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A Call For More-Humane U.S. Prison Practices Amid A Pause In Reform

The least-told story of mass incarceration in the U.S. is its recent decline, reflecting many factors: sentencing reform, implicit or explicit decriminalization of minor offenses, and early releases during the pandemic. Still, the U.S. 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 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 2005 analysis of prisoners 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.

A new book offers some suggestions that could make prison less brutal, more rehabilitative, and a better asset to the wider society, writes University of Chicago Prof. Harold Pollack in the Washington Monthly in a review of "What’s Prison For?: Punishment and Rehabilitation in the Age of Mass Incarceration," a book by Bill Keller, formerly of the New York Times and the Marshal Project.

Keller says the wider story of U.S. incarceration has been one of a failed promise of rehabilitation. Half a century after an early Quaker penitentiary, the Jim Crow South imposed forced labor on a largely Black inmate population, at times using prisons more as an extension of slavery than a tool to reintroduce offenders to society.

In the 1970s, just a few years after the end of Jim Crow, came the War on Drugs. We reacted with punitive panic to collective traumas such as the crack epidemic, while the objects of these policies and their surrounding communities were too invisible, and too politically weak, to command urgent course correction.

From the latter part of the 20th century through today, Keller says, the goal of rehabilitation has been further hindered by punitive measures, such as policies that restricted (until recently) Pell Grants behind bars. The rise of for-profit prisons raises additional concerns of service quality and public legitimacy.

Keller might have added the role of correctional employee unions, which have sometimes used their political clout to support more punitive measures. Over time, many conservatives have abandoned the view that more prison beds equal safer streets, and have come to see prisons as massive, wasteful government expenditures.

“There is an urgent need to address the astronomical growth in the prison population, with its huge costs in dollars and lost human potential,” former House Speaker Newt Gingrich wrote in 2011. “The criminal-justice system is broken, and conservatives must lead the way in fixing it.”

Many of Keller’s readers will be surprised to read his account of Gingrich, Pat Nolan, Chuck Colson, Grover Norquist, and the Koch brothers, all of whom lent their personal standings and reputations to vouch for the de-incarceration movement among Republicans and conservatives. President Trump extended bipartisan Obama-era legislation restoring Pell Grants for people behind bars, and supported other measures, such as the First Step Act, that advanced this effort.

The bipartisan consensus has frayed. Nolan and others have taken a harder line, lambasting George Soros in this current political season for promoting soft-on-crime prosecutors. So has the public in response to the post–George Floyd riots and other increases in crime, and to the evocative, deeply felt, but politically self-immolating formulation of “Defund the police.”

Keller emphasizes the over-enthusiasm in some conservative arguments for incarceration. Pollack says he somewhat glosses over the unsentimental cost-effectiveness calculus that can favor harsh policies. The social costs of violence are similarly huge. Within some economic analyses of crime, the dollar valuation of preventing one homicide exceeds $10 million.

Keller’s discussion of humane prison models may be the heart of this book. He’s unsparing in his depiction of the inhumanity, the large and small missed opportunities for rehabilitation in corrections.

Keller is drawn to Norwegian and German models, under which deprivation of liberty—not prison conditions—is the sole punishment associated with incarceration. In this system, prison seeks to make people better neighbors, deploying prisoners as peer-mentors and in other supportive roles.

He describes the efforts of a medium-security prison in Chester, Pa., to emulate Norwegian correctional approaches—including dormitory-style living conditions complete with inmates’ (constrained) access to knives and other cookware. Keller notes interest by funders such as Arnold Ventures, a philanthropy that invests in criminal justice and education, among other sectors.

Perhaps the use of random lotteries to provide eligible prisoners access to such opportunities could provide a rigorous study design to generate needed insights into in-prison experiences, subsequent rearrest, employment, and other outcomes, Pollack writes.


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