Do you have questions about the state of American prisons? Join NYU’s Brennan Center and John Brademas Center for a virtual live event with author Bill Keller on Thursday, October 6, 6-7 p.m. ET. RSVP here.
In his new book, Bill Keller tackles the purpose of prison at a time of heightened political polarization, newly expressed fears of crime, and budget cuts that are thwarting reform efforts in corrections nationwide. Keller, the former editor of New York Times and founding editor of Marshall Projectexplores with journalistic curiosity some promising efforts and innovations that, if replicated on a large scale, could transform American prisons and jails.
Many of the statistics in Keller’s book are not new, but they still amaze in their depiction of a nation that is above all else punitive in its response to social damage. Keller points out how, after the 1994 Crime Bill eliminated federal Pell grants for students behind bars, “the number of college programs in American correctional facilities dropped from nearly 800 to less than a year. dozen”. America has 45,000 federal and state laws that govern life after incarceration: laws that restrict housing for people with felony convictions and laws that ban the right to vote in some states. America spends at least $80 billion a year on corrections, and between 40 and 50 percent of those released from prison return. The Brennan Center’s own research found that nearly 40% of our nation’s federal and state prison population do not need to be behind bars for public safety reasons and that, on average, those formerly imprisoned earn nearly half a million dollars less over their career than they might otherwise. Nearly a third of black men in the United States spend time in jail or jail.
The Covid-19 pandemic has drawn media attention to the conditions of confinement in correctional and detention facilities given the impossibility of social distancing behind bars, inadequate medical care and lack of hot water , soap and masks. Since the start of the pandemic, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement prisons and detention centers across the country have reported at least 3,159 incarcerated Covid deaths and 310 cumulative staff deaths. Beyond the devastating toll of illness and death, Keller acknowledges that the pandemic has also hampered reform efforts, from the almost complete shutdown of in-person education behind bars to the conversion of potentially innovations in quarantine zones.
While there has been a glut of recent books highlighting the overwhelming harms of America’s addiction to mass incarceration, Keller examines what might be possible, highlighting groundbreaking programs that humanize her experience behind the bars.
Many of the innovative programs highlighted in Keller’s book are based on the Scandinavian approach to corrections, which emphasizes human dignity rather than punishment. One chapter details the Little Scandinavia project, a housing unit within a medium-security state prison in Chester, Pennsylvania, which aims to create an atmosphere of mutual respect. The program offers substance abuse rehabilitation and therapy, as well as reintegration training. Unlike other US correctional facilities, the unit has a kitchen and a washer and dryer, trying to normalize life behind bars and helping prepare the men for release.
The book features several other pioneering programs that deviate from the dehumanizing standards of many jails and prisons in the United States. For example, former North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Director Leann Bertsch transformed the recruitment and hiring of prison staff, again inspired by a visit to Norwegian prisons. Bertsch told Keller, “We started hiring people who wanted to be agents of change, not people who wanted to exert authority.” Keller also interviews those who have founded or currently lead transformative secondary and post-secondary education programs such as the Bard Prison Initiative and Mount Tamalpais College, an independent liberal arts college specifically for incarcerated students. But those programs are rare, light years ahead of the provision of high school and college courses to the nearly 2 million people in US jails and prisons.
Large-scale change will not be easy, as Keller acknowledges. The United States has a federal prison system, 50 states and 18,000 local prison systems. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, America holds nearly 2 million people in 1,566 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 2,850 local jails, 1,510 juvenile correctional facilities, 186 immigration detention centers and 82 prisons. Indian countries, as well as in military prisons, civil service centers, state psychiatric hospitals and prisons in American territories.
Keller also depicts the tension between reformers and prison staff who often scoff at comfortable accommodations for inmates, criticize the need for so many educational programs, and frequently serve as a bulwark against reform. Still, the book is nuanced and highlights the harsh working conditions of corrections staff who suffer from high suicide rates, low pay, and the double or triple shifts many are forced to work due to staffing shortages. Keller stresses that we don’t need to accept this reality, pointing out how the Oregon prison system has worked to change the correctional culture there and prioritize the health and well-being of its prison staff.
What is jail for? is a short book, perhaps more of an investigation into recent reforms that attempt to add some dignity to his time behind bars. Given the length of the book, it necessarily leaves out important work that others are doing to transform jails and prisons, such as the growing role of surveillance in improving prison conditions. Organizations like the UCLA Law Covid Behind Bars Data Project and the Prison and Jail Innovation Lab are filling government gaps in data collection and connecting research to on-the-ground reforms to promote and improve independent correctional oversight and better working conditions. detention. These and other critical monitoring projects are worth highlighting.
Nevertheless, it is rare to end the last page of a book on the criminal justice system with hope, and one comes away with the feeling that even one person can have a positive impact on the lives of those behind bars. While the question of what prisons are for cannot be answered by any text, Keller’s contribution to the conversation is significant.