Prison Break: Why Conservatives Turned Against Mass Incarceration.

Author:Dagan, David
Position:Book review

Prison Break: Why Conservatives Turned Against Mass Incarceration, by David Dagan and Stephen M. Teles, Oxford University Press, New York, 2016, 240 pp.

In their book, "Prison Break: Why Conservatives Turned Against Mass Incarceration," authors David Dagan and Stephen Teles detail how political conservatives embraced a movement to take a "sensible stand on stiff sentencing and more prisons." And then, with no regrets, they shifted their stance to support justice initiatives that reduce prison populations. Reentry became the operational framework for change. Supported at the state and federal levels, it addressed humanitarian, economic and safety issues in a salable package.


The "tough-on-crime" position complemented Republican politician Newt Gingrich's 1986 plan to wage an all-out war on drugs. This effort quickly gained support, leading to mass incarceration across the U.S. Cuts in social spending provided the funds for prison construction, and candidates from both major political parties recognized the public demand for safety. Supportive legislation, such as mandatory minimum sentences, passed through Congress, and anti-crime rhetoric fueled federal and state elections.

Behind the scenes, as early as 1991, the war game was changing, bringing together an unexpected and diverse collaboration. Chuck Colson, a former top aide to President Richard Nixon, went to prison for his role in Watergate. However, upon leaving prison, he used his born-again Christian experience to found the Prison Fellowship to reach out to families and friends of inmates. The family of Pat Nolan, one-time California assemblyman and then state inmate, connected with the Prison Fellowship, and subsequently, Pat and Chuck met. Thus began the quest to find other supporters for reform, regardless of their political stance. One of those people ready for reform was ... Newt Gingrich!

"Prison Break" details ways in which conservatives constructed an argument for a change in direction based on the core values of evangelical religious beliefs, cost savings and statism. Protection of prisoners' religious rights brought notable Democrats, such as Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy, to the movement. Subsequently, the Prison Fellowship enjoined those on the left and the right in an initiative to curb prison rape--with the Prison Rape Elimination Act in 2003--and reduce recidivism--with the Second Chance Act, which became law in 2008. Additional support for...

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