Commentary Magazine


Building Prisons

To the Editor:

James Q. Wilson’s call for more prisons [“Who Is in Prison?,” November 1976] voices a conclusion which most of us in criminological pursuits have reluctantly reached. . . . [But] it does not follow that it is the federal government’s business to build prisons for the states. A public-works administration specializing in prison construction would be an unappetizing pork barrel. . . .

What is needed is state criminal-justice planning of a scrupulous thoroughness, something that is often advocated but seldom attained. To my knowledge, only three states—Washington, Minnesota, and Hawaii—have managed to make responsible projections of future needs for prison space and have then made appropriate plans based on these projections. This kind of planning is fairly well understood, and most state-prison directors would like to do it. Unfortunately, . . . the need for such planning is not apparent to the general public or its elected legislators. Consider the changes in our prisons and their causes. Mr. Wilson’s statistics reflect a profound shift in the composition of prison populations. The proportion of nonviolent thieves has steadily gone down; the proportion of violent thugs has gone up. The prisoners we now confine have brought the conflicts of our streets into our cell-blocks. The erosion of legitimacy which the criminal-justice system has suffered has had a dangerous impact on the exercise of authority. These adverse trends have combined to make prisons more unmanageable than ever. We have to build them on a smaller scale and manage their inhabitants as though they were people rather than herds. The mega-prisons must be demolished as fast as we can replace them with facilities appropriate to the age.

It is not enough to advocate more prisons. We must build no more than we can prove that we need, and we must raze a great many of those we have inherited from simpler times.

John P. Conrad
Center on Crime and Justice
Columbus, Ohio

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