four years in a Siberian prison camp. American prisons have also generally been described as punitive, stark institutions where any hope of positive change for prison inmates is difficult to impossible.

A fair question to ask then is whether institutions operated by a Department of “Corrections” is itself a “correct institution”!

The definition of “correct” according to Webster is “to make right; change from wrong to right; remove errors from; to make conform to a standard; to scold or punish to rectify faults.”

The definition of “to correct” accurately describes the objectives and purpose of correctional institutions. Correctional Officers, Case Managers, and Administrative Staff up to the Prison Warden are dedicated and sworn to uphold those objectives. The question remains whether their positive change influence is effective in the face of prison conditions and the “convict culture” that permeates all prisons.


The Institute of Theological and Interdisciplinary Studies

Minnesota Department of Corrections

Federal Bureau of Prisons

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