Book review: A big favor for criminal justice in Connecticut

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History rarely bothers with prisons. Famous crimes get plenty of coverage, but not their aftermath. If a notorious defendant is sent off to the pokey, he, like his fellow inmates, is soon out of sight and mind.

And yet, the treatment of crime and criminals is a vastly important and complex issue, at the core of societal values and beliefs, a test Winston Churchill said, of a country’s civilization. It also represents massive expense.

Gordon S. Bates has done Connecticut a big favor by holding a mirror up to the state’s criminal justice history. The reflection is not always pretty, particularly in the last 40 years, the age of mass incarceration.

His observations come in a new book titled “The Connecticut Prison Association And The Search For Reformatory Justice” (Wesleyan University Press). Bates is a United Church of Christ (Congregational) minister who served as executive director of the Connecticut Prison Association — now called Community Partners in Action — from 1980 to 1998.

This is not simply the history of a little-known agency. Bates draws on national trends, scholarly research and his lengthy personal experience to weave a compelling history of the state’s criminal justice system, seen through the perspective of an organization that battled for change.
Bates frames his narrative around the question of whether prisons are primarily for punishment or for rehabilitation. Since its founding in 1875, the CPA has championed the latter position.

prison-book-cover

Bates traces the modern prison to changes in Protestant theology in the 19th century, away from the harsh Puritan doctrine of predestination toward the idea of free will, that people could change and find new direction for their lives. Leading New Haven theologian Nathaniel Taylor also promoted the then-novel proposition that the church should be “involved in society’s problems through participation in voluntary associations as well as personal charitable acts.”

The mid-19th century was a golden age of voluntary associations intended to help those in need, and from this milieu came a group to help prisoners, founded in 1875 as the Prisoner’s Friend Corporation, and soon renamed the Connecticut Prison Association. Its goals were to “assist prisoners in the work of self-reform,” “promote reformatory systems of prison management,” “aid discharged convicts in living honorably” and “to co-operate in the repression of crime.”

And so it has. The agency has drawn some of the state’s best and brightest over the decades, from Yale Law School Dean Francis Wayland and legendary State Supreme Court Chief Justice William Maltbie to judge-lawyer-author Robert Satter and Judge Raymond Norko, innovator of the Community Court.

They and countless others battled for reforms that now — for the most part — are taken for granted: parole, probation, a separate prison for women, a juvenile court, halfway houses and a single state corrections department instead of separate management of the state prison and county jails.

The reformers rid the system of shaved heads, the ball and chain, lockstep and meals served in cells. For decades the CPA was the only source of help for mentally ill inmates — one of many 19th century issues, including overrepresentation of minorities in prison, fears that immigration increases crime, difficulty finding employment and housing for former inmates — that still resonate today.

The CPA didn’t coddle criminals, as a few charged over the years. Bates writes that leaders of the agency always understood that individuals made a personal choice to commit crime, for which they should be help responsible. But they also believed that factors such as poverty, lack of education, unemployment or substance abuse made the choice easier.

They believed that some of these problems could be addressed during and after incarceration, so that a former inmate — nearly all are eventually released — could function as a law-abiding member of society. This is the “restorative” or “reformatory” view of justice. It was always in competition with the “retributive” idea, that prisons were primarily for punishment.

The reformative view held sway, however imperfectly, for a century, but began to change in the 1970s, with the Supreme Court’s restoration of the death penalty, and especially with the election of conservative Republican Ronald Reagan in 1980, who made public safety and getting tough on crime a pillar of his presidency.

Reagan “vastly intensified Nixon’s War on Drugs,” encouraging “mandatory and harsh sentences” for drug offenders. This “highly punitive form of retributive justice” drove a surge in prison building the likes of which the country had never seen before. And it wasn’t enough. Despite efforts by the CPA and others to create alternatives to incarceration, the prisons became dangerously overcrowded.

Though considered a moderate state, Connecticut was caught up in this jail mania. The state spent more than $1 billion from 1985 to 1995 on new prison facilities. The state’s prison population went from less than 4,000 in 1981 to more than 17,000 in 2000.
It was hugely expensive: the correctional budget rose from $92.5 million in 1985 to $417 million in in 1997.

Bates’ focus was one the years 1875 to 2000.??? Those numbers got worse before they got better.

Was mass incarceration worth the trouble? Bates argues persuasively that it was counterproductive, that it wreaked havoc on the social fabric of neighborhoods, to the point where it actually perpetuated crime. He said the ultimate legacy of this era “was the creation of a permanent underclass” of disenfranchised people who have great difficulty finding homes or jobs.

In an epilogue, initiatives such as Gov. Dannel Malloy’s Second Chance Society initiative give Bates hope that the pendulum is swinging back toward reformatory justice.

I can quibble with a few things in the book. Bates, whom I’ve known for years and count as a friend, let a couple of silly errors slip into the text (Bridgeport is not the third largest city in the state; it is the largest). I would like to have seen a discussion of the unfortunate 1999 transfer of nearly 500 Connecticut inmates to Virginia prisons to lessen prison overcrowding here.

Those minor issues aside, Bates has produced a remarkable and important book, one that anyone interested in Connecticut history or its justice system should read and keep for reference.

Tom Condon writes about urban and regional issues for CTMirror.org, including planning, transportation, land use, development and historic preservation. These were among his areas of interest in a 45-year career as a reporter, columnist and editorial writer for The Hartford Courant.

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