Ten Ways to Reform America's Prisons


In every age and as long as there have been prisons, there have been prison reformers. And for centuries people have been asking: why prisons, do we need them? Who do we want imprisoned and for how long? What should the conditions of imprisonment be?

In a lecture delivered to the Center for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame October 8, former NYC Correction Commissioner Martin F. Horn lays out his personal experiences and observations from a career of 40 years working in America's penal system—and offers ten suggestions for reform. Below is a highly abridged version of the lecture. For the complete version, with reference citations, please click HERE.

Imprisonment is the public imposition of involuntary physical confinement, treating lawbreakers in ways that would be legally and morally wrong to treat those who have not broken the law. It is punishment carried out by the state in our name. And because it is, each of us should be concerned with how it is accomplished.

We trust that the way in which this is done is reasonable, fair, just and humane. Can it ever be all that?

Most of what people believe about prisons they obtain from the popular media. Law and Order, Shawshank Redemption, Lockup, and Orange is the New Black are the source of many of the impressions the general public shares about prisons.

The reality is at once better, and worse.

Better insofar as the extent and frequency of the horrors depicted are less than these entertainments would lead us to believe. Worse because of the scale of imprisonment in the United States, over 2 million people locked up, and worse because of the grinding, corrosive effect of confinement even when it is not as brutal and mean as these depictions.

The reality of prison life is most often ennui, interrupted by moments of horror.

This is an opportune time for us to be discussing the question of prisons and reform. Last spring, a committee of the National Research Council, chaired by John Jay College President Jeremy Travis issued a report entitled The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences.

They say that, the “growth in incarceration rates in the United States over the past 40 years is historically unprecedented and internationally unique.” The report challenges us to respond to this massive social experiment that our nation has undertaken. How do we respond to the mass incarceration of over 2 million people in our country?

The panel concluded that, “The change in penal policy over the past four decades may have had a wide range of unwanted social costs, and the magnitude of crime reduction benefits is highly uncertain.”

They went on to add that, “an explicit and transparent expression of normative principles has been…missing…and [is] needed to supplement empirical evidence to guide future policy…” In other words, as a community we need to decide what is it we want of prisons?

Crime and imprisonment affect discrete sections of our communities. Prisoners in every jurisdiction come from just a small number of communities, mostly concentrated in the poorest neighborhoods with the least resources and the most problems of health, housing and nutrition.

Discussion of Race

One cannot divorce the discussion of imprisonment from the discussion of race in our country. As a result of federal census rules and federal funding schemes we redirect money away from communities in need to prison communities and through discriminatory voting rules we diminish the electoral power of the most poor and disenfranchised communities.

Most prisoners are men between the ages of 18-35 and they are disproportionately black and Latino. This is the time most young men should be building their lives, their families, and careers. It is a time when young men are at their most vital, physical, social and aggressive. Confinement and loss of liberty runs against the grain of their nature.

We ask of prisons that they do what our society has otherwise been unable to do with and for these young men. Many of them have failed in or been failed by the other institutions we rely on to “socialize” members of our community, often including their family. They have been left to live on their own, been abused or raised in state institutions, they have left the church, been suspended or expelled from school; they have been homeless and often suffer from untreated mental illness. Many have not finished high school and are functionally illiterate.

Most of them have not held jobs or have worked intermittently at best; estimates are that over 70% enter prison with addictions to alcohol and other drugs. (Henry Steadman, 2009)

As a civilized society how can we explain the fact that by some estimates over 30% of the persons in prisons are persons with mental health problems (Henry Steadman, 2009)? In many jails around the country, New York City for example, over 40% of the prisoners were diagnosed as mentally ill (Schwirtz, 2014)? How can we allow that?

Because we need prisons and because prisons will always be flawed, even as we reduce our reliance on them we must continue to try to make them better. Rather than reforms aimed at changing the prisoner, I suggest we need to reform the flaws that harm the prisoners. I offer ten suggestions to make prison less bad.

Ten Reform Suggestions

  1. First, increase transparency. In 2008, the American Bar Association's House of Delegates approved a resolution urging federal, state and local governments to establish independent oversight bodies to regularly monitor and report publicly on conditions in correctional facilities. It's a good idea and every state should establish such bodies. Transparency recognizes that prisons and jails deprive our neighbors of their liberty in our name. As citizens, all of us must take an interest in the condition of our prisons and jails or nothing will change. We bear responsibility for them and we must remain vigilant daily about their operation. And bearing witness both to the best and the worst that occurs balances the representations in the media with the truth about imprisonment. It is our civic duty. If our prisons and jails are hellish, it is because we allow them to be. Additionally, we can further transparency if, as we close prisons we first close those furthest from the communities most prisoners come from; and if in the future we build we should do so in those communities so all can witness them and where advocates, clergy, attorneys and family members can easily visit the prisoners, and where the symbolic effect of imprisonment can be most effectively observed.
  2. Prisons and jails are the wrong places for our mentally ill. When the great experiment in deinstitutionalization was begun in the 1960's it was supposed to be accompanied by the creation of a robust community mental health system. That never happened, and where it did it did not reach our neediest neighbors in poor communities of color. We overestimated the utility of psychotropic medications. Many of the men and women we see in prisons and jails are there because they are self-medicating, trying to ease their discomfort with alcohol, cocaine and heroin because they don't like the adverse side effects of the drugs that have been prescribed for them. They turned to illegal drugs, got caught up in the war on drugs we have been fruitlessly waging these last 50 years and that is part of the reason we see so many mentally ill prisoners. We can change that by investing the resources and energy in finding ways to reach and help these people that does not criminalize their behavior.
  3. If prisons and jails are to be humane they must be safe places. Prisoners whose confinement is an experience in brutality are less likely to succeed when they are released. To do this we must resolve that they be drug free. Recently a close colleague who runs one of the biggest prison systems in the country told me drug testing at several of his prisons found over 20% of the prisoners using drugs. Drug use in prison is what fuels violence and corruption and is the economic engine from which prison gangs derive their power. Everything I know and have learned tells me that when we substantially reduce access to drugs in prisons and jails they become safer for the prisoners and for the staff. Yet, in too many prisons and jails today access to drugs is commonplace and accepted. That must end. There are ways to do it and every jurisdiction should accept that as a goal.
  4. Prisons should be places where prisoners learn that respect for the law and for others is how people in civil society behave. This means that the staff must respect the law and each other as well as their charges. We must build within our prisons a culture of integrity. We won't teach prisoners to obey the law by breaking it and we don't teach respect for the rules by violating them. How prison staff relates to each other and to the prisoners is the most powerful way to teach the prisoner how to be part of a civil community. The goal of prisons should be to release better citizens, not better criminals.
  5. Today, one can't expect to find work if one can't read and write. There is no excuse for prisons not educating all prisoners to at least the high school level, and even beyond. We can teach people how to work, even if we can't teach everyone to be a skilled machinist or computer technician. Work ennobles us, work gives us an identity. Whether one is painting the prison, peeling potatoes or fixing its plumbing one can learn to take pride in one's work, to be responsible, to work with other and to be supervised. These are skills everyone needs on the outside. Prisons and jails can work on those things. Prisons are better at doing those things than they are at psychology.
  6. Prisons and jails should adopt performance management techniques, similar to the NYPD's famous COMPSTAT to track progress in promoting the safety of prisoners, staff and the public and to hold managers accountable for results. If you don't measure it you can't manage it and the management of safety in prisons must be their highest priority. There are models for doing this and they should be replicated.
  7. End the demonization of prisoners. Embrace the notion that the people in prison are our neighbors, the children of our community and deserving of our concern. They are all returning home to the places they left and it is in our self-interest to see that they return with better prospects and better equipped to succeed than when they left. The National Academies report suggested that in addition to being parsimonious in our use of imprisonment, and limiting punishment to that which is appropriate to the offense, we should ask of our prison system that it recognize and promote the citizenship of prisoners and that it operate in a fashion that is consistent with social justice, and promote “society's aspirations for a fair distribution of rights, resources, and opportunities. “Behaving that way should obligate prison officials and our communities to adopt a standard of care that tells us to treat every prisoner as we would want our own son or daughter treated if they were imprisoned. It should cause our communities to accept their responsibility for the reintegration of these formerly incarcerated persons and not expect “the State” to take care of it.
  8. Prisons can't change outcomes themselves, they need the support and the help of caring communities, faith communities, businesses and leaders willing to lend a hand by helping the man or woman released from prison to find a job, find a place to live. When the prisoner is released we cannot walk away from our responsibility to assist in his or her successful return. The state should invest in helping the released prisoner to find a place to live, to find a job, and to remain sober. If not, the failure is as much ours as the prisoner's. We have to rethink the way in which prisoners return to their communities. Our present system of sentencing and parole does not support successful reentry to society. We should seriously consider fixed sentences, graduated release to halfway houses and more assistance to the released person rather than surveillance.
  9. Despite huge expenditures we have been miserly with the money needed to provide prison and jail officials the tools they need to do their job the way we wish it to be done. One of the great shames of our society today is the large number of prisoners in segregation, what some call solitary confinement. Unfortunately, in prison as in society at large, there are people who break the rules and a response is required. There are prisoners who are so dangerous that our obligation to the safety of the other prisoners requires them to be separated. But we need not and should not engage in the practice of solitary confinement. Simply put, it is wrong. Extreme social isolation is damaging and inconsistent with our desire to return people to their communities as productive, law abiding citizens. When prisoners must be segregated, the prison must take action to counteract the ill effects of extreme isolation. With sufficient resources, and with fewer mentally ill persons in prison and jail, administrators can find other, better ways to enforce the rules and keep everyone safe.
  10. Finally, we should repair the damage we have done to the communities most prisoners' return to. We know that the unemployment rate for young black men is nearly 25%, twice that for young white men. That economic disadvantage is perpetuated by policies that deny education, housing and jobs to the formerly incarcerated and policies that count prisoners in the census where they are imprisoned, rather than in the communities they come from. It is made worse by disenfranchising them and allocating legislative seats to districts based on counting prisoners in the prisons rather than counting the prisoners as part of the district where they lived before going to prison. These policies dilute the power of poor communities of color while enhancing the power of prison communities. This is unfair and we should put an end to it.

Martin F Horn, former Commissioner of the New York City Department of Correction and former Secretary of Corrections of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, is a distinguished lecturer on the faculty at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. The above is an abridged version of the “Human Dignity Lecture” he delivered at the Center for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame. For his complete lecture, including footnotes, please click HERE. The lecture can also be viewed on YouTube.

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