Harsh or Humane? Detention Conditions and Recidivism
Abstract: We use quasi-random variation in the fraction of time served in the Italian “open-cell prison” of Bollate to estimate the effect of humane prison conditions on recidivism. We deal with the endogenous assignment of inmates to prison conditions by focusing on those sources of variability in the length of exposure to more humane conditions that are plausibly unrelated to recidivism. Our most stringent test re- stricts the analysis to inmates who are displaced to Bollate due to overcrowding in nearby prisons, controlling for measures of observed (based on a revealed preference argument) and unobserved potential selection. Spending one more year at the experimental prison (and one less year at an ordinary one) reduces recidivism by around 10 percentage points. For the group of displaced inmates, which is shown to be negatively selected in terms of recidivism, the effects of rehabilitation efforts on recidivism are larger (even in relative terms). While we find evidence that over time Bollate inmates become more likely to work outside the prison, more than a single mechanism underlies these effects.