Bill Keller, Marshall Project founding editor talks about his new book, What’s Prison For?
By Charlotte West
Charlotte West: Why did you want to write a book answering the question, “What’s prison for?”
Bill Keller: That’s the underlying tension across two centuries of criminal justice history in America: on the one hand a professed belief in second chances and rehabilitation, even redemption; on the other hand, a punitive mindset that can be unforgiving. At the risk of being glib, I sometimes think of it as Quaker America vs. Puritan America. A sharp turn toward punishment in the 1970’s gave birth to mass incarceration. That was followed by a (more-or-less bipartisan) move toward rehabilitation, which has now shifted back toward tough-on-crime fear-mongering in the run-up to midterm elections.
In the book’s intro you write, “It is a work of journalism, not political science or political advocacy.” Where do you draw the line between journalism and advocacy? Or, maybe a better way to phrase it is: Do you see a role for journalism in advocating for criminal justice reform?
The boundaries between journalism and advocacy have shifted in the era of cable news and social media. I think of journalism as evidence-based, impartial and open to new evidence and competing views. Advocacy is more prescriptive. When we started The Marshall Project in 2014, the mission statement did not endorse specific remedies, but declared our purpose as “creating and sustaining a sense of urgency” about a system that wasn’t (and isn’t) working very well. Journalism’s role is to provide the facts and analysis that advocacy organizations need to make their case.
You chronicle some of the shifts in attitudes towards criminal justice reform, becoming more punitive and then shifting back to more rehabilitative. One of the most recent examples of the focus on rehabilitation is the reinstatement of Pell Grants for people in prison. I’ve talked to advocates who are worried that there’s a very narrow window to prove that it works. What’s your take on that? Do you see a shift back towards more punitive approaches?
In voting to restore Pell Grants for incarcerated students, Congress prescribed more rigorous vetting and tracking of the programs eligible for Pell money… You can’t rule out the possibility that these quality-control hurdles will just become an excuse to say no. Whatever the outcome, restoration of Pell Grants is a big deal. It sends a message that education of the incarcerated is not just humane but good for public safety.
You mention the growing abolitionist movement that imagines a society with no prisons at all. To what extent does that undermine the efforts of college-in-prison advocates when other progressive reformers see prison education as part of the prison-industrial complex?
Abolitionists deserve credit for drawing attention to the failures of the criminal justice system, but sometimes the perfect is the enemy of the good. Even if you believe a no-prison, no-police world is possible and desirable—I’m skeptical—it seems cruel to tell today’s prisoners, “Sorry, no college for you until the revolution comes.”
I often hear stories about education that starts with an older person gently (or not-so-gently) cajoling a younger prisoner into GED classes. How important are lifers in creating a culture of programming in a prison?
Great question. One of the distinguishing features of American corrections is a colossal waste of human potential. I’ve run across many examples of lifers who found