Who Should Go to Prison?

We would all like violent criminals to go away and there are several ways to make them disappear. Capital punishment works best but nobody has yet had the fortitude to urge it publicly on so grand a scale, though such a wish is surely often harbored. For a long time the British managed neatly by transporting felons for lifetime stays in faraway places, but the world eventually ran out of imperial wilderness. America, beset by early qualms about capital and corporal punishment (at least for whites) and being naturally sensitive about “transportation” of undesirables, was forced to cast around for other means. With New World ingenuity we came up with the grand invention of the maximum security prison for long-term detention.

For a few decades American prisons were the wonder of the world. Tocqueville and lesser tourists flocked to admire them. Pennsylvania and New York seemed to realize Bentham’s vision of a tranquil fortress of reformation and soon the English were following suit, building the London prison Millbank that the Webbs called “one of the most costly buildings that the world had then seen since the pyramids of Egypt.”

Today this little corner of the American design for perfection struggles on grimly, drained of all its promise. Early hopes that a prison regime could be a powerful means of reforming most convicts have been abandoned, and prisons are seen even by some of those who think we need more of them as savage repositories, to be shunned or veiled rather than admired. This sad history is drawn with great insight and learning in an important new book about prisons and punishment in America by Michael Sherman and Gordon Hawkins.

Rehabilitation simply has not worked for most prisoners. As they grow older violent criminals will give up assaultive behavior, but there is no evidence that any aspect of imprisonment other than the mere passage of time has anything to do with this. If prison does contribute a little extra in some cases, it is impossible to disentangle rehabilitation, in the strong sense of expelling the criminal impulse, from rehabilitation in the weak sense of successful deterrence. It is also impossible to do the arithmetic that would take account of those who are made more violent and criminal by imprisonment. In addition, the very practice of some allegedly rehabilitative techniques has become suspect, since inquiry has revealed that they are often disguises for vengeful punishment or simple restraint. Critics have come to question even the moral roots of rehabilitation. It may be proper to lock people up as retribution or to protect others but where is our warrant to confine them until they become better people? The advocates of rehabilitation have reeled under this double burden of meager success and philosophical doubt.

Those who work closely with criminals were doubtful about rehabilitation almost from the beginning. But its ideology persisted until recently, revealing itself especially in the American devotion to the “indeterminate sentence,” founded on the idea that we should not…

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