Rehabilitation: help; treatment; preparation for return to normal life; reintegration; restoration; cure.
“Our society,” I wrote in the awkward and earnest prose of a twenty-year old undergraduate in 1963, “still ‘hunts’ the criminal with all its techniques of hostility and oppression dressed in the language and procedure of law.” My first views about crime and punishment were shaped during my adolescence in a progressive, leftist household in Manchester, England, where I was taught to believe that every problem has a solution, and that imprisonment was a relic of the backward past. I was against flogging, criminalization of homosexuality, capital punishment, and “moral righteousness on the Bench.” Influenced more by social psychology than Marxism, I was vaguely for “curative treatment tempered with humanity,” as I observed in my first published essay in Isis.
Later that year, I crossed the pond to enter a graduate criminology program in Berkeley. Here I studied, inter alia, the best practices of the “rehabilitative ideal,” exemplified by California’s pioneering leadership in postwar “corrections.” By the 1950s California had little use for prison labor that some seventy years earlier had played a significant role in the state’s rapid economic development: producing cheap jute bags for the wheat industry, building roads to transport lumber from the northwest, and digging the Folsom dam that powered electrical energy.
By the early 20th century, as Foucault mordantly observed, a defining characteristic of the prison was “not one of teaching prisoners something, but rather to teach them nothing.” Make-work replaced productive work. With the creation of the California Department of Corrections in 1944 and construction of the California Medical Facility in Vacaville in 1950, the state tried to make something out of nothing. It reorganized the penal system and developed a new rationale for imprisonment, adjusting to the reality that prisons were no longer productive factories. Prisoners of labor were reconstituted as subjects of diagnosis and treatment. What were once “dungeons” became “adjustment centers.” Psychiatric screening, group counseling, and behavior modification replaced forced, profitable exploitation. The logic of California’s indeterminate sentence law was that prisoners, like patients in hospitals, should not be released until healthy or no longer contagious.
The heyday of the rehabilitative model in California coincided with the increasing use of imprisonment against African-American and Chicano communities. By 1950, prisoners of color constituted thirty percent of the prison population (compared with six percent in the 1930s and seventy-four percent today), about four times their proportion of the state population. The 1960s also witnessed a dramatic increase in prisoner-led organizations, as well as the forging of close ties between political activists inside and outside prison. Beginning with Black Muslims organizing for religious freedom in 1961, a decade of protests throughout California’s prisons drew attention to cruel and usual punishments, miserable everyday conditions, denial of civil rights, and racial discrimination. The death of George Jackson in San Quentin in August 1971 led to sympathetic protests around the country, including the Attica rebellion in New York.
In 1972, now a criminology professor at Berkeley, I was an organizer with the Prison Action Project. Our conference in January, “The Struggle Inside,” drew some six hundred activists to learn about “issues involved in the prison movement” and discuss strategies for “organizing effective political support on the outside.” We called for “rehabilitation of the entire social order” and building a society that “places human needs over property rights.” At the School of Criminology, many of our students and a minority of faculty were activists in the prison movement, as well as in efforts to bring the police under “community control.” During the heyday of the radical criminology movement, I co-taught a class with David Du Bois, editor of the Black Panther Party’s newspaper.
Not surprisingly, I wasn’t a criminology professor much longer. In 1976, the University of California closed the program and fired its radical wing on the grounds that we had abandoned our “professional mission.” The remaining tenured liberals were placed under the ideological guardianship of the Law School.
While our critique of prison reform was at odds with mainstream criminology, a popular leftist critique of criminal justice was well established outside academia. From the African American movement in particular came a flood of personal accounts, critiques, and exposés, such as Malcolm X’s Autobiography (1964), Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice and Bobby Seale’s Seize The Time (1968), George Jackson’s Soledad Brother (1970), and Angela Davis’ If They Come in the Morning (1971). The American Friends Service Committee’s Struggle for Justice (1971) and Jessica Mitford’s muckraking Kind and Usual Punishment (1973) reached more conventional audiences with their sharp attacks on the hypocrisy of “rehabilitation.”
The Prison Action Project took the position that the psychological language of “treatment” was being used to depoliticize prisoners’ grievances and enforce submission to authority. We shared the view of George Jackson that an activist prisoner was unlikely to get released until “they see that thing in his eyes, and you can’t fake it, resignation and defeat. It must be stamped clearly across the face.”
Prisoner-led organizations were not opposed to service programs. The problem was not too much rehabilitation, but too little. One of the major demands of prisoners at Folsom prison in 1970 was for improvement of medical services. Attica prisoners in 1971 called for reforms that included “adequate food, water, and shelter for all inmates,” and “realistic and effective rehabilitation programs for all inmates according to their offense and personal needs.”
In practice, educational and job-training programs reached a small minority of prisoners. Meanwhile, California’s model medicalized prison in Vacaville experimented with tranquillizers, aversive therapies, and psychosurgery, as well as encouraged prisoners to “volunteer” as guinea pigs for untested and dangerous drugs. As a result, most prisoners regarded “treatment” as a more insidious form of punishment.
By the mid-1970s, radical activists also could point to a variety of influential texts to bolster the anti-treatment tendency. From a civil libertarian perspective, Francis Allen and others alerted us to “the malevolent use of state power,” especially when dressed up in the language of benevolent do-gooding. In Erving Goffman’s “total institutions,” whether penal or medical, patients and prisoners alike were said to experience processes of “mortification” as “the inmate is made to display a giving up of his will.” From Foucault, we learned that the penal apparatus as part of a “great carceral continuum of disciplinary networks” was becoming increasingly “medicalized, psychologized, educationalized.” And Georg Rusche’s insights, first developed in Germany in the 1930s and rediscovered in the United States in the late 1960s, helped us to strip away the “ideological veils” of rehabilitative ideology to reveal the modern prison as a social institution devoted to containing “surplus populations,” and to warning the working poor of a fate worse than poverty.
By the late 1970s, the often-acrimonious debate between liberals and radicals about whether or not treatment was punishment became irrelevant, as the ideological discourse about crime shifted far right. With the decline of mass movements for social justice and increasing sophistication of penal management (supermax prisons, solitary confinement, racial segregation, etc.), prisoners became culturally demonized and politically isolated, fair game for politicians stoking populist anxieties. In his run for the presidency, Richard Nixon devoted seventeen speeches to law and order. By the time that Bill Clinton became president, the New Democrats also had taken the low road to demagoguery, abandoning a traditional liberal agenda on crime prevention, community development, and rehabilitation. The consequence of this political consensus was an unchallenged orthodoxy for almost forty years: unprecedented expansion and militarization of policing; a boom in prison construction and mass imprisonment without meaningful work for prisoners; and gutting of public services for the communities and families of the imprisoned.
Recently, with a steady decline in the prison population and cutbacks in prison construction reported nationwide, the American penal binge seems to have reached a point of exhaustion, primarily the result of fiscal necessity. Some commentators are so encouraged by these developments that they imagine the “punitive turn” has run its course. They point to a significant drop in the rate of African American imprisonment; a decrease in the use of capital punishment (with eighteen states now in favor of abolition); judges taking a stand against unconstitutional police and prison practices in New York and California; and an increasing public receptivity to critical analysis, such as Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. Also, they are encouraged by the willingness of leading neo-cons, such as Richard Viguerie, to speak out against “excessive and unwise spending” on prisons.
In my view, this optimism is premature. In California, supposedly a leader in prison reform, the political class is committed to maintaining the state’s reputation for the most punitive and expensive criminal justice system in the country. With policies that echo southern states’ efforts to derail the civil rights movement in the 1960s, Governor Jerry Brown and a majority of Democrats advocate expanding the prison system; dumping state prisoners into hard-pressed county jails; doing deals with global private prison entrepreneurs; stonewalling court-ordered reforms in the health care of prisoners; and maintaining the routine use of long-term solitary confinement for thousands of prisoners.
I no longer need to remind myself, as I did fifty years ago, that “it is comforting but dangerous to interpret history as the steady march of progress.” But maybe it’s time now to re-consider my once hopeful use of the term “rehabilitation” since it implies a process of returning prisoners to a state of normality. For the most part they enter prison undereducated and poorly skilled for the conventional job market. Even when they have some job-related skills, the prognosis is poor. Recently I visited a young man in one of California’s miserable Central Valley prisons. He had completed a year of college before imprisonment, yet in his two years inside he did not take one class. His “job training” consisted of cleaning toilets and showers in the medical department of the maximum-security wing. Yet, he has some cultural capital to draw on when he gets out. The overwhelming majority of ex-prisoners, however, are undereducated and poorly skilled, as well as politically disenfranchised and disqualified from most decent jobs. They return, as Alessandro De Giorgi notes, to depleted communities as “socioeconomic pariahs who are essentially unemployable.”
Beyond the prison, the “punitive turn” is still very much evident in a wide array of institutions. In addition to the “fear of crime” as a governing strategy, the “fear of terrorism” has effectively normalized the repressive functions of what we used to call the “exceptional state.” Also, many cities in the United States, as in Europe, are experimenting with hybrid civil-criminal laws to purge city centers and public housing of the unemployed and welfare recipients guilty of being disorderly and disreputable. And while enthusiasm for mass incarceration may be waning, several leading academics and policy experts are touting new policing initiatives (“hot spot” enforcement, bigger and better communications and surveillance systems, and judicious “stop and frisk” tactics) as a cheaper and more effective way to control the “racaille” or rabble, to use Nicolas Sarkozy’s imagery. As a headline in the New York Times put it recently, “Prison population can shrink when police crowd the streets.” Or, consider this blunt endorsement of racial profiling by a leading criminologist, Frank Zimring: “as long as serious crime is concentrated in communities of color, the predominant targets of aggressive policing will have to be the young men of color who walk neighborhood streets.”
While the “punitive turn” still is very much in play, there are signs of ruptures and fissures within ruling policies of “crime control” that give us an opportunity once again to articulate and find audiences for a progressive vision of the criminal justice system. No reason to abandon the demands of the 1970s: massive decarceration, closing of youth prisons, abolition of capital punishment, and ending the racial double standard of arrest and incarceration. We can add minimum penal standards adopted by the United Nations: eliminate the widespread use of solitary confinement, provide “compulsory” educational and job-training programs for those in need, and implement restorative justice programs. The adoption of these proposals in the American prison system would be a radical break with the past.
But it’s not enough, as we’ve learned in the last forty years, to focus only on the penal system if we want to radically reform prisons. A feminist perspective, exemplified by the work of Megan Comfort and Beth Ritchie, not only relocates women from the margins of the 1970s narrative to a central place in our understanding of the deep impact of imprisonment on impoverished families and communities, and of the interconnections between personal and institutional violence. It also helps us understand imprisonment and welfare as constitutive elements of interrelated disciplinary regimes, with jails and prisons primarily containing and punishing unemployed men, and welfare agencies primarily regulating and punishing poor women and their children.
Moreover, we should keep in mind that the maintenance and reproduction of structural inequality takes place primarily in a variety of non-penal institutions – the educational system, job market, urban planning, and welfare – as well as in discursive practices that, in the words of Stuart Hall and his colleagues in the Birmingham school, are “as much part of social control as breaking up crowds or imprisoning offenders.” Therefore, reforming the prison and reducing the incarcerated population will require not only a broad political alliance, but also the incorporation of carceral issues into a broader agenda for social justice and economic equality.
* Originally published as “In Recovery From Rehab,” in South Atlantic Quarterly’s special issue on “The Body and The Penal State,” Summer 2014.