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Stars and Bars | The Nation

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Stars and Bars

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Sasha Abramsky is less interested in the ideological currents that helped pave the way for mass incarceration, although in American Furies he does spotlight the fascinating role played by a Berkeley-educated sociologist named Robert Martinson, who, after several years investigating the cornucopia of rehabilitation programs offered at the time by the New York State prison system, summed up his findings in a sensational 1974 article titled "What Works?" His answer: nothing. Martinson's frustration is understandable to anyone who has ever suffered through an encounter group. Yet his conclusions, published in the neoconservative journal Public Interest, were grossly one-sided: While many programs do not work, some clearly have a positive effect.

About the Author

Daniel Lazare
Daniel Lazare is the author of, most recently, The Velvet Coup: The Constitution, the Supreme Court, and the Decline of...

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In short order, Martinson's article became the bible of the vengeance-and-punishment set, which seized on it as proof that rehabilitation was a lost cause and that the only purpose of prison was to penalize wrongdoers. Once this ideological impediment was removed, the criminal-justice system slid downhill with remarkable speed. If punishment was good, then more punishment was better. In short order, Massachusetts Governor William Weld was declaring that life in prison should be "akin to a walk through hell," while right-wing Senator Phil Gramm was promising "to string barbed wire on every military base in America" to contain all the criminals he wanted to round up. In Maricopa County, Arizona, which includes Phoenix, a colorful local character named Joe Arpaio got himself re-elected sheriff time and again by parading his inmates about on chain gangs, dressing the men among them in fluorescent pink underwear and serving prisoners food that, as he cheerfully admits, costs less than what he gives to his cats and dogs. "Voters like it everywhere," Abramsky quotes Arpaio as saying of such policies. "I'm on thousands of talk shows. I never get a negative. I get letters from all over the world--and I answer every one. They say, 'Come up here and be our sheriff.'" What makes this all the more repellent is that the people subjected to such humiliation and abuse are rarely killers or rapists but alcoholics, vagrants and other small fry doing time for such misdemeanors as possession and shoplifting.

Amazing how much damage a single article can do, eh? Yet when a conscience-stricken Martinson published a mea culpa in the Hofstra Law Review five years later ("contrary to my previous position, some treatment programs do have an appreciable effect on recidivism"), the media yawned. No big shots interviewed him on TV, and no politicians called to solicit his views. No one wanted to hear that rehabilitation programs work, only that they don't. Beset by personal troubles, professional setbacks and perhaps the realization of how grievously he had allowed himself to be misused, Martinson committed suicide by throwing himself out of a ninth-floor Manhattan apartment in 1980. American Furies provides us with a vivid account of the horrors that have followed--the low-level pot dealers and shoplifters sentenced to life in prison in California, Oklahoma, Alabama and other states where various "three strikes" or other habitual-offender laws pertain; the supermax prisoners condemned to spend twenty-three hours a day in barren concrete cells the size of walk-in closets; the epidemics of suicide and self-mutilation; and the stubbornly high levels of violence between and among prisoners and guards--which law-and-order advocates seize upon as reason to build yet more supermax facilities. US prison policy is like a computer program that is designed to spit out the same answers no matter what data are fed into it: Arrest more people, put more of them in prison, build more cells to accommodate them.

Where will it end? As Martinson's story shows, American mass incarceration is not what social scientists call "evidence based." It is not a policy designed to achieve certain practical, utilitarian ends that can then be weighed and evaluated from time to time to determine if it is performing as intended. Rather, it is a moral policy whose purpose is to satisfy certain passions that have grown more and more brutal over the years. The important thing about moralism of this sort is that it is its own justification. For true believers, it is something that everyone should endorse regardless of the consequences. As right-wing political scientist James Q. Wilson once remarked, "Drug use is wrong because it is immoral," a comment that not only sums up the tautological nature of US drug policies but also shows how they are structured to render irrelevant questions about wasted dollars and blighted lives. Moralism of this sort is neither rational nor democratic, and the fact that it has triumphed so completely is an indication of how deeply the United States has sunk into authoritarianism since the 1980s. With the prison population continuing to rise at a 2.7 percent annual clip, there is no reason to think there will be a turnaround soon. Indeed, Gottschalk writes that mass incarceration is so taken for granted nowadays that "it seems almost unimaginable that the country will veer off in a new direction and begin to empty and board up its prisons." Still, she ends on a quasi-optimistic note by quoting Norwegian sociologist Thomas Mathiesen to the effect that "major repressive systems have succeeded in looking extremely stable almost until the day they have collapsed." Indeed, repression is itself often a sign of instability bubbling up from below. This is not much to pin one's hopes on, but it will have to do.

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