What’s Prison For? A Review

  • What’s Prison For? Punishment and Rehabilitation in the Age of Mass Incarceration is published in the US by Columbia Global Reports
  • The Guardian — October 1, 2022
  • Charles Kaiser
    The statistics are familiar but remain startling: America’s incarceration rate per 100,000 is “roughly twice that of Russia’s and Iran’s, four times that of Mexico’s, five times of England’s, six times Canada’s” and nine times that of Germany. In addition, “parole and probation regulate the lives of 4.5 million Americans” – more than twice as many as are confined in prison.

Keller is a veteran journalist who won a Pulitzer for his first New York Times posting as a foreign correspondent, in Moscow as the Soviet Union collapsed. He went on to be executive editor and then a columnist, but in 30 years, criminal justice was never one of his specialties. That all changed when Neil Barsky, a journalist turned investor turned philanthropist, tapped Keller to be founding editor of The Marshall Project, an ambitious effort to produce great journalism about the “causes and consequences” of mass incarceration.

Keller’s book highlights many of the best pieces by Marshall Project reporters, but he also uses plenty of his own reporting to illuminate this particularly dark side of American democracy.

The “good news”: the incarcerated population has actually been in slow and steady decline, from a peak of 2.3 million in 2008 to 1.8 million in 2020, including an unprecedented drop of 14% spurred by early releases because of Covid.

America’s unfortunate exceptionalism on this subject is actually a fairly recent development. From the 1920s through the 1970s, the rate of incarceration mostly held steady at around 110 out of every 100,000 Americans. But it is nearly 500 today.

Liberals and conservatives were equally responsible. A Democratic House speaker, Thomas “Tip” O’Neill, sharply overreacted to the crack cocaine overdose of Len Bias, a Boston Celtics draftee, pushing through the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, “which imposed mandatory sentences, asset forfeitures and outlandishly severe sanctions on crack cocaine” favored by Black ghetto residents, while white consumers of powdered cocaine faced much more lenient penalties.

As Keller writes, “Rehabilitation was denigrated on the right as coddling”. But a Democratic Senate judiciary committee chairman, Joseph R Biden of Delaware, made everything much worse by championing the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which not only spurred a prison-building boom but also eliminated Pell Grants for prisoners enrolled in college courses. President Biden has acknowledged his mistake.

It was President Reagan who inserted the profit motive into the prison business, allowing the Corrections Corporation of America to pioneer “the idea of privately run, for-profit prisons”. As Keller explains, “Since the new prison owners were paid the same way as hotel proprietors, by occupancy, they had no incentive to prepare prisoners for release.” Private prisons now house about 7% of state inmates and 17% of federal.

Keller makes an unintentional argument for sending more Republicans to jail, by pointing out that three of the more unlikely advocates of prison reform are Republican officials who ended up in prison.

Patrick Nolan was the minority leader of the California assembly when, in 1993, he was indicted on charges of racketeering and extortion. He served 25 months in a federal prison near San Francisco. When he was paroled, he was recruited by Charles Colson, a famous Watergate felon from Nixon’s White House who found religion “shortly before serving seven months himself in a federal prison”.

The Rikers Island jail complex in New York.
The Rikers Island jail complex in New York. Photograph: Seth Wenig/AP

Colson campaigned for more humane treatment of prisoners. Nolan became director of a new Center for Criminal Justice Reform at the American Conservative Union Foundation. Meanwhile, Bernard Kerik, Rudy Giuliani’s police commissioner who then did three years in federal prison for tax fraud and other crimes, became an advocate for voting rights for ex-felons.

It’s not all good news. By the end of Trump administration, Nolan had succumbed to a rightwing conspiracy theory that “billionaire George Soros was masterminding a ‘Trojan horse’ strategy to elect soft-on-crime prosecutors and bring down the entire criminal justice system”.

Keller points to Norway and Germany as providing the best examples for systemic reform. While American prison guards rarely get more than a few weeks of training, Germans get two years of college courses in psychology, ethics and communication. American visitors to German jails are amazed to see unarmed guards “shooting baskets, playing chess, sharing lunch” and having conversations with prisoners.

One reason Europe is so far ahead is its depoliticization of the criminal justice system: judges and district attorneys are appointed, not elected.

A Fordham University professor, John Pfaff, has pointed out that in the US, during the 1990s and 2000s, “as violent crime and arrests for violent crime both declined, the number of felony cases in state courts” suddenly shot up. Because of political pressures, “tens of thousands more prosecutors” were hired, “even after the rising crime of the 1980s had stalled out”.

Pfaff attributed the racial inequality in numbers of prisoners to “an imbalance of political power – tough-on-crime prosecutors elected by suburban whites who see the community destruction of mass incarceration from a distance”.

Keller reports the most effective ways to reduce the prison population are also the most obvious ones:

  • Make low-level drug crimes “non-crimes”.

  • Divert people into “mental health and addiction programs, or probation or community service”.

  • “Abolish mandatory minimum sentences and encourage” judges to “apply the least severe punishment appropriate under the circumstances”.

  • Give “compassionate release to old and infirm inmates” who don’t pose a real threat to the general population.

The challenge is to get these common-sense ideas to prevail over the rhetoric of politicians who still rail against anyone who is “soft on crime” – the knee-jerk ideology which got us into this catastrophe in the first place.

  • What’s Prison For? Punishment and Rehabilitation in the Age of Mass Incarceration is published in the US by Columbia Global Reports


Cartoons — No Politics

Very Sound advice, even if he wasn’t packing heat . . .




But Grandpa had his suspicions even then .. .










i’m strapped for cash, but I can trade you a stash of plastic straws . . .

Hey, I’m short on cash, but I can swap you a stash of plastic straws,in the original wrappers . . . .











Keep saving up for that first charger, buddy . .


Quote of the Week: The Pandemic Is not — repeat NOT — over

In the past month, two near family members were sick with COVID,  despite shots, boosters & masks.

Both are recovering, but one — a working single mother ineligible for sick leave — lost two weeks pay as well. Other relatives suffered mild cases and bounced back; yet another relative had it last winter, and is still struggling with debilitating “long COVID” effects.

I seem to have dodged it so far, had the third booster shot this week, and came up negative on two COVID tests. But I am still nervous. So, while I’m overall very grateful that Joe Biden is in the White House, his gaffe about the end of the pandemic was not trivial. Past the peak, it seems, yes; but . . . .

Reporter Ed Yong, whose writing on the pandemic won a Pulitzer prize, memorably summed up my outlook:

Recently, after a week in which 2,789 Americans died of COVID-19, President Joe Biden proclaimed that “the pandemic is over.”

Anthony Fauci described the controversy around the proclamation as a matter of “semantics,” but the facts we are living with can speak for themselves.

COVID still kills roughly as many Americans every week as died on 9/11. It is on track to kill at least 100,000 a year—triple the typical toll of the flu. Despite gross undercounting, more than 50,000 infections are being recorded every day. The CDC estimates that 19 million adults have long COVID. Continue reading Quote of the Week: The Pandemic Is not — repeat NOT — over

The Supremes Are Back: Nothing But Heartaches!


They Were a SMASH in their 2022 Season . . .








One more thing they agree on: Susan Collins was an epic Pushover








Sen. Susan Collins is recognized for her diligence  & “moderation.”

Cartoon: Collins Big Sucker on SCOTUS










They stared it down, decisively . . .








555 But if there is a Chance for Choice, Here It Is . . .

Cartoon - Vote for choice
More To Come . . . Stay Tuned . . .





We Can Safely Release Many Prisoners

Thousands were released from prison during covid. The results are shocking.

Washington Post — Opinion by Molly Gill
 — September 29, 2022

Molly Gill is vice president of policy for Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

We are keeping many people in prison even though they are no danger to the public, a jaw-dropping new statistic shows. That serves as proof that it’s time to rethink our incarceration policies for those with a low risk of reoffending.

To protect those most vulnerable to covid-19 during the pandemic, the Cares Act allowed the Justice Department to order the release of people in federal prisons and place them on home confinement.

More than 11,000 people were eventually released. Of those, the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) reported that only 17 of them committed new crimes.

That’s not a typo. Seventeen. That’s a 0.15 percent recidivism rate in a country where it’s normal for 30 to 65 percent of people coming home from prison to reoffend within three years of release. Continue reading We Can Safely Release Many Prisoners

Ian Coming: Thursday afternoon Update

Waiting for Hurricane Ian to arrive:  How bad will it be?

Heading for North Carolina








News Alert – Thursday afternoon, Sept. 29, 2022





A closeup of our home county

Red means facing a very rainy, windy weekend








In The Yard: Will There Be Anything Left?

How  many of these big trees will be standing in a few days?



MAGA & Neo-Confederate Racism, By the Numbers

[The most revealing analysis of the mythic underpinning of the authoritarian upsurge I’ve seen points straight to the “restoration” of a zombie version of white Jim Crow Dixie culture, circa 1920-1950. This survey bolsters that impression. Progressives who want to push back effectively against this drive need to get over the tendency to ignore this history & culture and its stubborn legacy.]

Washington Post — September 28, 2022

Just how racist is the MAGA movement? This survey measures it.

Opinion by Jennifer Rubin

It has long been understood that the MAGA movement is heavily dependent on White grievance and straight-up racism. (Hence Donald Trump’s refusal to disavow racist groups and his statement that there were “very fine people on both sides” in the violent clashes at the white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville.)

Now, we have numbers to prove it.

The connection between racism and the right-wing movement is apparent in a new poll from the Public Religion Research Institute.

The survey asked respondents about 11 statements designed to probe views on racism. For example: “White Americans today are not responsible for discrimination against Black people in the past.”

The pollsters then used their answers to quantify a “structural racism index,” which provides a general score from zero to 1 measuring a person’s attitudes on “white supremacy and racial inequality, the impact of discrimination on African American economic mobility, the treatment of African Americans in the criminal justice system, general perceptions of race, and whether racism is still significant problem today.” Higher scores indicate a more receptive attitude to racist beliefs.

 Continue reading MAGA & Neo-Confederate Racism, By the Numbers

Gwynne Dyer on Putin’s Nuclear “Bluff” (“Bluff”???)

Gwynne Dyer — Sept. 28, 2022

[NOTE: How can we even be thinking and talking about this? How can we not?]

Vladimir Putin’s desperation was plain in the emergency measures he declared last week: immediate mobilisation of at least 300,000 more troops, the sudden decision to use fake referendums to turn all the occupied parts of Ukraine into Russian territory, and more explicit threats than usual about nuclear weapons. “This is not a bluff,” Putin warned.

It probably isn’t. The Russian president’s normal pattern, when he runs into a major setback, has been to escalate, so he is not acting out of character. However, he is clearly misinformed by his own generals, or just not listening to them.

The notion that 300,000 reservists (limited military training years ago) and technical specialists of various sorts (no military experience whatever) can be turned into a useful fighting force in a couple of weeks, or even a couple of months, is bizarre. It shows just how ignorant Putin is about military affairs.

Just a teeny-weenie one??

Then there’s the ‘referendums’. Having postponed plans to stage referendums about joining Russia in the four provinces it partly controls, Putin suddenly put them back on the schedule after the big Ukrainian advances in mid-September. Voting began in Russian-occupied parts of Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhiya and Kherson provinces last Friday. Continue reading Gwynne Dyer on Putin’s Nuclear “Bluff” (“Bluff”???)

Meanwhile, In the State of North Car-oblivious . . .

We’re In The Yard, ignoring the slowly gathering overcast

Just Kitty & the Zinnias & the cactus fruit & me . . .






On the edges, two or three patches of Oxalis, one of my abiding favorites, is showing off. But they also know how to fold up & keep low when the weather comes. . . .


An increasing number of late roses are opening up, a I like the japonica as a frame — it’s a hardy bush which shows vivid green & yellow  year-round.












The morning glories are still a phenom. with three colors of blossoms on one vine. They’re still celebrating having overwhelmed everything else in this corner; but their days are numbered. And no matter what, neighbor Ms. Hazel’s flag is still flying, as always.






Hmmmm. My sense is the flowers & bushes are ready for a storm, in their way. But will the bottle tree make it through a tough weekend?
Bottle tree & table In The Yard 09-28-2022


What We Did Last Summer: They Made A Rainbow Over Montana

Our new US-style culture war battlefield? Drag Queen Story Hour

The Guardian — Sept. 28, 2023

Montana Book Co. owners Chelsia Rice (right) and Charlie Crawford (left) with Julie Yard, one of the members of the Mister Sisters drag trio.
Click to see figure caption

Retired police officer and army veteran Jim Thomas drove to downtown Helena, Montana, the state’s capital, to provide what he considered a community service. On a Saturday in mid-July, he joined a vocal crowd outside a local LGBTQ-owned independent bookstore and began scanning his surroundings.

Charlie Crawford writes “trans folks belong in Montana” on the sandwich board outside their bookstore.
Charlie Crawford writes ‘trans folks belong in Montana’ on the sandwich board outside their bookstore. Photograph: Janie Osborne

Ultimately, hundreds of people attended the Billings story hour as supporters, far outnumbering the roughly 50 protesters who lined the street outside the zoo with signs saying “drag belongs in a nightclub not in front of children” and “stop sexualizing our kids”. One woman’s poster made a sharper accusation: “We know the ‘+’ in LGBTQ+ means pedophile.” . . .

Jonathan Hamilt, executive director of Drag Queen Story Hour and drag performer, said the organization is used to seeing protesters stationed outside venues. But recently, far-right groups have begun disrupting story hours and other LGBTQ Pride events around the country, an escalation fueled in part by the national resurgence in homophobic and transphobic rhetoric smearing drag performers and queer people as child predators.

In June, a story hour in San Lorenzo, California, was thrown into chaos when a group of self-identified Proud Boys stormed the venue, claiming they were there to “protect the kids”. One man wore a shirt depicting a gun and the slogan “kill your local pedophile”. Law enforcement responded and later began investigating the coordinated disruption as a possible hate crime.

When drag story hours are targeted with that kind of hateful rhetoric, Hamilt said, the national organization sees no benefit in engaging in debate – anyone who is genuinely curious about the history and culture of drag can do their own research in good faith. The group is forging ahead with new reading curricula for kids and schools, and planning more events that seek to normalize gender and cultural diversity.

“People forget that this is queer programming. This is queer family programming,” Hamilt said. “And under heteropatriarchy, there’s not a lot of room for introspective or creative thinking or complexity … Anything deviant from that is deemed evil.”

Even if the protests and outright attacks continue, Hamilt said interest in drag story hours is unlikely to be deterred. If anything, Hamilt said, the positive reception of the reading events is growing.

“There’s lots of queer people and a lot of queer families,” they said. “And that’s the reality of the world.”

In the sometimes sleepy government town of Helena, population 32,655, the storefront of the Montana Book Company has for years been turning heads of passersby with colorful posters and cheeky political quips scrawled on a sandwich board outside.

In July, Helena’s annual Pride month, the store had a colorful LGBTQ Pride flag fluttering near the front door. A sign in the window said “bodily autonomy is a human right”. Another sign pasted above the doorway called for “solidarity” in yellow script, encircled by a sub-slogan: “We are all we really have.”

In an Instagram post shared with nearly 4,500 followers, the bookstore asked supporters to show up in solidarity. Owners Chelsia Rice and Charlie Crawford began sending Facebook messages to friends and allies like Thomas, appealing for their time and presence at the store that Saturday. And at two separate events earlier in the week, one of the scheduled drag performers gave Pride-goers explicit marching orders.

Crawford, 49, bespectacled and often wearing a dark baseball hat, and Rice, 44, with coiffed hair and a wide smile, have co-owned the bookstore since 2018. The two former educators’ passion for books and reading was what drove them to buy the local business. As flashpoints erupted in national politics, the couple says the store’s display of progressive politics has only gotten “louder”.

“I feel like we have more people come into the store saying, ‘I follow you on Twitter or I follow you on Instagram. I love what you all stand for. We came here because of that,’” Crawford said. “And then they buy books.”

The bookstore’s bold liberalism stands out in the reserved city of government employees, public school teachers and small-business owners. The city has typically been represented by Democrats in the state legislature, but is seen as less overtly progressive than Montana’s university towns of Missoula and Bozeman.

Residential areas outside Helena city limits, largely to the north and east, have gone red in recent elections. In 2020, former president Donald Trump won Lewis and Clark county, which includes Helena, by four percentage points. Trump won the state in both presidential election cycles with double-digit margins.

Julie Yard, one of the members of the Mister Sisters drag trio who host children’s story hours dressed as larger-than-life characters.
Julie Yard, one of the members of the Mister Sisters drag trio who host children’s story hours dressed as larger-than-life characters. Photograph: Janie Osborne

Despite its location in Helena’s more progressive-signaling downtown, Crawford and Rice said they have felt increasing blowback against the bookstore’s politics over the past five years. Anti-LGBTQ policies and rhetoric in Montana have become more mainstream since 2020, when Montanans elected socially conservative Republicans to every statewide and federal office on the ballot.

Last year, the first-term Republican governor, Greg Gianforte, signed three laws opposed by LGBTQ civil rights groups, including a ban on transgender women and girls playing on school sports teams that align with their gender identity. Another law made it much harder for trans people to update the sex listed on their birth certificate. After the policy was blocked by a district court judge in April, the state health department leapfrogged the court order to create an even more restrictive rule arguing that sex is a biological fact that can’t be changed.

The political turmoil of the 2021 legislative session made an indelible impact on many members of Montana’s LGBTQ+ community, and created a sense of foreboding about what may happen when lawmakers return to Helena in January.

Helena residents coming inside the store to disagree with their political slogans. The debates range from civil disagreements to vocal hostility. Other times, the opposition comes in the form of hate mail.

. . . In June, the negative response took a new form: a man came into the bookstore with a pistol strapped to his chest. Crawford and Rice say he repeatedly ignored requests to leave the store when Crawford informed him that guns weren’t allowed on the premises. Rice dialed 911. The man left before police arrived but made an unsettling impression on the owners, who described his actions as intentionally intimidating.

Two Drag Story hours were previously held, in 2019 and 2021.
Two Drag Story Hours were previously held, in 2019 and 2021. Photograph: Janie Osborne

The couple had twice hosted Drag Story Hour during Helena’s Pride week, in 2019 and 2021 (the 2020 event was cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic). Until this year, they said, there had never been any opposition or threats of disruption. But after the chaos in San Lorenzo [California], the man with a gun in their store, and weeks of publicized outrage around the Billings event, Crawford and Rice were on edge when anger about Helena’s drag story hour unfurled on social media.

In the leadup to Pride, they gathered their employees to prepare for the event. “We sat down to talk about who would be forward in store [near the entrance], what we would do if somebody tried to attack us,” Rice said. “We bought everybody mace and talked about how we preferred them to use it if necessary. We strategized because the national threat is there.”

Publicly, Rice and Crawford were wary of stoking fear among families and kids who were planning to attend. They were honest when customers asked about the threats, but always ended with an encouraging message to show up and have a good time. Internally, both owners were riding a wave of anxiety.

“Look, I’m kind of a pessimist. And I don’t have the greatest faith in humanity,” Crawford said. “I mean, the Oath Keepers and these Patriot Front people and these Proud Boys … they’re dangerous. They’re armed. And I don’t think they want to go to prison, so maybe they’ll try and keep doing the right thing. But I don’t trust them at all.”

For Crawford and Rice, the motivation to host Drag Story Hour isn’t about selling more merchandise or attracting new customers during Pride. As former teachers, the couple has tried to make their store as welcoming to young people and parents as possible. They don’t ask rowdy teenagers to leave, even if they never buy anything. They take notice when they haven’t seen a struggling kid in a few weeks: the next time their parents or friends come through, Crawford or Rice will ask how they’re doing.

Drag Story Hour, the owners say, is another way to make the store a safe and celebratory environment for queer and questioning people and their families.

“My experience growing up as a teenager in a town much like Helena was that I didn’t know anybody in my downtown and I didn’t feel comfortable staying in any of the stores, even if I had money to spend,” Rice said. “But I know these kids and I know their parents … It is truly a place where I think we try to surround young people with community that knows who they are and welcomes them.”

In light of that guiding mission, the idea that their bookstore could become a place of fear or trauma is one of their worst fears.

To make the event as safe as possible, Rice began reaching out to friends, including Thomas, to ask them to come down to the store that Saturday. Another veteran and patron of the bookstore, Kai Bauer, said he had no hesitation in agreeing, because of the special role Montana Book Company plays in the community.

“Not many people realise they’re so much more than a bookstore,” Bauer said. “They are a safe haven for a lot of young people … It’s a safe place for so many folks.”

The weekend of the event, Thomas and Bauer were among a handful of former law enforcement officers and veterans, wearing T-shirts, baseball hats and cowboy boots, who gathered to patrol inside and outside the bookstore. Thanks to the appeals from Crawford, Rice and the drag performers, the unofficial security crew was dwarfed by about a hundred local supporters.

As the event began in the bookstore’s upstairs gallery, a rainbow-clad crowd gathered outside, where police had blocked off part of the street. Local bartenders, retirees, restaurant workers and marketing professionals joined other Pride-goers to create a buffer around the store’s entrance. Someone started playing music from a mobile speaker, kicking off sporadic dancing under the early afternoon sun.

Inside, more than a hundred other people, including teenagers and parents with young kids, crammed together to listen to the Mister Sisters read queer-friendly story books, including Prince & Knight and The GayBCs.

On the street below, fewer than a dozen protesters, arms crossed and sunglasses on, gathered on the sidewalk opposite the bookstore. A woman took photos of the larger crowd across the street. One man circled between the two sides of the street with a hand-written sign suggesting the drag queens inside were pedophiles – he was often obscured by a bookstore supporter diligently twirling a rainbow Pride flag.

At one point, a protester used a megaphone to tell the crowd that the “sexualization of children” is “morally reprehensible”. Soon after he began speaking, Crawford drowned out his voice with overlapping blasts from a red airhorn they bought from a nearby hardware store that morning.

Speaking about the support from her community, Julie Yard said she was “an emotional mess … in the best way possible”.
Speaking about the support from her community, Julie Yard said she was ‘an emotional mess … in the best way possible’. Photograph: Janie Osborne

The standoff was tense, with both groups conspicuously watching the other. But the sizable difference between supporters and protesters seemed to embolden the store’s defenders. More than one person who joined the scene seemed pleasantly surprised when they saw the protesters across the street, wryly asking other supporters, “Are those the people we’re supposed to be afraid of?”

The conflict on the street outside was invisible to the attenders crowded inside. After the reading, Julie Yard asked the audience to talk about the themes of love, acceptance and community they heard in the books. Audience members took photos with Yard and the other performers. People mingled and chatted with toddlers on their laps.

After roughly two hours, the protesters packed up their bullhorns and dispersed, trickling into a bar down the block. The sunburnt and tired crowd of supporters began to thin, planning where to go before the day’s next Pride event. The drag queens exited through the back of the store to avoid any encounters with protesters. Julie Yard surreptitiously climbed into her husband’s car. It was only after she left that Yard, who had spent most of the day beaming to her audience, began to cry.

“I’m not a person who’s going to burst into tears in front of people if I can help it,” she said. Driving away from the bookstore, Yard said, she was “an emotional mess … in the best way possible”.

“Realizing everything that could have gone wrong that didn’t, and just seeing not only the number of folks that were at the event but the number of folks that showed up outside,” Yard said. “That is what got to me.”

She wasn’t the only one who felt overwhelmed by the show of support. After the protesters left, Crawford thanked the remaining attenders grouped outside the store. Rice stood at their side, crying. Later, the owners reiterated their gratitude in an Instagram post written by Crawford.

“I grew up in Helena,” the post said, “and let me tell you how much this place has changed. I felt truly alone here as a baby gay in the late 80s/early 90s and to see the support, and the number of folks who come to Pride events, the flags, the signs, homes with all of it up … makes me so happy for the young and new members of the queer community. I hope we continue to make sure they are not alone!”

Just as the outpouring of support affirmed Helena’s LGBTQ community, Crawford and Rice acknowledged the turnout also showed how much locals value the bookstore and all it represents – even if recognizing that popularity feels “braggy and icky”, in Crawford’s words.

“It just feels weird to me to accept that,” Crawford laughed. “Let’s have a space that people are proud to call their own … And if people want to come and support that and support us, I’ll take that all day.”

After the day of excitement, and getting his photo taken with Julie Yard, Thomas drove back to his home in Canyon Creek, about a half an hour north of Helena. He felt he had done his part, in his own way, to stand up for a group of people being bullied.

“I kind of felt a little proud,” he said. “Like I was on the right side of history. I wasn’t on the cruel, ugly, hateful side. I was on the happy, loving, fun side.”