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