Prisons: The Menace of Liberal Reform

Struggle for Justice: A Report on Crime and Punishment in America

prepared for the American Friends Service Committee
Hill & Wang, 179 pp., $1.95

Maximum Security: Letters from California's Prisons

edited by Eve Pell. and members of the Prison Law Project
Dutton, 250 pp., $6.95

Struggle for Justice, a report by a Working Party of the American Friends Service Committee, forgoes the well-worn theme of what’s wrong with prisons; instead it dissects the theory and practice of prison reform to show why most of the panaceas now being discussed would only make things worse. Maximum Security is a collection of letters from inmates undergoing the ultimate “correction” in the Adjustment Centers of the California prison system.

“After more than a century of persistent failure,” say the authors of Struggle for Justice, “the reformist prescription is bankrupt.” They summarize this prescription as follows:

More judges and more “experts” for the courts, improved educational and therapeutic programs in penal institutions, more and better trained personnel at higher salaries, preventive surveillance of predelinquent children, greater use of probation, careful classification of inmates, preventive detention through indeterminate sentences, small “cottage” institutions, halfway houses, removal of broad classes of criminals (such as juveniles) from criminal to “nonpunitive” processes, the use of lay personnel in treatment—all this paraphernalia of the “new” criminology appears over and over in nineteenth-century reformist literature.

Anyone with the fortitude to read that forbidding literature will immediately recognize the formula. For example, the Declaration of Principles adopted by the first congress of the American Prison Association in 1870: “Since treatment is directed to the criminal rather than to the crime, its great object should be his moral regeneration…not the infliction of vindictive suffering.” The congress called for classification of criminals “based on character”; the indeterminate sentence under which the offender would be released as soon as the “moral cure” had been effected and “satisfactory proof of reformation” obtained; “preventive institutions for the reception and treatment of children not yet criminal but in danger of becoming so”; education as a “vital force in the reformation of fallen men and women”; and prisons of “a moderate size,” preferably designed to house no more than 300 inmates.

Or the report of the Wickersham Commission, appointed by President Hoover in 1931:

We conclude that the present prison system is antiquated and inefficient. It does not reform the criminal. It fails to protect society. There is reason to believe that it contributes to the increase of crime by hardening the prisoner. We are convinced that a new type of penal institution must be developed, one that is new in spirit, in method, and in objective.

The commission recommends: individual treatment…indeterminate sentence…education in the broadest sense…skillful and sympathetic supervision of the prisoner on parole…etc.

Skip now to The Challenge of Crime in a Free Society, the 1967 report of the President’s Crime Commission, which calls for more intensive parole supervision, establishment of “model, small-unit correctional institutions,” the strengthening of screening and diagnostic resources “at every point of significant decision,” the upgrading of educational and vocational training programs.

These calls for reform invariably follow in the wake of riots and strikes by prisoners protesting intolerable conditions. Thus the pattern over the past century tends to be circular: an outbreak…

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