Back in the 1950s, Dr. Edward Lewison, a prominent facial surgeon in Canada, believed he had the answer to the growing problem of recidivism, the tendency of a convicted criminal to reoffend.
His proposed solution? Free nose jobs and face-lifts for inmates.
Lewison hypothesized that more attractive patients would behave better. He set out to prove this by performing more than 450 operations over a decade at the Oakalla Prison in British Columbia.
The data seemed to support Lewison’s beliefs. The recidivism rate for prisoners who underwent surgery was 42 percent, compared to 75 percent for those who did not have cosmetic surgery. non-altered inmates. “Formerly hostile and incorrigible individuals became polite and gracious,” Lewison wrote.
The idea caught on, spreading to more prisons and eventually seeing thousands of inmates treated.
Kevin Thompson, currently a criminology professor at North Dakota State University, was doing research in the 1980s when he heard that many of the local prisons in Texas ran residency programs for plastic surgeons. The surgeons were working on inmates’ love handles and eye bags — the assumption being that these “flaws” were part of the reason they ended up in prison.
Overall, nose jobs were the most popular operations, but prisoners also opted for face-lifts, chin implants and liposuction. The desire for such surgeries by the prisoners did not surprise Thompson, since many of them felt discriminated against based on how they look.
According to Zara Stone at Ozy, it’s a well-documented fact that attractive people receive better attention and more opportunities, and that the reverse is true for those considered ugly. She raises the question of whether this could be the real reason for criminal activity?
The hope with all these programs was that the cosmetic surgery would lead to new behavior.Thompson evaluated nine cosmetic surgery recidivism studies – six showed surgery reduced recidivism by between 6 percent and 33 percent, two found no change and one found it actually increased it by 12 percent.
Unfortunately most of these “experiments” ended in the 1990s, with critics pointing out that the studies lacked proper controls and follow-up.
But despite the apparent success of such programs, not even Thompson believes that prisons should offer cosmetic surgery. “The findings are too mixed — there’s other things going on in people’s lives, and they’re using the lack of attractiveness as a crutch to blame others for their problems,” he says. Instead of making criminals look better, he says, “we should focus more on skill building and character development.”
I agree with Thompson that prisons should offer programs that focus on skill building and character development, but I don’t see a problem with also providing cosmetic surgery to those who would most benefit from such a procedure.
As to the cost of such surgeries, that seems like it would be more than offset by the increased likelihood that there would be a reduction in recidivism. Putting someone back in jail would likely be a much more expensive proposition.
We’ve got the largest incarceration rate in the world, and something needs to be done. What’s needed are creative ways of looking at the problem, and I think Lewison was on to something.
I think cosmetic surgery for prisoners needs to be revisited. I don’t see any downside, but the benefits could be life changing.