In Review :: Beyond Prisons

Imagine There's No Prison


cover of Beyond Prisons by Magnani and Wray

Beyond Prisons: A New Interfaith Paradigm for Our Failed Prison System

by Laura Magnani & Harmon L. Wray

Fortress Press, 2007, 204 pages, $13


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To those who live behind bars, the American system for punishing lawbreakers is known as “the criminal injustice system.” They’ve got it right. Our prison system is a failure. Prisons damage people far more often than they help. About half of released felons re-offend and return to prison—up to 80 percent of them in some states. And we lock up American black men at a rate eight times higher than that of South Africa at the height of apartheid.

Our solution to the problems caused by prisons has always been a simple one: more prisons. For two and a half centuries, Americans have been unable to imagine that a lawbreaker’s “debt to society” could be paid in any currency other than time spent in a cage.

It is this failure of moral imagination that Laura Magnani, assistant regional director for justice for the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) in Oakland, California, and Harmon Wray, director of the Vanderbilt Program in Faith and Criminal Justice, set out to remedy with Beyond Prisons.

Prison Cell. Illustration by Giovanni Banfi / I-S
Illustration by Giovanni Banfi/I-S

“Punishment, by its very nature, causes harm,” the authors write. “We cannot punish our way to a healthy society.”

How then do we go about the task of repairing our retribution-based criminal justice system?

We don’t, they say. We throw it out and start over.

We own up to the parts of our history that we’d rather forget and the inequities they left in their wake; from slavery, to the convict-leasing system, to Jim Crow laws; from our displacement of Native Americans to our treatment of lesbian, gay, and transgendered people. We address “the extreme power imbalances” that have allowed one class and one race to remain at the top, while other races and classes suffer.

We examine the role that fear plays. “Much of the repression done by the criminal justice system is done in the name of safety,” Magnani and Wray point out, just as “national security” is often our rationalization for curtailing civil liberties.

In the end, the authors call for a new morality based on truth telling, acknowledgment, and reparations—and belief in the power of good to overcome evil.

It is ironic that the gentle, silence-loving Quakers were, in large part, the creators of the penitentiary system they now condemn.

In the mid-18th century, they worked hard to replace the harsh colonial justice system—a mixture of public humiliation, whipping, fees, restitution, and for more serious crimes, branding, mutilation, and hanging—with what they believed would be a more humane and effective system. Beginning in 1790, lawbreakers would be sentenced to a monastic existence of unremitting silence in single cells and silent labor—the proto-penitentiary.

In one sense, the Quakers’ reform efforts were spectacularly successful: they resulted in a penitentiary system that has lasted 220 years. At the same time, their vision of humane penitence and atonement quickly became a nightmare: the regimen of isolation and silence drove inmates insane.

Magnani and Wray acknowledge the Quakers’ role in creating the failed penitentiary system, along with their more recent role in promoting mandatory sentences, which were intended to eliminate racism in sentencing but, distorted during the legislative process, ended up taking away judges’ discretion and making imprisonment automatic.

Why, then, should a reader listen to the Quakers again?

Because the Quakers’ two and a half centuries of experience with prisons, particularly their failures, are the source of this book’s great strength. It reflects an institutional memory of how humane visions can be distorted by fear, self-interest, and bureaucracy, and how policies intended to make life better for prisoners can end up making it worse. These are painful lessons, but crucial for those who work for change.

Sometimes the book is too careful and too politically correct, and sometimes it sounds like a committee-written internal document of the American Friends’ Service Committee—which, in part, it is. But against the backdrop of these faults, the radical humanity of its message shines.

So what do we do with violent law--breakers if we don’t put them in prison? How do we turn gang members, car thieves, murderers, and rapists into good neighbors?

We could copy programs that are working elsewhere. Most Americans would be surprised to know that other countries have already answered these questions, and that many of their answers are working. That’s why Canada incarcerates its citizens at one seventh the rate that we do, and Denmark at less than one tenth.

But Magnani and Wray did not aspire to create a handbook on programs that work. The problem they address reaches deeper. Before we can create a justice system that represents the “peace-building justice paradigm” they envision, we must overcome our fears of each other and our cultural ignorance of the causes and motivations of criminal behavior. “Street crime,” they point out, “is typically an act of desperation, insanity, drug-induced behavior, or sometimes all three.” The only way to end it is to address its real causes: “poverty, mental illness, drug addiction, and broken relationships.”

If we cannot first learn to see each other differently, they warn, the best parts of any new system will be swallowed up by the existing punitive justice machinery.

We created this retributive justice system, Magnani and Wray remind us, so we can create a different system. Forgiveness can be public policy. Equality and justice are possible. If we can imagine a world without prisons, they suggest, we can create it.

I believe them.

Carol Estes wrote this review as part of Stop Global Warming Cold, the Spring 2008 issue of YES! Magazine. Carol Estes is a lobbyist on criminal justice issues for the Friends Committee on Washington Public Policy, though not a Quaker herself. She also runs an all-volunteer prison education program called University Behind Bars that offers college courses to prisoners at no cost to them or the state. Photo of Carol Estes
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