The Future of Imprisonment

The Future of Imprisonment

The Future of Imprisonment

The Future of Imprisonment


The imprisonment rate in America has grown by a factor of five since 1972. In that time, punishment policies have toughened, compassion for prisoners has diminished, and prisons have gotten worse-a stark contrast to the origins of the prison 200 years ago as a humanitarian reform, a substitute for capital and corporal punishment and banishment. So what went wrong? How can prisons be made simultaneously more effective and more humane? Who should be sent there in the first place? What should happen to them while they are inside? When, how, and under what conditions should they be released? The Future of Imprisonment unites some of the leading prisons and penal policy scholars of our time to address these fundamental questions. Inspired by the work of Norval Morris, the contributors look back to the past twenty-five years of penal policy in an effort to look forward to the prison's twenty-first century future. Their essays examine the effects of current high levels of imprisonment on urban neighborhoods and the people who live in them. They reveal how current policies came to be as they are and explain the theories of punishment that guide imprisonment decisions. Finally, the contributors argue for the strategic importance of controls on punishment including imprisonment as a limit on government power; chart the rise and fall of efforts to improve conditions inside; analyze the theory and practice of prison release; and evaluate the tricky science of predicting and preventing recidivism. A definitive guide to imprisonment policies for the future, this volume convincingly demonstrates how we can prevent crime more effectively at lower economic and human cost.


Not so long ago, serious people thought the prison's days were numbered. “The days of imprisonment as a method of mass treatment of lawbreakers, ” wrote Norval Morris's mentor, Hermann Mannheim, in 1943, “are largely over.” in a 1965 festschrift for Mannheim, Morris wrote that the prison's “origins were makeshift, its operation is unsatisfactory, and its future lacks promise, ” and “confidently predicted” that, “before the end of this century, ” the prison, as Mannheim and Morris knew it, would “become extinct.”

Neither Mannheim nor Morris was an armchair criminologist. They were in the prisons and jails and courts and probation offices. in the 1940s and the 1960s, smart, sophisticated people, practitioners, policymakers, and professors alike, thought what Mannheim and Morris thought. in the early nineteenth century, the prison was a humanitarian reform, a substitute for capital and corporal punishment and banishment. By the middle of the twentieth century, it seemed clear that many prisons were horrible places that did damage to those sent there with insufficient compensating public gain.

Through the mid-1970s, the prison's days might have looked numbered. the U.S. prison population fell throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, even as crime rates increased. Literatures and theories on penal abolitionism developed in Europe, with American echoes. Labeling theory, with its message that the criminal justice system often causes crime by trying to prevent it, became influential. Mainstream reform organizations including the National Council on Crime and Delinquency proposed a National Moratorium on Prison Construction. Alternatives to incarceration flourished, with ample funding from the Republican administrations of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.

People who do not know the history of prisons and penal policy must, looking back, find all that hard to believe. For a quarter century, “prison works” has been the dominant penal ideology. the number of prisoners grew by a factor of seven between 1972 and 2003 and the imprisonment rate by a factor of five. Many politicians propose policies meant deliberately to make conditions in prisons less humane rather than more.

The ideologies and politics of our moment are no more likely to persist than were those of the 1950s. For the lifetimes of those now adults, at . . .

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