Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Criminal Treatment

PUNISHING criminals is a provocative subject that arouses deep feelings of anger, compassion, frustration, and fascination. Millions of tourists have trooped through the remaining buildings of the now defunct Alcatraz, chilled at the thought of being caged in a claustrophobic underground dungeon, gripped by tales of escapes, and intrigued at the sight of the cells of Capone and the Birdman. The public's fear of criminals was exploited by the Bush campaign, which made Willie Horton the symbol of who is to be feared. In another vein, state-budget officers stand frustrated as they watch swelling inmate populations drain the state coffers. Alabama's finance director recently observed that if the increasing cost of the state's corrections system is not stemmed, the state will have no money for schools, welfare, or highways.

Princeton professor John DiIulio has produced another book on America's policies of punishing criminals. While ``No Escape - The Future of the American Correctional System'' will attract few readers from the ranks of the Alcatraz visitors, it isn't because the author buries the reader in arcane or slow-moving verbiage. Written in plain and appealing English, DiIulio delves into matters that worry wardens who preside over increasingly crowded prisons. He examines issues that finance directors and lawmake rs must weigh, including the need for expansion and the privatization of prisons and alternatives to these institutions. The book is a series of op-ed type essays, peppered with ``I's,'' ``me's,'' and ``my's.''

About these ads

DiIulio is crystal clear on his position on several major corrections issues, presenting an unveiled critique of what is and what should be. His conclusions are heavily influenced by the many correctional practitioners he has observed and interviewed, from wardens to guards to probation officers. He holds high value for advising the policies and practices of punishing offenders and thus, himself an academic, avoids being impaled on his own sword when he declares his disdain for academics and other ``eli te penal reformers.''

But the author's promise of a Delphic glimpse into the future of corrections falls short. He briefly predicts that the trends of recent years will persist: The corrections population will continue to grow, more prisons and jails will be built, and institutions will continue to be overcrowded. He may be right in the short run - the United States is now the world's leader in the rate it incarcerates its citizens - but policies eventually have to change. A recent projection by the Brookings Institution fou nd that at the increasing rate the US is locking up offenders, over one-half of all Americans will be in prison by 2052. Long before, the fiscal bite inflicted on the state and counties will force a reduction in imprisonment and expansion of the use of alternative punishments.

The author includes chapters on managing prisons and jails (he feels they can be), alternatives to incarceration (only a few programs work well, with few good available candidates), rehabilitation (some treatments work), and judicial intervention (an episode in correctional history with mixed results). He makes clear which programs and administrators measure up and often lists by name those he likes and dislikes. For example, wardens and corrections directors who avoid becoming chair-bound and who manag e by mingling with staff and inmates are more likely to be associated with smooth-running regimes. DiIulio makes a useful observation when he warns that overcrowding or poor facilities are easy scapegoats for disorder when lousy management is often the real culprit. (During a visit to an uncrowded and reasonably maintained but nevertheless, violence-ridden Michigan prison a few years ago, I found the inmates did not know the warden's name or what he looked like; guards rarely saw him.)

DiIulio's unreserved esteem for certain administrators and systems clouds his objectivity and invites dispute. His assertion that the Texas system was ``hailed as one of the nation's best'' is not a universal opinion - not held by me, for one. The judge who presided over the litigation that found conditions in Texas prisons to be wanting was not the injudicious jurist DiIulio classified him as being. Faced with the same corrupt system, the judges in the New York and Alabama prison cases, to whom he give s good grades, would probably have behaved like the Texas judge. Indeed, a Texas jury found one inmate, who had drowned the warden in a water-filled roadside gutter, not guilty of murder when they learned of the brutality in the prison.

DiIulio's central argument, coined in the book's title, is that in the final analysis there is no escape from the reality that ``whatever the `experts' say, write, or do, and whatever the public demands, the future of American corrections is in the hands of the practitioners.'' This is an important observation, but is not reason to dismiss the reflections and efforts of the academic and reform-minded communities.

The institutions that manage criminals do not possess self-healing qualities and, if left alone, tend to become cynical about their clientele and their mission. Alabama judges with the nicknames of ``Maximum Braxton'' and ``Black Death,'' and a couple dozen of their colleagues, sit in classrooms with Yale law students and professors and reconsider their sentencing practices. By the judges' testimony, the experience has significantly boosted their interest in alternative punishments for selected offender s. Bridging the gap between penal practice and theory offers an escape from the dismal conditions that beset the nation's penal system.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.