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Mississippi’s Punishment Machine

When “rehabilitation” stands in the way of reform

In November 2018, the Trump administration hosted a much-publicized criminal justice event in Gulfport, Mississippi. The usual surrogates—Mike Pence, Jared Kushner, Lindsey Graham—had gathered for the evening’s festivities, along with a handful of lower-profile officials, including senator Cindy Hyde-Smith, who had recently made headlines for telling supporters she’d be in “the front row” if invited to a public execution.

But even among such luminaries, the person who seemed to possess the weakest grasp on reality was Pelicia E. Hall, the commissioner of the Mississippi Department of Corrections. “We’ve made some great changes,” Hall told reporters after a fulsome introduction from Trump. There was, she said, a growing recognition that the state needed to shift its “focus from true incarceration to rehabilitation or reentry.”

Hall offered a similar message seven months later when she summarized the efforts of her department. “Despite critical staffing challenges, fiscal 2019 was one of the agency’s busiest for rehabilitation and re-entry,” she wrote. “We expanded program offerings to help individuals cope with incarceration, transition back to their communities, and improve their chances of being taxpayers rather than tax burdens.”

Opened at the beginning of the twentieth century, the prison has been a tomb for generations of mostly black men.

Mississippi’s punishment machine was indeed busy. In fiscal year 2019, the state collected millions in fines and fees from some of its most indigent citizens; incarcerated more people per capita than the Soviet Union during the period in which Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote The Gulag Archipelago; and forced incarcerated people at a single prison to “provide more than one hundred thousand hours of free offender labor.” The state was, unsurprisingly, doing far less when it came to rehabilitation. Only about 3 percent of its incarcerated population participated in programming through the Adult Education Division; there were a mere 314 slots in reentry facilities to accommodate the more than eight thousand people released from prison; and parole officers routinely carried a caseload of at least three hundred people.

Hall’s pronouncements, if merely delusional in the moment, took on a more menacing quality as 2020 began. Uprisings had taken place in prisons across the state, and a group of men incarcerated at Mississippi State Penitentiary—the sprawling prison farm colloquially known as Parchman—filed a class-action lawsuit against Hall for violating their civil rights. The suit offered a grim summary of recent events at Parchman but also drew attention to the prison’s chronic problems, including limited access to clean water and failing infrastructure that resulted in some men being forced to “defecate in plastic bags.”

Reading the lawsuit, one does not see a prison that has made “great changes,” but an institution whose chief purpose is subjecting human beings to humiliation and abuse. It is not a new problem for officials at Parchman. Opened at the beginning of the twentieth century, the prison has been a tomb for generations of mostly black men, a Manhattan-sized monument to the intransigence of racial violence in American life. For decades, Parchman’s prisoners spent their days hand-picking cotton for no pay because officials believed they would be “less likely to promote mischief.” There were occasional doubts—in 1957, one superintendent complained that the “young men whom we are responsible for rehabilitating need something more than a plow or hoe.” He wondered: “Which is more valuable, a bale of cotton or a citizen returned to society?”

Parchman had always been a forbidding presence for locals—it was memorably described as “destination doom” in William Faulkner’s novel The Mansion—but it became a site of national controversy as the Freedom Riders began their protests in 1961. Under orders from Governor Ross Barnett, who hoped to deter future agitations, hundreds of activists were sent to Parchman, including a Berkeley sociology student named Robert Martinson. Housed in a single-story cement building dubbed “Little Alcatraz,” Martinson came to see the prison up close for the first time. “It is impossible to prepare anyone for the humiliating, brutal atmosphere,” he later reported in an article for The Nation. “The cell block—like Sartre’s No Exit—was a constant torment of argument, dogma, prayer, and song.”

If Parchman was supposed to break the spirit of the Riders, it had the opposite effect. They volunteered for solitary confinement, went on hunger strikes, and chanted protest songs above the vociferous complaints of officials, unwilling, in Martinson’s words, to “conform to the authoritarian structure of prison life.”

After his release, Martinson returned to California and took up the prison as a research subject, first examining the treatment of juveniles and later joining a research team in New York to study recidivism. He was working in fractious times: a presidential task force had glumly concluded that incarceration occurred in “an environment in which vicious and brutal degradation of inmates regularly takes place” and added that while “men of goodwill may dispute the amount and kinds of investment we should be making . . . none can defend our failure to respect the Eighth Amendment.” 

While Martinson worried about the degrading atmosphere of prisons, his chief concern was how officials sought to imbue their facilities with a humanitarian impulse that never seemed to materialize. He argued that modern penology, with its putative focus on individualized treatment and rehabilitation, had made “‘people-changing’ . . . a skill, a profession, indeed, a moral injunction” but one that was “more a promise than a fulfillment.”

In Martinson’s view, prison officials thrived on their ability to conceal this disconnect between public-facing theory and the reality of life inside. But as soon as people understood just how little rehabilitation happened in prison—and how much of this rhetoric rang hollow—the system would implode. He spent years making these arguments in liberal journals like The New Republic, but his best-known piece appeared in Irving Kristol’s neoconservative journal, The Public InterestIn what may well be the most famous article in criminology’s history, Martinson summarized more than two hundred studies that dealt with rehabilitative programming and other re-entry initiatives. His analysis of their successes was brief: “Nothing works.”

The actual findings of the studies were more complex, but Martinson didn’t seem to care very much. He certainly evinced few doubts while discussing his research on 60 Minutes or as he gloated to reporters that he had created an “intellectual crisis.” Then again, Martinson’s goal was not good social science but good narrative building. He wanted to awaken the American public from the dream that reform might fix anything.

But as he attacked rehabilitation, figures like James Q. Wilson, the conservative architect of the tough on crime movement, suggested an alternative. If America had truly become a bifurcated society—“one affluent and worried, the other pathological and predatory”—rather than scrap the carceral model, it was better to embrace it as never before, incarcerating more people for more time. If rehabilitation did not work, Wilson argued, incapacitation certainly would.

Today, if Martinson is remembered at all, it is as a cause célèbre among academics. But even if he is easily maligned for becoming an accidental ally to Wilson and his ilk, he was mostly right. Rehabilitation is not an especially effective way to lower incarceration rates. The problem is people being in prison in the first place.

It was a lesson most penal officials struggled to comprehend. The year after Martinson’s Public Interest piece, the director of the Bureau of Prisons told Congress, “We must tear down the grim relics of the past.” But instead of reducing the government’s reliance on prisons, the director said different prisons were needed, “without the iron bars, the overcrowding, and the lack of privacy that is corrosive to the human spirit. Only in a humane atmosphere can an offender be reasonably expected to turn his back on crime.”

Rehabilitation is not an especially effective way to lower incarceration rates. The problem is people being in prison in the first place.

The belief that rehabilitation might be possible, if only our prisons functioned differently, continues to hold its grasp on the political imagination. Joe Biden, a man who deserves credit for creating the United States’ carceral crisis, reports in his campaign platform that “our criminal justice system must be focused on redemption and rehabilitation,” even as he offers scant support for “rehabilitating” anyone save the ambiguous “non-violent” offender, whom, he grants, probably shouldn’t be in prison in the first place. Indeed, rather than targeting the structures of daily life that create violence, or updating the still discriminatory and arbitrary federal sentencing guidelines, or reining in overzealous prosecutors, he, like most, seems content to shift the focus back to incarcerated people, whom, he observes, seem to evince little personal growth in their cages.

Back in Mississippi, a similar story is playing out. Republican governor Tate Reeves has promised to “right the wrongs of the past” at Parchman and “do everything in our power to protect the dignity of every Mississippi life.” And yet he appears perfectly comfortable treating incarcerated people as numbers (or, to use Hall’s words, “tax burdens”), and rather unmoved by calls to update social programs like public housing and food assistance. He has not rushed to ax so-called “habitual offender” laws that add years, decades, or even life imprisonment to sentences. Instead, he has designated the prison as the de facto vehicle for social uplift, even though many of these institutions cannot meet their charges’ basic bodily needs in the best of times, let alone those of the present.

Pelicia Hall, for all her breathless praise, no longer even works for the Mississippi Department of Corrections. She is the “Senior Vice President of Reentry” at GTL,  the system’s for-profit phone contractor.

The prisoners’ lawsuit against her at Parchman is ongoing.