Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia opened its doors in 1829. Its hallmark six-spoked, wheel-shaped design radiates outward from a central tower, where guards could keep watch over 500 prisoners. The prison’s creators believed that, through penitence and solitude (now considered torture) people would reflect on their moral failings and could be rehabilitated.
How do we hold others accountable? What purpose does incarceration serve? Who deserves to be free?
These questions are at the heart of Correction: Parole, Prison, and the Possibility of Change, by Chicago journalist Ben Austen, due in November from Flatiron Books, reports the Chicago Reader.
Through vignettes of two men incarcerated in Illinois, interspersed with historical analysis, Austen pulls back the curtain on parole, which he views as central to understanding justice and the crisis of mass incarceration.
In the two centuries since Eastern State opened, the U.S. has become the global leader in incarceration. In 1880, just under 31,000 people were in prison. Today, there are nearly 1.2 million people incarcerated, in addition to 850,000 people on parole, under vague promises of public safety or retribution or old-fashioned vengeance.
What purpose do prisons serve? Austen notes there is no consensus on what constitutes retribution or atonement. Austen presents parole as an extraordinary pivot point in the country’s shifting conceptions of justice.”
Parole is unique within the legal system in that it’s one of the only avenues to consider who a person is today after three, four, five decades behind bars. Parole hearings, though opaque and riddled with injustice, are venues to challenge entrenched ideas around crime and consequence. “Parole presupposes that change—a correction—is possible,” Austen writes.
Through the lens of parole, Correction traces the rise of mass incarceration and presents possibilities for a way out.
Austen says, "If you have a long prison term, you only have parole or clemency. It’s a result of 50 years of law and policy. People have incredibly long sentences without much point to them. They’re now middle-aged or older and are now completely different people.
"[Parole] is a pathway to be seen and heard. To tell your story and be evaluated as a real person decades—a lifetime—after whatever happened. Is it the antidote to all those harmful policies? Probably not. The real goal is not to make more parole but to make it unnecessary."