USING A SLEDGEHAMMER TO KILL A GNAT
A quarter century before the prison and jail population surpassed 2 million, in the spring of 1974, during a political season dominated by the burgeoning Wa tergate scandal, Public Interest magazine ran a long article by a Berkeleyeducated sociologist named Robert Martinson titled “What Works?—Questions and Answers about Prison Reform.” Unlike most articles by academics, which might make ripples among scholars but rarely cross into the popular culture, this piece was an immediate sensation. Martinson became an instant celebrity, quoted by politicians and invited onto some of the most-watched TV shows in the land.
Nearly a decade earlier, Martinson and two colleagues, Douglas Lipton and Judith Wilks, had been hired by New York State to conduct a large-scale investigation into the state's burgeoning rehabilitation industry, and the principles and success of rehabilitation programs between 1945 and 1967. Basically, the inquiry was to find out whether or not the cornucopia of treatment programs that had sprung up inside prisons in recent decades—from “skill development” plans and group psychotherapy to special-education classes, from “assessment counseling” regarding a person's work potential to specialized training in the use of IBM equipment—were actually changing inmates' criminal proclivities. By the late 1960s, in progressive systems such as California's and Minnesota's, some prisoners were being organized into “self-government” units within psychotherapeutic settings; others were being subjected to “authoritarian” systems of therapy.1 Some reformers were focusing on creating “empathetic” environments within which to conduct their rehabilitation experiments. Others pushed for field trips and “community meetings” to be incorporated into inmates' routines. Massachusetts even embraced a program called Outward Bound, which taught teenage detainees survival skills, culminating, said Martinson, in “a final 24 hours in which each youth had to survive alone in the wilderness.”2
Did these programs, their intent frequently obscured behind an alphabet