General population inmates walk in a line at San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, Calif., on Aug. 16, 2016. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)

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), consistent with at least the avowed mission of penance, contrition, and rehabilitation. For myriad reasons chronicled in David J. Rothman’s 1971 classic The Discovery of the Asylum: Social Order and Disorder in the New Republic, that’s not how things turned out. Curators of prisons, sanatoriums, and asylums for the mentally ill at first saw their institutions as the answer to wider social problems, then as refuges from those problems, and then finally entered a period of retrenchment where they focused more on custody and control over their wards.

As Keller notes, the wider story of American incarceration has been one of a failed promise of rehabilitation. Half a century after the Quaker penitentiary, the Jim Crow South imposed forced labor on a largely Black inmate population, at times deploying its 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. Of course, communities of color bore the brunt of drug-related crime connected to crack and other substances. Many residents in these communities embraced stringent measures and an increased police presence—and still do. That might come as a surprise to present-day readers, given the human harms inflicted by over-policing in so many residents of these same neighborhoods. Over time and in response to those missteps, policy makers came to understand that a neighborhood can be heavily and effectively patrolled, in partnership with the community, to prevent violence without incarcerating every drug dealer and every perpetrator of nonviolent crimes. The success of New York City (and Los Angeles) in reducing crime while also reducing incarceration provides some reason for optimism on this front.

From the latter part of the 20th century through today, Keller notes, 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 deployed their political clout to support more punitive measures. Keller also acknowledges the social, race, and class distance between the operators and objects of our carceral institutions. Elizabeth Gaynes, former president and CEO of the Osborne Association, an organization that assists formerly incarcerated persons, notes, “In upstate New York, you have second and third generation corrections officers who have never known a Black person who wasn’t a convicted felon.”

As Keller notes, recent news isn’t all bleak. Researchers now debate just how much of our recent incarceration decline is a result of the pandemic. Certainly, that’s part of the story. But the change also reflects a surprisingly bipartisan consensus, chronicled in David Dagan and Steven Teles’s wonderful Prison Break: Why Conservatives Turned Against Mass Incarceration, on the need to reduce incarceration. Over time, many conservatives have wisely 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.” (Before they published their book, Dagan and Teles wrote about these findings in the Washington Monthly.)

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 Donald Trump himself 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. Nonprofit philanthropies and longtime criminal justice reformers also played an important role. Organizations such as the Pew Charitable Trusts and field leaders such as Pew’s Adam Gelb, who helped 35 states adopt sentencing and corrections reforms, made essential contributions.

Keller then adds a sadder postscript: This 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 American 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.”

The high direct costs of American prisons would be vastly higher, Keller notes, if cost analysis included prison’s shattering impact on incarcerated people, their families, and their communities. Whether these expenditures are cost-effective is another, more complicated and granular matter. Keller emphasizes the over-enthusiasm in some conservative arguments for incarceration. In doing so, 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. There is a genuine trade-off between a purely utilitarian calculus and one that provides greater weight to humanity and social justice. This trade-off applies to a narrow group of violent offenders. When prison is properly focused to incapacitate or to deter the most serious offenders, the grim economic calculus becomes more favorable—never happily, and only when prison space is properly deployed.

Moreover, we have very little evidence that longer sentences themselves do much to deter serious crimes. Monthly readers may be familiar with the late, great Mark Kleiman’s work in this area, summarized in his classic work, When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment. As the title of Kleiman’s book suggests, brutal and inhumane retribution isn’t effective or necessary in deterring violent crime. Rather, most of the data suggests that a justice system that metes out punishment swiftly, fairly, and predictably has the greatest behavioral impact on potential offenders. Keller recounts conversations with many people incarcerated during the early 1990s. These men and women committed murder or other serious crimes. They’re also not the same people they were 30 years ago. 

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 American corrections. Keller cites one survey of nearly 18,000 former inmates that finds that 8.7 percent of men and 16.1 percent of women reported having been “sexually victimized” during their most recent incarceration. Given obvious issues of social stigma, such statistics likely understate the prevalence of such problems behind prison walls.

In the latter part of What’s Prison For, Keller explores potential solutions. He 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. 

Keller describes the efforts of a medium-security prison in Chester, Pennsylvania, 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. Keller also notes, however, that such humane correctional strategies are labor intensive and thus costly. Efforts such as Chester’s are correspondingly difficult to scale and replicate, given their budgetary realities.

Keller also embraces the humanity of correctional officers—a group often demonized or ignored by criminal justice reformers. He describes efforts by the state of Oregon to address the serious issues of post-traumatic stress disorder experienced by COs, and accompanying consequences such as high suicide rates. As one informant, Brian Dawe, put it, in his 40 years in corrections he “has never met a frontline prison officer who wakes up in the morning thinking, ‘I can’t wait to get to work today.’ ” I wish Keller had specifically addressed the comparable human and policy failures of American jails. Front-line jail staff face no less extreme challenges to their well-being and mental health. 

Some of these challenges could be addressed through improved staff training and supports. Others may be inevitable consequences of understaffing in this difficult work environment. This also raises discomfiting issues across the political spectrum. Everyone wants to reduce our $80.7 billion correctional bill. This runs against the reality that security and correctional support services are hard to trim. Wage rates are rather high, in part reflecting the twin realities of union bargaining power and recruitment difficulties for these jobs. Incarcerated persons also require a wide range of medical and social services they currently don’t receive. It’s far from clear that we have a feasible path to spend less on jails and prisons—or that saving money is even the proper goal. 

“Reformers,” Keller suggests, “measure success in human increments: Released prisoners who have a fighting chance because they learned to control their temper, or earned a college degree, or, thanks to liberal visitation policies, held their families together. Addicted and mentally ill offenders offered treatment in place of jail time.”

Over the past decade, many excellent books have explored the sociology and policy analytics of criminal justice policies. Those familiar with this voluminous literature will be familiar with much of the material Keller presents. That’s no defect; this short and accessible book has a different purpose. The Marshall Project brought the tactile realities of mass incarceration to public attention, and has helped focus public action on measures to address these challenges. Keller deserves much credit for these accomplishments.

Keller ends with a tribute to correctional officials, service providers, and prisoner advocates quietly at work to improve the system: “Despite disappointments and frustrations, these people make a small difference in the inhumanity of the system by making a big difference in the lives of individual human beings. This book is dedicated to them.”

Readers might close What’s Prison For? reminded of the need to find less retributive ways to address the harms and pain imposed on crime victims. Keller notes that his wife’s mother was murdered in 1983. That’s one year after my own gentle disabled cousin was beaten to death by a 16-year-old boy. Brutalizing the perpetrators of these crimes is not the only or best way our society can respond to such atrocities, let alone to lesser crimes. 

Incarcerated people are people. Bill Keller reminds us that we must treat them that way, both to honor their humanity and to honor our own.

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Harold Pollack is the Helen Ross Professor at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago.