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radical 2467 habits of institutional radicals 

From an article by Nuture Development

In the late 1960's, Jerry Miller was an Associate Professor of Criminology in the School of Social Work at Ohio State University. He was well known for his radical views on reforming penitentiaries and reformatories for young people and adults alike. He was at his most vocal around the same time a series of scandals were breaking about the child abuse and brutality going on in the eleven reformatories for young people in the State of Massachusetts.

The State Governor Francis Sargent took the view that what was needed was a ‘root and branch’ reform of the whole system, and in 1969 after interviewing a number of likely candidates his people settled on Jerry as the best reformer for the job.

The thing is, Jerry wasn’t a reformer, he was a radical.

Jerry was quick to introduce best practices from the world of criminology into Massachusetts’ Reformatories – he stamped out brutality, heralded in a wide range of new training programmes, and employed some of the most talented professionals in the State. You might say for the first two years of his tenure as head of the juvenile correction system, he reformed the reformatories, and consequently they were among the best in the United States.

After two years of reform, Jerry was keen to assess the impact of these changes on the lives of the young people they served, using the level of re-offending as a baseline. When he compared levels during the regime of abuse, which pre-dated him, with those under his stewardship and disruptive innovation he discovered, that with the exception of the reduction in abuse, little had actually changed for the young people. He rightly recognised that the absence of abuse is not an outcome, and he also recognized that there were few if any tangible positive outcomes to speak of.

All of the institutional reform, the professionalising of the staff and so on, had done little to change the reality for these young people.  Reform of the institutions was not the answer.

His baseline comparison provided him with empirical evidence that system reform produced few actual dividends when it came to reducing re-offending. Therefore, given that he could not think of anything else he could do to improve the system, it began to dawn on him that perhaps the solution was not in reforming the system, but in finding community alternatives to the system. Jerry eventually came to believe that placing children in a reformatory is the worst thing you could do to prevent them from re-offending.

He had brought these reformatories to the apogee of their competence and still they proved impotent in the face of the challenges they purported to address. Jerry came to believe that the juvenile justice system “at its best was still the worst thing that could happen to these kids”. Faced with the realization that reformatories were at best ineffectual and at worst harmful, he systematically closed them down. In doing so he set his face against systems reform and began to seek solutions outside the world of systems completely.

Up to that point, year on year, the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services (DYS) were spending in excess of $70,000 USD (£55,000) incarcerating and failing each of these young person in the State of Massachusetts. Jerry began actively seeking out community alternatives to these wasteful and failing institutional programmes.

Initially, he actively pursued arrangements that he felt might work well for the young people within these reformatories. For example, at the University of Massachusetts, he trialed an initiative whereby a previously incarcerated young person became room mates of college students and lived with them for an extended period of time. The logic was pretty straightforward as they got to know each other it became clearer to each of them what they could do together. This was just one of a range of initiatives that emerged.

Jerry’s radical nature showed itself most clearly in how he was able to invite innovation from others. He was far less interested in designing creative initiatives, such as the one just mentioned, than in creating the context within which people could come up with their own community alternatives to systems based responses.

Essentially he invited regular people to think about what they would do to help these young people recover and get more deeply connected, but that didn’t involve incarceration. Significantly he had some resources that he was prepared to invest. So the message also contained the addition: “And I’ll pay for it”.

Resistance was mainly located around the belief that such radical approaches would have made a significant number of professionals redundant.  Of course it was not so plainly articulated, instead other ‘industry experts’ argued that the risks of such approaches were intolerably high. It is always the case that mistakes made in community are more apparent and less acceptable than those made by the system.

Jerry made clear that institutions start out doing something constructive and then they level out, decline and then reverse themselves and become crime-making reformatories. People who want to reform reformatories are therefore the great ‘misguiders’ of society. The progressives, the institutional reformers are the final authority for keeping what doesn’t work going. ‘‘They’ve never figured out that doing more of what doesn’t work won’t make it work any better.”

Of course Jerry is not the only institutional radical the world has ever known, like many others he made a habit, or a practice you might say, of doing certain things. He, like other radicals, practiced the seven habits of highly effective institutional radicals:

Habit #1: Get Out of the Way

There are certain things that only communities can do; beyond a certain point institutions become useless, and a community response is the only viable one.

When community returners leave an institution after a period of incarceration, the shock is not how many repeat offend, but how few. Little or no intentionality of practice goes into thinking about the return to community life for these young people; in fact a considerable amount of barriers are placed in the way of family, friends and community by the system that make it nearly impossible to sustain interdependence between the person that has been incarcerated and their community.

Habit #2: Reduce Dependency

Their mantra is clarion: if we are to reduce dependency on our institutions, we much increase interdependency in community life. They are driven by the belief that extended time in their institution, whatever it might be, is time lost making a life. ‘Get a life, not a service’ is their motto:  they see services as only there in reserve, while they believe community and free association is the preferred front line of social change and well being. They do not therefore, measure their success by the number of clients they have in their programmes, but the extent to which they have built community, and, accordingly, reduced dependency on their services. This may seem counter intuitive, and so it should, it’s radical!

Habit #3: Increase interdependency

Deinstitutionalisation is not a new concept. For many, community care is tantamount to lonely living. Radicals don’t just shut down institutions, they are intentional about promoting a great level of interdependency between the people they serve and the community at large.

Habit #4: Be Authentic about the limits

Systems and institutions are not designed to care; people care, systems produce services to a standardized format and are structured to enable the few to control the many. Radicals get this, accept it, and move on; they do not try to reform the system to do what it can’t. A radical is also a pragmatist who accepts that institutions have functions, and so to do communities. They are clear, that institutions cannot and should not replace the functions of individuals, families and communities.

Habit #5: Clear and vocal about what Community can do

Radicals understand that communities have irreplaceable functions that if not done by them, can not be done by any other. They are clear, therefore, around what it is they believe communities must do to be the change they seek. Their voice is a revelatory one, they often see what is invisible to most, and invite it into expression.

Habit #6: Do no Harm

Radicals understand the harm they can do; they know that helping hurts as well as heals, and they see clearly the effects that their systems regularly bring about. Their prime directive is, therefore, to do no harm to the individual agency of the people they serve, and the community capacities that can serve to grow interdependence beyond institutional boundaries.

Habit #7: Don’t reform; re-function.

Radicals are not invested in reforming their institutions and its systems. They understand that form follows function and that most institutions have never figured out their function, and therefore are formless. Many public sector institutions and some civil society organisations have lost sight of their function to serve the public good. Local governments throughout the world, for example, have become so focused on the provision of statutory services that they have failed to attend to their functions as stewards of local democracy. Consequently they have come to treat people as clients of their services, and not as citizens with authority; at the centre of local democratic life.

Hence we do not need reform, we need re-function. Institutions, which were once hatched from associational life, have become bloated and arrogant. Their function is simply to do what we cannot do in associational life, no more, no less. Yet they regularly colonise our lives and our neighbours, attempting to manage, regulate, curricularise and otherwise control free space. Another motto of the radical is: Institutions know your place.


Imagine a world where every institution, whether within the spheres of commerce, government, or civil society, had an active policy to reduce dependence on their service, by increasing interdependence in community life. If such a world were ever to exist it would be radically different than that which we currently occupy.

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From an article by Nuture Development, 28/01/2020

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