Prison for Punishment, Not Rehabilitation

We once hoped criminals would come out of prison better than they had entered. Not anymore.
  • Transcript


Question: Is the American penal system still based on the idea of rehabilitation?  

Robert Perkinson: No, that’s a huge shift.  For 200 years since the birth of the Northeastern Penitentiary, the stated purpose of incarceration—if not the reality, mind you—was to grab hold of wayward citizens who had done wrong and to intervene in their lives in such a way that they would come out the other side of incarceration better than they had entered.  Now, this never really worked out.  It was never really attempted to the full extent.  But because that was the stated purpose and because there was a kind of higher calling, in theory to corrections, it kind of mitigated the extent to which vengeance and neglect and retribution could dominate the correctional experience.  

But that really has changed in the last 40 years.  Rehabilitation, which reached it’s zenith under the federal system and the California system in the ‘60’s came under attack by the left and more aggressively under attack from the right and has really been squashed such that the purpose we have now for imprisoning so many people is on much more shaky ground, philosophically.  It’s to incapacitate people from committing crimes.  We say it’s for deterrence, but the evidence for deterrence is extremely weak.  People are deterred by the presence of car alarms or police. But, you know, before a drug addict breaks into your car to steal your stereo, they do not consult sentencing schedules to find out of the penalty in Maryland is harsher than the penalty in Virginia.  And it’s silly of us to think that that would happen.  The death penalty also doesn’t work as a deterrent.  So, it’s really incapacitation, but that’s a very expensive way to prevent crime and help public safety and it doesn’t work very well.  

What the collapse of... for me in my work, with the collapse of the rehabilitative claim and the collapse of "corrections" as a framework for thinking about incarceration has done has really brought into clear review an alternative tradition of American punishment.  Not a tradition that has it’s genesis in Northern churches and Quaker meeting houses and genteel reform movements, as is the traditional story told about the North—and as a traditional story you’ll find in almost any history book about prisons.  But an alternative genealogy comes into view that really stretches back through racially divisive politics, and it stretches back to segregation, it stretches back to convict leasing the totally privatized incredibly brutal prison system that took root in the South after the Civil War and stretches ultimately back to slavery—and that’s a tradition of intentional debasement, public vengeance, exploitation of labor, and racial control.  And in many ways, that, sadly, is the genealogy I think that gives us a more accurate sense of where we have ended up in the present than the trappings of rehabilitation that have dominated the historical literature.

Question: What can we do as a society to reduce the number of people in prison?

Robert Perkinson:
What we have done of course is the opposite.  In a sense, 40 years ago it’s as if we sat down and thought, okay, we have this problem of crime and crime was going up in the 1960’s, let’s figure out the most expensive, most ineffective way to deal with crime that will produce the most kind of social stratification and collateral damage, and will undo a lot of the progress that’s going on towards civil rights.  No one sat around and did that at the time, not even the hardest hardliners.  But that is in effect what we have done.  

For 40 years we have legislated by headline.  We have legislated by fear and campaign announcement.  We have not governed in the interest of effective public policy, but we have let partisanship trump common sense.  And we’ve been very tough on crime, but not very smart on crime at all.  And it’s going to take a lot of effort to undo it, but I think you’re exactly right.  What needs to happen is we need to have as a central goal, not just try to make conditions of confinement more humane, or help people who are released from prison – there’s like 750,000 people a year who get out of prison, they’re tossed out on the street with stigma, without money, angrier and more alienated then they were before.  They didn’t get much treatment behind bars, so there’s a lot of emphasis on re-entry right now, as well there should be.  

But in my view there really has to be an emphasis on reduction of this out-of-control, bloated government bureaucracy that is causing, and it’s like other types of government waste.  I mean if we have a contract to build a highway and it gets double-billed... or air marshals—take air marshals for example, which it seems like now that the evidence is in has been totally useless government program.  They haven’t committed any crime; there’s been an average of four arrests a year.  But it’s relatively benign.  People get jobs, no one really is harmed by it and maybe there’s a little bit of public safety, so it’s more or less – it’s wasteful, it’s irresponsible use of taxpayer money, but it’s not harming anyone.

Prison is very different.  It actually is most – people think that it is responsible for maybe for 10% to 20% of reducing crime in the United States.  There are many better cost-effective ways to reduce crime.  And we haven’t done them, and we need to start changing direction.  There are signs that that’s happening.  And there needs to be changes at every level of the system.  We need better indigent defense, we need fairer trials, we need a shift in our approach to addiction, toward thinking about it as a medical problem entwined with a crime and poverty problem, rather than as a solely criminal justice issue.  We need to think about better ways to let people out of prison, especially as they pass beyond their criminal prime.  

There is a promising piece of legislation in Congress right now that Senator Webb of Virginia is pushing to create a national criminal justice commission to look at the whole U.S. criminal justice system, especially the federal, but also in the states.  At every stage, from arrest to parole, and to bring together experts from across disciplines and perspectives and to try to actually, for the first time in 40 years, look at this problem in a sober-minded way rather than in a partisan, divisive way.  And that hasn’t happened since President Johnson’s crime commission in 1967, which, if you go back and dust that off, is a pretty great document.  They had a whole laundry list of reforms.  The prison population was 300,000 in their day and they thought that was too high.  They had a whole series of recommendations for enhancing public safety by preventing child abuse with more effective policing, with better public housing, with afterschool programs, as well as more effective law enforcement techniques, and a better targeting of our criminal justice resources, which are so disproportionately devoted to drug crimes right now and not toward the crimes we really tend to be afraid of.  So I think that's promising.  

But in order for us to undo 40 years of warring on crime and 40 years of warring on drugs, it’s going to take a lot more than this sort of budget-driven minor reforms that many of the states are undertaking now.  And I think it’s going to take leadership from President Obama and Congress to make this an issue on par with health care or banking reform.  And it really should be.  I mean, in President Obama’s inaugural address, he said that we want to carry this great gift of freedom that American’s have carried over the course of our history, or at least tried to carry through the better chapters of our history and deliver it safely to future generations.  We cannot do that.  We cannot carry the torch of freedom into the 21st century with having built the free world’s version of the Gulag... with 2.4 million Americans behind bars with more than a million African-Americans having lost the vote, it fundamentally undermines our claims to democratic leadership in the same way segregation did during the cold war and the same way I believe that slavery was the great contradiction to the founding of the American democratic experiment.

Recorded April 14, 2010