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Q&A: Bill Keller on rehabilitation and the waste of human potential

Bill Keller’s new book, “What’s Prison For?”, came out at the beginning of October. Photo courtesy of Columbia Global Reports.

Bill Keller, former executive editor of the New York Times and founding editor of the Marshall Project, talks about his new book, “What’s Prison For?“. In the book, which came out in early October, Keller delves into the tension between punishment and rehabilitation in the U.S. prison system. Looking at rehabilitative efforts such as college-in-prison initiatives and other skill-building programs, Keller reports on innovative solutions in small pockets of the prison system that offer a glimpse of what the future could look like. 

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

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 purpose using their experience and credibility to help create a culture of programming, and many examples of younger prisoners who credit lifer-mentors with setting them on a better path.

Can you talk a bit about what you found in your reporting about the lack of educational opportunities for women in prison and why that disparity exists?

The disparity exists in part, I think, because there aren’t enough women at the table when corrections policy is made. I don’t think it’s a random fact that two states I cite for adopting strong reform agendas—Oregon and North Dakota—had corrections departments headed by women.

Bill Keller is the former executive editor of the New York Times and founding editor of the Marshall Project. His new book, “What’s Prison For?”, came out in October. Photo courtesy of Columbia Global Reports.

I wonder if you might talk a little bit about the relationship between robust programming and geography—you mention one remote prison in Oregon where you “might wait six months for an AA meeting.” Do you see a role for technology in bridging the urban-rural divide when it comes to education? What are some of the concerns that come with that?

As we all know from Zooming through the pandemic, remote learning is not always a great substitute for IRL classes. (Also, virtual visits aren’t the same as hugging your spouse and kids.) And there’s the question of who pays for the tech—witness the ongoing dispute over extortionate rates for-profit providers charge for tablets and telecoms. With those caveats, I think there’s a huge potential in using technology to bridge the education gap, to supplement in-person family visits, and (via another pet interest of mine, prison journalism) in making the whole system more transparent.

How did your own experience teaching writing in prison inform your reporting for the book?

My class at Sing Sing—which ran into the pandemic lockdown after four weeks—probably had a stronger effect on me than on the students. It left a swirl of impressions. I’ll cite two. First, as I note in my book, their first writing assignments underscored the experience of early trauma that shaped, or misshaped, their lives, and helped explain—not excuse, but explain—what brought them to prison. Second, my class consisted of “alumni,” prisoners who had already earned at least one college degree behind bars. They had accomplishments and aspirations, a sense of purpose and maturity, which reinforced my lament about prison. It wastes so much human potential. I hope to teach again in the winter.

What is the relationship between higher education in prison and prison journalism? Anything else you want to add?

There have been prison newspapers for more than 200 years—heavily censored, written mostly for inmates. Recently there’s been a number of prison journalistic ventures aimed at the outside world. The Marshall Project’s Life Inside features are written by all sorts of justice-affected people, but mostly prisoners. (Marshall then turns around and publishes its greatest hits in a print product for incarcerated readers, reaching into more than 700 prisons.) 

The American Prison Writing Archive, now based at Johns Hopkins, is an accessible collection of writing about prison life. The Prison Journalism Project conducts classes inside a number of prisons on the basic skills and values of journalism and helps get the best work published in a PJP newsletter and mainstream news outlets. The writer’s group PEN America, gives prizes for prison writing. A few prison journalists (John J. Lennon, for one) have become regulars in mainstream magazines and newspapers. All of this helps demystify the least transparent branch of the criminal justice system. 

How does it relate to higher education in prison? My guess is that many prison journalists learned their craft, established contacts, and got encouragement thanks to teachers of college courses behind bars.

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