Do Prisons Need to Be Hellholes?

AuthorPollack, Harold
PositionBill Keller's "What's Prison For?: Punishment and Rehabilitation in the Age of Mass Incarceration"

Thanks to bipartisan efforts, the number of incarcerated Americans has shrunk dramatically. The next step for reform is to treat inmates more humanely.

What's Prison For?: Punishment and Rehabilitation in the Age of Mass Incarceration

by Bill Keller

Columbia Global Reports, 160 pp.

The least-told story of mass incarceration in America is its recent decline. Between 2008 and 2020, the prison population decreased from 2.3 million to 1.8 million. The decline reflects many factors: sentencing reform, implicit or explicit decriminalization of minor offenses, and early releases during the pandemic. That's a big drop--about 22 percent--a sign that America can begin to tackle even its seemingly most intractable problems. There is still a long way to go; our incarceration rate remains about four times that of England and Australia, five times that of France, and six times that of Canada. Still, our recent success in bringing down that number ought to motivate us to address another issue that receives less attention: what happens in prisons themselves.

The U.S. government's $80.7 billion annual correctional investment--only one piece of the nation's enormous overall carceral spending--fails dramatically to help our incarcerated fellow citizens return healed or prepared to participate in their own communities. Outside the brutality of American prisons, recidivism remains stubbornly high. A widely cited analysis of prisoners released in 2005 found that fully 76.6 percent were rearrested within five years. Compare that to rehabilitation-focused countries such as Norway, where the five-year arrest rate is only 25 percent. Even if Americans manage to stay out of prison after their release, it's exceedingly difficult to reintegrate into a society where employers are reluctant to hire ex-prisoners, and where state and federal governments bar them from more than 20,000 professional licenses, generally with meager public safety justification.

How can we do it better? That's the subject of Bill Keller's short new book, What's Prison For? Keller was executive editor of The New York Times and a leading figure there for decades. In 2014, he became the founding editor in chief of the Marshall Project, and stepped down from that position in 2019. The Marshall Project, named in honor of Justice Thurgood Marshall, is a nonprofit news organization that covers criminal justice issues. It's a key asset to citizens and policy makers across the political spectrum. In 160 pages, What's Prison For? offers a brief history of incarceration in the United States, followed by a summary of research into corrections policy. It offers in broad outline some suggestions that could make prison less brutal, more rehabilitative, and a better asset to the wider society.

The story begins in 1829, with Charles Williams, the first prisoner in Pennsylvania's Eastern State Penitentiary. This Quaker-inspired institution sought a humane, evidence-based alternative to public floggings, the stocks, and sometimes the gallows. Its cells had central heating and running water (alongside prolonged solitary confinement, a flaw in an otherwise compassionate model)...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT