Photo by Alicia via Flickr.

What are Prisons For?

A two-part webinar series for reporters and editors

More than two centuries ago, American penal reformers founded the nation’s first prison. Conceived according to Quaker concepts of rehabilitation and penitence, the Walnut Street Jail (later renamed Walnut Street Prison) in Philadelphia, was no soft landing. Inmates were confined to solitary cells, where they were expected to reflect on their sins. Nevertheless, the project attracted praise from many observers, including Europeans. Charles Dickens, who knew a bit about prisons, called the system “kind and humane.”

What would he think today? The United States was the world’s top jailer in 2021. The number of men and women behind bars declined slightly at the height of the pandemic, from over two million to 1.8 million. But the U.S. still leads the world in the number of incarcerated people per 100,000 residents. Numbers are only a part of the story. Most of America’s incarcerated live in conditions varying from the just passable to the intolerable. For these individuals, housed in aging facilities, under the care of overworked and often hostile corrections staff, the rehabilitation envisaged by the dreamers of Walnut Street is (mostly) a distant dream.

Unease over the “American Way of Punishment” isn’t new.  Fifty years ago, the uprising at Attica prison in New York focused attention on the abysmal state of American prisons―and led to some incremental reforms.  But something may have changed.  Driven by activists, scholars, corrections leaders and former inmates, a broader debate is emerging that reprises the fundamental question confronting the reformers in Philadelphia two centuries ago. What is a prison for? A seminal essay published last spring by two of the country’s leading criminologists—Jeremy Travis and Bruce Western—gave the question more clarity. Arguing it was past time to end the “era of punitive excess,” they asked “How can society respond to harm while minimizing the imposition of punishment?”

On November 3 and November 4, 2021, the Center on Media, Crime and Justice (CMCJ) will host a webinar series aimed at addressing both questions.  With the support of Arnold Ventures, the webinar has invited some of the country’s leading thinkers about incarceration as well as innovative practitioners in corrections and the law to help journalists understand (and cover) the scope of the debate. (The forum is also open to limited public attendance.) Featured speakers include former Harvard Law School Dean Martha Minow, author of Between Vengeance and Forgiveness; Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, former U.S. District Court Judge Nancy Gertner; Jeremy Travis, Vice President of Criminal Justice at Arnold Ventures; Baz Dreisinger, founder of the Incarceration Nations Network; and New York City Correction Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi.

A program agenda is available here.

The CMCJ is offering small cash fellowships to participate in the webinar sessions and the year-long program to selected journalists.  To apply, send a bio and brief explanation of how this webinar will enhance your work to journalism coordinator Maurice Possley at

Members of the public who are interested in attending can contact CMCJ Director Stephen Handelman at