Ruth Morgan

Jean O’Hara, founder of the group Survivors of Murder Victims, talking to inmates about her murdered daughter and grandson during a victim impact class, one of the programs in the Resolve to Stop the Violence Project (RSVP) at the San Francisco County Jail in San Bruno, circa 2003

America’s prison system is in a dire state. Some 2.3 million people in this country are now behind bars, five times more than in 1978. Our incarceration rate is now higher than that of any other country in the world. Many, if not most, inmates probably should not be there. Sixteen percent of the adult prison population suffers from mental illness and should be in treatment; a similar fraction is made up of children under eighteen. Although there is little evidence that blacks are more likely to use drugs than whites, they are six times more likely to be imprisoned on drug-related charges.1 Of those, most have no history of violence or drug dealing, and were arrested mainly for possession of drugs.2

Sexual and other forms of abuse in prison are common, reported by some 20 percent of inmates. These “monster factories,” as the lawyer and author Sunny Schwartz calls them, do little to break the cycle of violence in society and may even accelerate it. Roughly two thirds of those released from US jails and prisons end up back inside within three years. Some studies suggest that the experience of imprisonment can be so brutal and humiliating that it actually makes men, in particular, harder and meaner, so that the crimes they commit the next time around are even worse than what got them incarcerated in the first place.3

Senator Jim Webb of Virginia is currently sponsoring a bill that would create a commission to review America’s entire criminal justice system and make recommendations for reform. If the bill passes, its commissioners should bear in mind a small experiment that took place in the San Francisco County Jail in San Bruno, California, some years ago. This project, the subject of Sunny Schwartz’s brief, absorbing memoir Dreams from the Monster Factory, is important not just because it dramatically reduced recidivism, but also because it could help break the tired stalemate between liberals and conservatives over punishment versus rehabilitation. In addition, Schwartz’s book is revealing about the criminal mind and its thought processes, and thus contains valuable lessons for those at risk of incarceration, and for those close to them.

Schwartz, now in her fifties, began working in the San Francisco county jails in 1980 as a student intern. She volunteered to spend two days a week writing reports on prisoners’ complaints about sentencing or jail conditions and forwarding them through the seemingly impenetrable bureaucracy of the California state justice system. After graduating from law school, Schwartz worked briefly for an AIDS service organization and then, in 1990, at the request of her old boss Sheriff Michael Hennessey, she returned to County Jail 7 in San Bruno to launch a new set of programs designed to help inmates make the transition back into society after their release.

The inmates at San Bruno were typical of prison and jail populations across America. Over half were black, although blacks make up only 6 percent of San Francisco’s population. Approximately 75 percent were high school dropouts, and most had reading skills below the seventh-grade level; 65 percent had been relegated to special education programs before dropping out of school, and 90 percent had never held a legal job. Eighty percent reported that they had been physically or sexually abused as children, and 80 percent had committed at least one act of violence. In jail, these inmates spent their days watching television (Jerry Springer, slasher movies, cartoons), working out, getting into fights with one another, being strip-searched by the deputy sheriffs, and composing elaborate complaints to the authorities.

Some 70 percent of inmates released from San Bruno ended up back in jail within three years, a slightly higher failure rate than the national average. Schwartz’s job was to develop programs to change this. Her first move was to open a jail-based high school with classes in reading, writing, math, and other subjects, as well as “life skills”—meaning how to get and hold on to a job. In many respects the school she set up was a success. Inmates appreciated having something to do during the day, and many earned degrees that would greatly increase their prospects for employment upon release. But this had only a modest effect on their violent tendencies. During off-hours, they continued to pick fights with one another. Overhearing inmates yelling into the phones, the guards assumed that this aggressive behavior would continue after they were released. “We taught him to read,” one of them joked. “Let’s put up a sign telling him to stop beating his wife.”


Schwartz began to wonder whether classroom instruction alone would convey the skills the inmates needed to remain in society once they got there. Although the jail contained both men and women, the men worried her far more. Some were so aggressive and violent that they frightened even a seasoned criminal lawyer like her. Some men even frightened themselves. One who was about to be released begged Schwartz to keep him inside because he feared that he would be unable to restrain himself from assaulting a neighbor’s five-year-old daughter. She knew that some men, perhaps including this one, were beyond rehabilitation, but she also knew instinctively—and correctly, it turned out—that most could change if they were given the chance, but they would need powerful emotional assistance to do it. What this assistance would consist of was not obvious at first.

Shortly after she began work at San Bruno, Schwartz attended a conference in Minnesota where she heard for the first time about “restorative justice.” Contemporary justice in the United States is largely based on the idea of retribution, and relies primarily on punishment. Restorative justice, as Schwartz explains it, is based on the concept prevalent in more traditional societies that offenders must also try to repair, as far as possible, the harm they have caused others. In order to do this, offenders must first confront what they have done, and then make amends to their families, their communities, and, if possible, their victims as well. Schwartz writes that she very soon came to believe that restorative justice could be a means of transforming these men from chronic offenders into productive members of their communities.

The first step, persuading the San Bruno inmates to face up to their own violent behavior, would be the most difficult. What is particularly striking about violent men is how remorseless they often seem, as if they were devoid of feeling. Schwartz shows how their experience under the justice system only reinforces this sense of detachment. During their trials, defense lawyers coached them to deny or minimize their crimes. In jail, they spent their days complaining about the conditions, their sentences, the behavior of the deputies and other inmates, and society at large. At no time were the men ever required to assess their own behavior or acknowledge the pain they had caused.

Schwartz was familiar with various kinds of “anger management” classes, most of which simply taught violent men to suppress their rage or walk away from situations that might provoke it. She wanted something different, a program that would help the men examine and ultimately “rewire” their own emotions. She decided to experiment with Manalive, a community-based program for men who had committed domestic violence that had been created years earlier by Hamish Sinclair, a San Francisco–based educator and community organizer. Manalive soon became the foundation for all of Schwartz’s other programs, which collectively came to be called the Resolve to Stop the Violence Project, or RSVP.

In November 2008, I visited the San Bruno jail and sat in on an RSVP session. A group counselor and about fifteen inmates sat on plastic chairs in a semicircle, while a white twenty-eight-year-old bank robber named Don described a fight he had been involved in eight years earlier. While the other prisoners looked on and asked questions, two inmates analyzed his story, writing down every incident of violence—physical, sexual, and emotional—that Don reported, from selling drugs at the party, to cheating on his girlfriend, to yelling at the girl he cheated with, to slugging a fellow party-goer with a beer bottle and then kicking him as he fell. The session took two hours, and by the end the entire blackboard was filled with details, not only about whom Don had hurt and how, but about the ways in which, in telling the story, Don had attempted to minimize what he had done or blame others for his actions.

“I left out a lot of stuff,” Don told me when I talked to him afterward. Although some inmates volunteer for RSVP, most, like Don, had never thought of themselves as violent before they were assigned to the program by the jail administration.

“I knew I had a problem with drugs,” he told me, “so I didn’t mind being in drug rehab. But violent? Me? No way.” After sitting through a few mandatory RSVP sessions and watching other men describe their own violent acts, however, Don told me he began to realize something about himself that he had never known before. He saw how badly he had hurt other people, not only the men he had punched and beaten up over the years but also his own family, who became so terrified of his angry rages that they all but avoided him. When he entered RSVP, he had been in jail for ten months and had barely heard from his parents, and had not spoken to his sister at all. Thirteen weeks later, he was speaking to his parents once a week and to his sister once a day.


While RSVP does not involve direct restitution to victims, it reinforces prisoners’ sense of responsibility by inviting speakers who have been victims of unrelated violence to address the inmates. RSVP also encourages restitution to society at large by linking up post-release RSVP “graduates” with youth violence prevention groups and campaigns such as the San Francisco Giants’ “strike out violence day.”

In 2004, the psychiatrists James Gilligan and Bandy Lee of New York University and Yale, respectively, evaluated RSVP and found that it sharply reduced recidivism rates. The longer the men stayed in the program, the better it seemed to work. Among those who took the full sixteen-week course, 82 percent fewer ended up back in jail a year later, compared to a control group of men who had not been through the program.4

Schwartz deals only in passing with the factors that led to America’s staggering incarceration rate in the first place. When I first arrived at the San Bruno jail, I was taken to a surveillance booth with glass panels on the floor from which it was possible to see an entire open-plan block, or dorm, at once. It was midday, and men in orange sweatsuits were standing around in groups. Some were eating lunch, others were playing ping-pong or watching TV. It was no surprise that most of the men were black. Nationally, one black man in nine between the ages of twenty and thirty-four is incarcerated, a rate six times higher than for whites in the same age group. Some 65 percent of black high school dropouts spend part of their lives behind bars.5 The growth in America’s incarceration rate, in other words, is owing largely to the soaring incarceration of black men. This deeply troubling trend is powerful testimony, if we needed any, to the depth of America’s racial problems.


Ruth Morgan

A scene from the play Uncommon Grounds, whose cast included both former offenders and survivors of violent crimes, 1999. Part of an RSVP community restoration program, the play was performed in several high-crime neighborhoods in San Francisco.

What accounts for the high rate of incarceration in the US, particularly of black males? Opinions vary, but for drug crimes in particular, part of the problem has to do with excessive surveillance of young black men by the police and other authorities. White youths may carry and use drugs just as often as blacks, but they seldom get caught, and if they do, they may be more likely to get off with a warning. In one recent study, 60 to 75 percent of black teenagers in Baltimore and Chicago said they were routinely harassed by the police. “Everywhere we go, we going to get stopped,” said one Chicago youth. Once he was approached by detectives as he and a friend were leaving the church they regularly attended:

They was like, “Do y’all got guns?” or something. “We heard shooting on the next block, y’all match the description. Where y’all just come from?” We like, “We just come out the church, y’all done seen it.” You know just, they stopping us for no reason.6

While police surveillance and harassment may explain the racial discrepancy in drug-related crime, it probably explains little of the same discrepancy in violent crime. When it comes to homicide, which is the most accurately measured crime of all, the data are clear: blacks are seven times more likely to be offenders and six times more likely to be victims than whites. This cannot be explained by discrimination in arrests and sentencing alone.

What would explain it? A controversial 1992 report by the US National Research Council proposed that some people might be genetically predisposed to violence; it recommended more research into identifying violence- inducing brain chemicals, and the development of drugs to alter behavior. Although the report did not claim that these factors were more common in blacks, the racial implications were clear, and the report was widely criticized.7

What should have been clear to the research council is that wide fluctuations in murder rates occur much more rapidly than changes in the human genome, which may take thousands of years. Today, homicide is more common in America than in Western Europe, but historians estimate that in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, murder rates in London, Amsterdam, and Stockholm were just as high as they were in New York at the peak of the US crime wave in 1990.8 Until the 1960s, murder rates were generally lower in Africa than Europe,9 so a race-specific “violence gene,” if one existed,10 is unlikely to have come from Africa. The finding that RSVP worked as well as it did with blacks and whites alike shows that many violent men can change, and thus that their violent tendencies are not hard-wired.

Most experts maintain that the relationship between race and violence has to do with social conditions such as poverty and unemployment. For example, unemployed people are more likely to engage in crime, and some experts warn that the current economic crisis might already be contributing to an increase in domestic violence and to the recent spate of suicidal shooting sprees.11 However, the connection between crime and fluctuations in the labor market over longer periods of time is not clear. While most studies suggest that rising unemployment leads to an increase in property crimes, it seems to have a much smaller effect on violent crime.12 A few highly publicized tragedies notwithstanding, most violent crimes may be committed by a group of people who would be unemployed in any labor market.13

What most studies do find, however, is that violent crime is strongly associated with the activity of illegal drug markets, which tend to thrive in black neighborhoods.14 A 1988 study of homicide in New York found that 40 percent were associated with drug trade–related disputes, mostly among black men.15 So while whites and blacks may use drugs with equal frequency, blacks are more likely to be involved in the highly lucrative and dangerous business of packaging, distributing, and marketing them. The drug trade is violent because when disputes arise over prices, turf, or customers, there are no peaceful means of resolving them. Adversaries battle out such conflicts with weapons instead of lawyers. It is probably no coincidence that murder rates doubled during Prohibition in the 1920s, and fell sharply with the repeal of the Volstead Act in 1933. Similarly, murder rates doubled again during the “crack epidemic” in the 1970s and 1980s, when the drug trade became more lucrative and competitive, and more dangerous.16

This makes the growing activity of drug cartels from Mexico and other countries particularly threatening.17 But as the Obama administration acknowledges, it does not help simply to blame the foreign drug traffickers alone. What can American policymakers do to get the drug trade out of black neighborhoods? Policing is important, but severe crackdowns could, like Prohibition, make matters worse.

Policymakers could start by improving schools in black neighborhoods, which suffer severely from underinvestment, overcrowding, class disruption, and high dropout rates. This endangers us all, and should be addressed, because the likelihood of incarceration falls with increasing education, especially for black men. According to one estimate, 23 percent of the discrepancy in black/white incarceration rates could be eliminated if blacks stayed in school as long as whites, and that was in 1980, before the thirty-year surge in black incarceration got underway. An even greater effect was seen with violent crime, such as murder and assault. According to the authors of this study, a one percent increase in the graduation rate could save $1.4 billion that would otherwise be spent keeping these men behind bars.18

A high school diploma itself seems to help keep black men out of trouble. The likelihood of incarceration drops fourfold among black high school graduates compared to those who make it only to tenth or eleventh grade.19 It is unlikely that there is anything special about the twelfth-grade curriculum that would explain this. However, graduation may indicate a relatively positive attitude toward society and toward oneself that is more important for keeping black youths out of trouble than any skill or knowledge acquired in school. Some studies suggest, remarkably, that a diploma may matter more than one’s income, or even whether one has a job at all.20 Prison education programs that allow inmates to earn college degrees have also been associated with a drop in recidivism.21 Thus the decision of former New York governor George Pataki to end these programs in the mid-1990s may well have had consequences for public safety.

Education may help keep black kids out of trouble, but as Schwartz found, for those already involved in crime, helping them gain self-esteem through education is not always sufficient to get them out of it. Drug dealing and gangs provide more than a livelihood to otherwise poorly educated and difficult-to-employ young men. They also provide an alternative society in which their courage, toughness, and entrepreneurship are valued. More importantly, they are a way out of the shame of being poor, jobless, and unable to support a family.22 It is this very sense of shame that a growing number of psychiatrists maintain is at the root of violent behavior.23

During the 1980s, James Gilligan, the psychiatrist who evaluated RSVP, was in charge of mental health services in the Massachusetts prisons, where he conducted thousands of therapeutic consultations with homicidal inmates. He soon came to realize that they were especially likely to harm or kill someone when they felt insulted or humiliated. What these men seemed to fear most were feelings of weakness and shame—the shame of being seen as inadequate or contemptible—and they struck back violently against anyone who set off those feelings, whether it was a sarcastic, unfaithful girlfriend or a rival drug dealer attempting to impinge on their turf.

Many killers told Gilligan that the fear they saw in the eyes of their victims made them feel powerful and respected, reinforcing a “tough” self-image and seeming to justify aggressive reactions to any sign of disrespect, however minor or unintended.24 A sense of honor was essential in this outlaw world and Gilligan wondered whether this was not precisely because these men had so much to be ashamed of. Like the San Bruno inmates, most of his homicidal patients had experienced humiliating abuse as children and failures in school or in getting jobs. Gilligan theorized that these painful life experiences led them not only to be especially sensitive to individual instances of disrespect, but to build entire subcultures based upon the promotion of masculine honor, however hollow and boastful, as a fortress against shame.

As an undergraduate in the 1950s, Gilligan was fascinated by the work of anthropologists such as Ruth Benedict who classified cultures as being preoccupied predominantly with, on the one hand, notions of honor and shame or, on the other, notions of pride and guilt. While guilt and shame have much in common, Benedict argued that they have different implications for culture and behavior. Guilt, the sense that you have done something wrong and should feel bad about it whether others know it or not, tends to lead to private turmoil. But shame implies awareness of the contempt of others, and therefore has potentially greater implications for relationships. Pride, like guilt, is an internal feeling of accomplishment, whereas a sense of honor, like shame, depends on the attitudes of others toward oneself.

When Gilligan began working as a prison psychiatrist years later, he recalled Benedict’s ideas. “When I first walked into a prison,” he told me recently, “I realized I was in the midst of an honor culture.” Since the 1960s, other prominent experts on behavior, including Thomas Scheff, John Braithwaite, and Helen Lewis, have also characterized shame as a “master regulator” of the emotions, and a key to understanding violent behavior.25 When Scheff looked back at ten years of taped therapy sessions with his patients, he claims he never saw an explosion of anger that was not preceded by an incident that evoked a fleeting expression of shame.

A scene in the 2008 French film The Class (Entre les Murs), a fictionalized but highly realistic account of a year in a multiracial Paris secondary school, convincingly illustrates how the experience of shame can set off violent behavior and ruin a young person’s life. In what might be seen as the movie’s turning point, fifteen-year-old Sulieman, the son of poor West African immigrants and an amiable troublemaker, learns, along with the rest of the class, that the teacher thinks he is of “limited” intelligence. As classroom banter continues in the background, all expression drains from Sulieman’s face. Sometime later he storms out of the class, accidentally hitting a classmate in the face and nearly slugging the teacher as well, an act for which he will be expelled. A grim future for the boy, now considered by adults to be “violent” as well as “limited,” seems inevitable.

Emotions have their own logic, Gilligan reminds us, of which their possessors are often unaware, and therapeutic techniques like Manalive may work by helping violent men untangle their feelings of pain and anger, and develop more positive aspects of their character. Fortunately for policymakers such as Senator Webb, restorative justice techniques like RSVP are one issue on which liberals and conservatives increasingly agree. In April 2008, President Bush signed the Second Chance Act, which authorizes federal funding mainly for “faith-based” initiatives such as Charles Colson’s Prison Ministries that emphasize Christian concepts of confession and redemption and also help inmates find jobs. Although these programs have not been evaluated as rigorously as RSVP, preliminary results suggest that only 18 percent of those who have been through them ended up back in jail a year after release, half the national average. President Obama has asked Congress for more than $100 million to fund the Second Chance Act and other similar initiatives.

RSVP is not faith-based and receives no money through the federal Second Chance initiative. When Schwartz launched the program, she took a firm position on the separation of church and state and told such volunteer groups as Jehovah’s Witnesses to leave the San Bruno jail. But Schwartz’s approach is consistent with conservative notions of personal responsibility, while the more conservative faith-based programs accept the liberal notion that lack of education and job opportunities must also be addressed if inmates are to make a successful transition to freedom.

Perhaps surprisingly, the greatest resistance to programs like RSVP comes from some well-intentioned but doctrinaire leftists who maintain that it is absurd to expect people to change their behavior when they continue to be subject to racism, unemployment, bad schools, and the long legacy of inequality in America. The circumstances in which many African-Americans grow up are indeed traumatic. But the idea that violent crime, drug abuse, AIDS, and other health problems that disproportionately affect blacks can’t be addressed until these schematic leftists are satisfied that we are all living in an age of equality is itself a form of racism, based upon the patronizing assumption that people are powerless to bring about personal and collective change in their own communities. Programs like RSVP show that when people have the courage to face up to their own violent behavior, they can overcome the most harrowing conditions, and inspire others to do so. Indeed, helping violent men find more constructive ways to express their masculinity could well be the fastest route to a better future for themselves and their families.

Obviously, programs like RSVP are only part of a longer-term solution to violence in America. Senator Webb’s commission, if authorized, should also bear in mind that shame and the toxic culture it gives rise to are being cultivated in America’s overcrowded, badly performing schools; in the economy, which, when it grows at all, grows largely for the rich; in the casual slights and insults that occur daily when a black person walks into a shop or hangs out with friends on the street. They are also cultivated in families in which parents, overwhelmed by difficulties and disappointments, use violence to discipline their children. The monster factory isn’t just in the prisons; it is also in the starkly inequitable world outside.