The American Prison Nightmare

Confronting Confinement: A Report of the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America's Prisons

by John J. Gibbons and Nicholas de B. Katzenbach, co-chairs
Vera Institute of Justice,122 pp. (available at


Among the many jarring sights I have witnessed as a reporter writing about poverty, one of the saddest involved a father, a son, and a maximum security prison outside Joliet, Illinois. The son, a voluble thirteen-year-old named Dwayne, wasn’t a bad kid but had become increasingly troublesome in class. His father had been locked up since Dwayne was five, but still had influence with the three children he had left behind. Or so their mother hoped. Alarmed at her difficulties controlling the family, she looked to the sound of a father’s voice to set things straight. It was a two-hundred-mile round trip from their home in Milwaukee, and I had the only car.

The Stateville Correctional Center is a gloomy fortress with high concrete walls that could serve as a prison movie set. About half its inmates were in for murder, including Dwayne’s father, a low-level crack dealer who had acted as the lookout during an attack on a rival in which a teenage girl was accidentally killed. Eight years later, Dwayne’s mother still missed him too much to settle down with another man. Dwayne claimed to give him little thought, though a school essay suggested otherwise. He had written about an abandoned mouse who was surrounded by predators, only to realize the abandoned creature was himself. “That’s about my Daddy!” he said.1

After sleeping through the drive, Dwayne struck a pose of boredom as we approached the main cell block, while his mother looked stoic and his siblings seemed alarmed. A guard led us to a room ringed by vending machines where a worn-looking prisoner said he was thankful for the rare chance to see his kids. I left them to a private visit, and when they reappeared Dwayne was sobbing and the others looked like they had witnessed a death. “They miss their father,” was all their mother could say. They piled in for a mournful ride home, a study in how many lives can be linked to one prison cell.

Bruce Western makes a crucial point at the start of his important book, Punishment and Inequality in America: “If prisons affected no one except the criminals on the inside, they would matter less.” But with more than two million Americans behind bars, the impact of mass incarceration is impossible to contain. Their fate affects the taxpayers who support them, the guards who guard them, the families they leave behind, and the communities to which they return. Not even the war in Iraq escapes the reach of prison culture; Sergeant Charles Graner, the villain of Abu Ghraib, worked as a Pennsylvania prison guard.

Everyone is affected, but not equally. Black men in their early thirties are imprisoned at seven times the rate of whites in the same age group. Whites with only a high school education get locked up twenty times as often as those with college degrees. Among the many impediments to reform has been the gap between the people who make criminal justice policy—mostly…

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