Rehabilitation in the Punitive Era: The Gap between Rhetoric and Reality in U.S. Prison Programs

Law Soc Rev. 2011 Mar;45(1):33-68. doi: 10.1111/j.1540-5893.2011.00427.x.


Scholars of mass incarceration point to the 1970s as a pivotal turning point in U.S. penal history, marked by a shift towards more punitive policies and a consensus that "nothing works" in rehabilitating inmates. However, while there has been extensive research on changes in policy-makers' rhetoric, sentencing policy, and incarceration rates, we know very little about changes in the actual practices of punishment and prisoner rehabilitation. Using nationally representative data for U.S. state prisons, this article demonstrates that there were no major changes in investments in specialized facilities, funding for inmate services-related staff, or program participation rates throughout the late 1970s and the 1980s. Not until the 1990s, more than a decade after the start of the punitive era, do we see patterns of inmate services change, as investments in programming switch from academic to reentry-related programs. These findings suggest that there is a large gap between rhetoric and reality in the case of inmate services and that since the 1990s, inmate "rehabilitation" has increasingly become equated with reentry-related life skills programs.