Robert Martinson and the Tragedy of the American Prison

This is a guest post by Adam Humphreys based on a documentary he’s making. This is an early version of an evolving story, and this post may be updated as ongoing research uncovers more details.


The idea that prisons should do more than hold people and that criminals might be reformed, or corrected, collapses endlessly under the pressure of human experience, but persists nonetheless. Among its first American proponents was a man named Zebulon Brockway.

As superintendent of several prisons in the middle of the nineteenth century, Brockway came to view crime as a kind of disease, and the prison as a kind of hospital. He wrote, “to reduce crime a true prison system should recognize the criminal classes for what they are, and bring to bear upon them the forces necessary to modify their behavior.”


Brockway experimented with several such forces—vocational training, rewards for good behavior, so-called moral education—but it wasn’t until 1876, as superintendent of Elmira Reformatory in Elmira, New York, that he was given the latitude to implement his most daring conceit: the indeterminate sentence.

At Elmira, you weren’t given time; you were presented with a ladder. Either you climbed, applying yourself to the work programs, the reading programs,  the moral education, et cetera, or you stayed in jail. Indeterminate sentences turbo-charged the treatment programs, giving strong incentive for buy-in among the inmates. They also gave Brockway an extra-judicial authority that troubled many lawmakers.

At Elmira, Brockway was god-emperor. During its first decade, he was benevolent. Delinquents entered, citizens exited. Some of the success must be attributed to Brockway’s position as progenitor and advocate of the ideals realized at Elmira. He spent personal time with every inmate, knew all of his kids by name, and dealt with them on an individual basis.

His skeptics would ask: how are you sure these convicts are truly reformed and haven’t feigned progress just to get out of jail? Are you really helping these men, or teaching them to be better liars?

And what if they don’t want to be reformed? If they don’t accept your authority?

In 1893, a state committee looked into the conditions at Elmira following some ugly allegations. They put out a call for ex-cons to speak about their experiences and received a staggering nine hundred letters of complaint. They found corporal punishment—used a total of five times in the first 10 years of the Reformatory’s existence, had become daily routine.

Their report noted the “extraordinary fact” that all of the paddling was carried out by the superintendent himself. It did not seem possible, they noted, that a man could inflict so much pain upon others without becoming “absolutely brutalized” and “losing all sympathy with human suffering.”

By the 1960s, Elmira had become a beacon of humanity, a model for institutions across the USA.



A common metaphor used to describe the history of penology is the pendulum. The pendulum swings between two philosophical positions; when it gets far enough in any one direction, it is bound by natural laws, like gravity, to go flying the other way. On one side you’ve got a tough-guy idea of justice. The natural law counterbalancing this side is empathy. On the other side you’ve got a nice-guy idea of criminals. This is counterbalanced by anger.

From Brockway’s time until the mid 1970s “treatment” was the lodestar of the US prison system. In spirit, if not in deed, our prisons were supposed to reform, rehabilitate, and correct criminals.

Then, a radical sociologist named Robert Martinson rose to fame by debunking “treatment” as it had been practiced by Brockway and others. He called it a dangerous myth.

This man’s message became the philosophical lynchpin that guided the forty years of policy we are now coming to understand as a historical atrocity.

This is his story.


The downfall of treatment ideology was set in motion when a study on the effects of plastic surgery on criminal recidivism landed on the front page of the New York Times. This was an unusual boon for Doug Lipton, who’d done the study. He was invited to elite criminological dinners (if you can imagine such a thing), conferences, interviewed on the radio. It was nice but it went away fast.

His follow-up was an ambitious extension of the same methodology at the behest of New York State. Lipton asked: which of the many treatment programs currently used in prisons—programs like group counseling, individual counseling, parole, occupational training—are most effective at reducing recidivism? The answer to this question would inform resource allocation at a state level, focus the discipline of penology, and help professionals better understand their jobs.

For two years Lipton collected over two thousand recidivism studies from all over the world. To help synthesize and vet them all, he hired Judith Wilkes, an intelligent, stolid NYU Professor of Criminology, and another guy with what today we’d call a nontraditional background: Robert Martinson.


Martinson was in his mid-forties, an adjunct professor at City College of New York working out of a single office with a placard that read “Criminologist.” Lipton said he needed a publication to serve as his dissertation and hoped the work would yield one. Lipton valued his unique background, and his political sympathies, which were uncommon in the field.

I’ll sketch a brief biography that might help contextualize his later decisions.

He was recognized as very bright from a very young age, and was one of the first people tested by Mensa. He enlisted in the Navy at the end of the Second World War, but was too young to fight. During the Korean War he joined the Army, but under McCarthyism, groups Martinson had been involved in, like the Socialist Youth League, were banned by the Attorney General. Instead of waiting to be discovered by his superiors, Martinson declared his affiliations. He was discharged, “less than honorably,” according to his son Michael, and spent many years fighting, and eventually succeeding in clearing his name. Robert argued that his superiors—Colonels and Generals, sitting around a table hearing his case—were not nearly as anti-communist as he was. They didn’t understand communism well enough to hate it as he did. They only understood that it was anti-American. Martinson, who’d studied Marx, was the only person in the room knowledgable enough, in his opinion, to truly hate communism.

He moved to Berkeley, where he became an organizer, and Chairman of the Berkeley chapter of the Socialist Youth League. He was an inveterate letter writer. He also acted in plays. When the famous French director Jean Renoir staged his play, Carola, in San Francisco, Martinson was cast as a German General unwillingly serving Hitler. His acting, “got rave reviews,” according to Sylvia Hart, an acquaintance: “Renoir wanted him to turn professional and perform the role again, maybe in New York.” Instead he ran for mayor. He lost, but managed a decent showing.

In his early 30s, he met Rita Carter, a 17-year-old African American. When Robert told his mother of their engagement he was cut off from his family for good. In 1961 they saw a man named Ed Blankenheim, one of the 13 original Freedom Riders who’d been tire ironed in the face in Alabama, speak in an Oakland Church. The next day they joined the Freedom Rides. Robert spent 39 days in jail in Mississippi, three of them in solitary.

He published an account of his experience in The Nation, a prominent national news magazine: “It is impossible to prepare anyone for the humiliating, brutal atmosphere of even the best prison. There are no rules, no precedents. The cell block—like Sartre’s No Exit—was a constant torment of argument, dogma, prayer and song.”

This was pivotal experience for Martinson in both his political and professional life.

In early ’62 he published an article on “The State of the Campus,” which categorized the tenor of the intellectual debates happening on campus. This article gives some insight into his own plight, as he describes the emergence of a new demographic enclave, Graduate Students: “an expanding group of young adults… now showing its political teeth. Scholar, teacher, apprentice, this jack of all trades often leaves the ‘grind’ in disgust for the fleshpots of the corporate world only to return ‘home’ again unburdened of the rosy image many undergraduates affix to the university, the faculty, or the world in general.”

To Sylvia Hart, who met him around this time, he looked like, “just one more perennial grad student drifting around Berkley ‘ABD,’ ‘All But Dissertation.’” A, “brilliant drifter, who’d never get anywhere.” Despite the fact that both she and he were married to other people, they became lovers. Martinson took Sylvia to parties where “beautiful, laid back, young people danced to music played by their talented friends, and little kids, unattended but doing fine, prospered underfoot.” They’d debate about where the world was going, and then “make love”: “and that was the best part.”

Sylvia was saving up money to go to Europe. Nobody but Martinson thought she’d actually go. One evening, after dinner, Martinson asked if she’d take him with her. She couldn’t figure him out. “I knew he was almost unimaginably gifted, but there seemed to be a hollow place inside him where confident drive and a true sense of self should reside.” She sensed he was floundering and scared. He wasn’t sure he’d be able to find another job until the fall. He pleaded with her. She couldn’t afford it. Then he did something weird.

“Bob came and knelt before me. He pressed one neatly trousered knee hard against my leg, hidden under a floral print skirt. His thick hair, too gray too soon, smelled sweet and clean. I almost reached out to stroke it but instead I drew back. For this was an actor’s gesture. I wondered what role he’d practiced kneeling for, what fantasy was playing out in his mind. Years later, I would read the script of Carola, Jean Renoir’s play, and find that in it the general he played knelt twice to his lady and the second time he begged her to come away with him.”

“That evening, some part of me pushed pushed him away,” wrote Hart. She recalled, also, how though everyone said he was a breathtaking orator, the director of the peace center where they’d met never sent him out on speaking gigs—afraid, she guessed, that Bob would get them into trouble. She went to Europe alone. He found another job. Rita had Michael. They divorced, and Rita kept Michael. Robert and Sylvia’s paths crossed again about a decade later in New York City.


Had it been a more traditional academic who found himself in Robert’s situation, it is unlikely the pendulum would have arced back towards deterrence with such force. Which leads to a strange recognition: the qualities that define Martinson and are consequential in this story are qualities most of us respect and value—intelligence, talent, integrity.

Martinson was a good storyteller, a sharp writer, and a powerful speaker. He was  anti-racist at a time when that meant more than saying “I hate racism.” Women adored him. He also had some dark psychic wound, which both Sylvia and Michael attribute to a Depression-era childhood, and a mother whom he described as someone whose piss could etch glass (he was poetic!).

What he still lacked at the age of 42 was a stable place in the world.

Martinson became intensely—perhaps inappropriately—committed to the study. What started as a gig of “several weeks,” turned into, “the major scholarly effort of my adult life.” Almost fifty years later, Lipton remembers Martinson’s abnormal enthusiasm and challenging behavior. There were times when he lashed out at his colleagues, getting really loud, jumping on chairs and lecturing people, being obstreperous in a variety of ways.  He flailed, he was wild: they tried to calm him down— “you know, ‘whoa’”— but it only made him worse. Sometimes they had to physically restrain him.

In Lipton’s telling, Martinson joined the study anticipating he would find out what treatment worked and make a strong, positive contribution to society. But as he read more and more studies, and found the majority inadmissibly flawed, biased towards proving treatment did indeed make a difference, he took a more cynical view.

While studying inmates in the California Youth Authority in the 1960s, Martinson found inmates feigning progress to con parole boards was so common, there was a term for it: “shucking.”

Lipton acknowledged shucking was a problem in the research, especially with sociopaths, but maintained that if you were conscientious as a researcher you could see through and control for deception. Martinson took a more vitriolic and alarmist view. The flawed studies were a kind of shucking unto themselves, weren’t they? “Treatment” to Martinson looked like a bullshit game; cons feigning progress to staff, who feigned progress to researchers.

Martinson thought there should be a chapter summarizing the entire survey, saying “nothing works,” but Lipton overruled him. Lipton didn’t think the data could support that conclusion. Also, such a conclusion was “political dynamite”—there was a lot of money invested in many of the treatment programs in New York State, a lot of jobs and reputations were on the line. There were some bad people who worked in prisons, but the majority, in Lipton’s view, wanted to make a difference, wanted to help. For Lipton the research proved only that the quality of recidivism studies needed improvement.

After the study was handed in, Martinson was “abruptly” informed both his and Wilkes’ services were no longer needed. Martinson successfully lobbied Lipton to have his name added to the masthead of the study, to be published as part of the Committee’s annual report, in the interests of his academic standing.

But in June 1968 when the report came out, the study was mentioned only as an “uncompleted project of the Committee.”

Martinson believed the study was being suppressed.

Worse, he was not given credit.


My generation of New Yorkers, at least those of certain temperament, looks back upon the late 1960s as the zenith of our City’s cultural and artistic life; the Factory, The Velvets, crumbling SoHo lofts filled with massive abstract paintings.

Until very recently we’ve had little taste of the kind of macro-political discord that characterized the era, but we’ve got a feeling for it. Movie scenes scored to Gimme Shelter with archival news clips of the Manson Family, Panthers, groups of violent white men with bad haircuts in high-waisted trousers, Richard Nixon, Vietnam.

Lipton said it was like an “emotional recession.”

Statistics show crime is most often committed by men of a certain age; old enough to break the rules but too inexperienced to appreciate the consequences. We can understand the spike in the crime rate, then, as an echo of the baby boom; but that’s just the map, and the streets of New York, according to Alita Buzel, who assisted Martinson as a graduate student, were, “cowboy territory.”

I interviewed Alita, now a psychologist on the Upper West Side, last summer during the most frightening news month of my life. While comparing this time to our own—she insisted the feeling was even more out of control then—Alita’s eyes sparkled; in trying to get across her sense of the zeitgeist, all she could do was shake her head in disbelief.

There were two mainstream political camps, with different views on crime and prisons.

The Left objected to the idea of rehabilitation and the indeterminate sentence because it denied inmates autonomy. They were influenced by George Jackson, the incarcerated revolutionary  whose political beliefs were used to justify the endless extension of an indeterminate sentence. Jackson’s book Soledad Brother was a bestseller. His death at the hands of prison guards in 1971 would later set off the Attica prison riot.

The Right, the Rockefeller Republicans, like today’s Romney Republicans, had shaped the vision of prisons as rehabilitation hospitals. They were the ideological and rhetorical object of Martinson’s critique.

There were two counter-narratives as well.

On the Right, there was a new group, later called Neoconservatives, who had no attachment to failing institutions. They were tough guys, eager for any reckoning.

And on the Left, there was Jerry Miller, who’d successfully closed a bunch of prisons in Massachusetts without setting off a crime wave. Nobody paid serious attention to this man, but his story is a rare exception, a bright spot in the history of corrections. He is the only true hero in all of this bullshit.


Youth prisons in Massachusetts were scandalized by stories of cruelty. Beatings, starvings, solitary confinement—these were practices routinely employed against the kids, most of whom came from broken homes on the south side of Boston. The public outcry is probably what led the governor to appoint Jerry Miller, an outsider academic, as head of the Youth Services Administration, over a whole bunch of favor-trading insiders in the corrupt, cronyist (as Miller portrays it in his book) Massachusetts legislature.

The appointment was unpopular among existing staff in the prisons. They did all they could to sabotage and discredit their new boss. Some staff staged escapes and leaked their news to reporters, hoping they could scandalize Miller and get him fired. After a year or so of this, Miller came to the conclusion that the reformatories were not reformable—and that everyone would be better off if they were abandoned. So, in 1971, surprising everyone, he dramatically emptied them. He did this in some sneaky ways, like busing groups of kids out in the middle of the night.

This was an enormous, stressful gamble. Even Miller feared the loosened delinquents would commit more crimes, which he’d be on the hook for, in the papers and in the big ledger in the sky. Staff in the reformatories continued to report for six months, tending to prisons which had no prisoners, waiting for the day the kids would be sent back. But they weren’t. In group homes, with outside counseling—with these “treatments”—the kids did totally fine. There was no spike in crime rates.

Miller’s story showed that treatment worked instead of prisons.

Martinson, who would have thought of Miller as a comrade, someone fighting the good fight against the same common foe, was certain treatment didn’t work inside of prisons.

Crucially, he omitted the qualifier.


Lipton moved on to another government post, but Martinson wouldn’t let it go—the study became his identity.

In his story, bad-faith professionals joined oppressive institutions to deny his hard work and career advancement in a cloud of antagonism and corruption. He liked to hold court, act, pontificate, be emotional, and noticed. He played the hero, the disruptor who speaks truth to power—a sane man in an insane world.

This was a delicious role for a former actor; the role of a lifetime.

When the Attica riots forced prisons onto the national stage Martinson leapt into the spotlight.

“Treatment,” he wrote, in a four part series, over 10,000 words, in The New Republic,  “is a Dangerous Myth. Myth because it is not true that prison can rehabilitate men, dangerous because their pretense can lead them to loose dangerous men upon society.”

Attica, for Martinson, reflected a, “growing disgust with what the inmates regard as the hypocritical fakery of treatment.” Corrections was a, “self-contained bureaucracy subject to declining vision, inmate revolt, and popular discontent.”

He made reference to the study: “The conclusions will not come as a surprise to those engaged in correctional research, or to many practitioners who have long suspected it is difficult to treat persons who do not wish to be treated,” and threw backhanded praise on the office who hired him: “I absolve them and my co-workers from responsibility for the interpretation I place on these findings.”

What findings?

Lipton, the man who had conceptualized and carried out the study, summarized: “There was nothing that would lead us to say, ‘all right, we’ve got to put our money in this program or that program.’ The quality of the research needed to be greatly improved so that we could be able to count on the results when we got them.”

Martinson was playing a dangerous game.

The governor’s office sent him a cease and desist, but by then it was too late. The articles had attracted the attention of some important people both inside government and out.


People on campus noticed, more and more, the absence of their adjunct professor. When they asked after him, they were told he was upstate. Upstate meant The Hudson Institute, whose founder, RAND scholar Herman Kahn, was the real-life inspiration for Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove.

It is unclear whether Kahn helped Martinson bring his cat out of its bag, via some legal jiu jitsu—the study became public record after it was subpoenaed in an unrelated court case in 1974. He almost certainly facilitated Martinson’s big break.

“What Works: Questions and Answer About Prison Reform,” published in the Neoconservative journal The Public Interest in 1974 told the same story Martinson had been telling privately, about the committee, the study and its suppression.  “With few and isolated exceptions,” he wrote, “. . . rehabilitative efforts that have been reported so far have no appreciable effect on recidivism.”

The meme version of his argument was, “nothing works.” It appealed to everyone, from SDS (Students for a Democratic Society)  to the Black Panthers, who found more kindling for their rage over the injustice of Attica, to lawmakers, and tough-guy law-and-order types. Even the corrections officials, who bore the brunt of Martinson’s animosity, appreciated his conclusion. They were more than happy to drop the pretense that they were doing anything nice for the inmates.

Martinson received a flood of letters from all around the country, and from other countries as well. He was invited to speak at conferences where, drawing on his experience as an actor, he tore into rehabilitation in a high-falutin’ style, citing the study as irrefutable scientific truth.

In 1975 he appeared on 60 Minutes. He was interviewed in People Magazine.

In the field of criminology, this was serious fame. Todd Clear was a young man studying rehabilitation at the time. He remembers “The Martinson Effect”, as it came to be called, as a “rocket going off.” John DiIulio, who later coined the term “superpredators,” remarked that Martinson’s article was the most influential article ever published in the field.

Martinson consolidated his victories with a big grant signed by The Hudson Institute which he used to found the Center for Knowledge in Criminal Justice Planning. He hired Judith Wilks to help with the computers. He hired Alita Buzel on the strength of a paper she’d written about Jerry Miller. He hired Sylvia to write the autobiography of the study, which still hadn’t been published in book form.

At the office, according to Hart, he danced around waving his long arms, “‘I use all these actor’s tricks,’ he said, ‘they eat it up.’ And with nothing in his hands, he proceeded skillfully to mime rolling a joint, carefully lighting it, taking a deep drag. Then coughing. I laughed and so did he.”

At last, at forty-eight, her brilliant Berkeley drifter had finally made it big.

Within four years he would be dead.

Martinson’s celebrity, and his forceful defense of his argument, made him a lot of enemies.

Among the upset were people who’d dedicated their lives to helping inmates. If Martinson was right, their life’s work was a waste of time and money.

Also among them were established criminologists; they viewed Martinson, the new kid, as a corrosive acting on the pillars of their field. A man named Ted Palmer attacked Martinson in the pages of Criminology. Martinson’s response was shockingly thin. “He basically says, ‘you guys are wackos,’” remembers Todd Clear. In academic journals he made populist appeals to his neighbors and the hoods on his block; this was not the conduct of a scholar, but someone running for office.

Lipton was distraught. He found himself in conferences hearing about The Martinson Report, and in arguments where his own study was cited against him. He wrote the editors of The Public Interest, he wrote Mike Wallace at 60 Minutes, saying this is my research, and he isn’t telling the truth. But Martinson was in his own world, and Lipton, a government employee, wasn’t in a position to get into contentious arguments.


If Martinson, who had earlier written that he thought the prison had “served it’s function in our society” and was ready to be abandoned, had argued alongside Miller for a program of decarceration, things might have gone a different direction, and we might call him a hero today. He didn’t.

I wonder if he struck a faustian bargain with Kahn and the neocons. Or if the editors of the Public Interest perhaps cut paragraphs of “What Works” (now with over 3000 citations on google scholar) dealing with treatment outside of prison. That would make for a better, clearer story.

I think it’s more likely Martinson, a brilliant, creative man, understood the public in a way most academics don’t, and — like any good storyteller, online marketer, salesman, pop musician, or Hollywood hack: anyone at all with a working understanding of the attention economy — he tailored his message for maximum effect.

“Nothing works” was a brilliant meme. It really hit the sweet spot.

But that’s not what Martinson was saying.

On TV, and in the press, he was frequently baited into this statement, but he resisted.

His statements were closer to, “Nothing that we are currently doing has an observable effect in the narrow focus of our methodology,” which is accurate.

Martinson was telling the truth—at least, a version of it. The treatment programs Lipton evaluated did not influence recidivism.

Unfortunately, the nuance was lost in the noise. “Nothing works,” became true in the sense of “you can’t rehabilitate prisoners.” This would become the key assumption of our grand-historical injustice.

You can’t rehabilitate prisoners, so there’s no point in studying rehabilitation.

You can’t rehabilitate prisoners, so you might as well not bother with all of the lovey bullcrap headgames you put these guys through while inside there.

You can’t rehabilitate prisoners, they are bad.

Ask George Jackson if he wants to be rehabilitated.

You can’t rehabilitate prisoners, so we no longer need to think about what’s going on inside prisons; our thinking won’t help them, nor us.

Crime is a choice, not a disease.

A new idea came to fill the vacuum. It was argued most forcefully by neocons like Ernst Van De Haag and James Wilson, who, in a cruel twist of irony, was awarded a congressional medal of honor by George W Bush. It went something like this: instead of fixing criminals in jail, we should make the consequences so strong that no sane person would commit crime.

This delusion has no better illustration than Scared Straight, a 1978 documentary. In the film, young offenders are sent into a prison and harassed by a group of men calling themselves “the lifers” who tell them that if they keep being bad they’ll probably go to jail and get raped,  or worse. The more hellish prison seemed, the better it functioned as a deterrent against crime. Scared Straight was an attempt to deter would-be criminals on the other side of the television. It was deemed so vital and important that the famously censorious FCC permitted it to be played—swear words and all—on PBS. It later won the Academy Award for Best Documentary.

Deterrence—more than racism—created mass incarceration.

Deterrence—not treatment—was a dangerous myth.


The negative response to his work, and the rising popularity of deterrence led Martinson to doubts. Instead of forging ahead into some new hypothesis, he used grant money to verify the position he’d already taken. Alita Buzel remembers running studies through the computers, doing the analysis, and the anti-climactic celebration they had when they’d proved, again, no observable effect.

She also remembers Martinson and Wilkes drinking—a lot.

Sylvia Hart remembers a shocking revelation he made to her. He was having sex with Wilkes. She was too shocked to say a word. “‘She’s not that bad, is she?’ he asked.”

At some point Judy disappeared for two weeks, and Martinson had to find her. Lipton told me she’d fallen in love with him way back in the sixties, when they’d joined his staff. It turned out she’d been on a bender. Michael thinks it was pressure of the implications of what they’d done that set her off. “Whatever his original thinking, my dad felt genuinely terrible at the collapse of the correctional system, and struggled in increasingly rear-guard presentation to retrieve something of it.”

In 1978, responding to an article which called him “a strong advocate of the sure-fire punitive approach” Bob said he favored shorter sentences. At a conference workshop, he unleashed a blistering critique of his own book. He said he had, “thrown out the baby but clung vigorously to the bathwater.” When a professor at the seminar asked him, “What will I now tell my students?” Bob replied “Tell them I was full of crap.”

But the forces he set in motion had moved beyond his control. When he proclaimed “nothing works,” his old friends on the left abandoned him. When he tried to walk it back the neocons abandoned him too. He called them fascists.

The grant expired, plunging Martinson into money troubles which were compounded by an IRS audit. He’d not accounted for the speaking fees he’d collected at conferences.

He wrote his publisher asking for an advance on the royalties of the 780 page book and received disturbing news: his major scholarly work had sold less than 200 copies.

In 1979, he wrote a final paper recanting his original position. “Contrary to my previous position, some treatment programs do have an appreciable effect on recidivism. Some programs are indeed beneficial.”

We can assume it was passed over by prominent magazines like The Nation, The New Republic and The Public Interest, in that it appeared in the Hofstra Law Review.


Michael was a troubled, rebellious kid, obsessed with comic books and science fiction. On Saturday and Sunday nights he’d dress up and go see The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which was a fun way to meet kids from all over the city. Hevspent most of his time hanging out in Central Park with like minded teenagers. To Robert he made no sense at all.

He was doing a lot of acid—”I mean probably 100 hits, 150 hits or something like that within the year,” which, “suffused my entire being.”

He could tell that his father was deteriorating. For example he would be unable to remember the address of his office for the morning cab ride; his clothing fabric choices went from sartorially stylish to jarring. But part of his father’s state left him more open to others’ perspectives, less quick to judge and more open to communication which, to Michael, seemed very similar to tripping. It was hard to see that as a bad thing.

One night he saw his father looking out the window of their apartment, studying the ground 15 floors below. It would have been nice if there had been an adult around to take note of his father’s strange behavior, but Michael, perhaps because he was tripping, was unable to understand what he was seeing. Another night Bob handed him two rent checks and told him he expected to have himself committed. His therapist put him on a different medication and he never went; the medication had the secondary effect of making sleep impossible.

Bob liked to do the laundry at the Chinese laundromat, where they could drop it off, but the laundromat was closed. Michael, who was pretty self involved, surprised his father by offering to do the laundry in the machines downstairs. He later questioned whether or not by doing so, by leaving his father alone, he was somehow responsible. Michael did the laundry, folded it, came upstairs, and went to bed. He was awakened by two police officers. He says he knew, then, but he couldn’t know that he knew. They took him into the living room, asked him questions about his father, and talked around it for a time. “I saw the open window. Which is the one that he had stood on.”

“And they took me downstairs because someone has to identify the body. And it was 14, the 14th floor—the Washington Post got it wrong. It was the 14th floor.  They’d covered his body with a with a cloth. When you fall that far your body deflates; all the bones turn to powder and your body basically deflates. And when I saw him for a second it was as if a hand had grabbed my body and my head was going to explode for just a second.”


In 1980, the next major prison riot was framed as an orgy of irredeemable cruelty and further solidified the uncharitable mood. Inmates seized the astonishingly crowded New Mexico State Prison, held officers hostage, raided the medical supplies for drugs, and, crazed, broke into the protective custody unit, where they murdered snitches with unconscionable savagery. One officer recalled finding through his rifle sight an inmate using a welding torch on another man’s eyes. Demands for better treatment and less overcrowding were framed as an afterthought; the rioters’ true goal was to release the wickedness within them.

On January 18, 1989, the Supreme Court upheld federal sentencing guidelines which removed rehabilitation from serious consideration when sentencing offenders. The Court outlined the history of the debate: “Rehabilitation as a sound penological theory came to be questioned and, in any event, was regarded by some as an unattainable goal for most cases.” The Court cited a Senate Report which, “referred to the ‘outmoded rehabilitation model’ for federal criminal sentencing, and recognized that the efforts of the criminal justice system to achieve rehabilitation of offenders had failed.”

In The Washington Post, Jerry Miller wrote he feared it would be many years before the pendulum swung back. He spent three decades heading an NGO that promoted alternatives to incarceration. There are several videos of him on C-SPAN. Throughout the 90s, in the same, measured tone, he decried the idiocy of our expanding prison system. He died in 2015.

While studying to become a psychologist in the early 1980s, Alita Buzel did a volunteer gig in Bellevue Mental ward, where the cafeteria was run by patients. She was shocked when she looked up to find her former boss Judy serving her. Judy was mortified, but Alita saved the situation by asking her for help on a statistical problem. Wilkes died shortly thereafter during an extended period of homelessness. I have not found a single picture of her.

Doug Lipton was sorrowful—“I was sad for him, the guy was disturbed,”—but even more so for Wilkes, whose death was greeted with no public notice or announcement. He maintains he was never envious of Martinson: “I didn’t care whether he was on 60 minutes or whatever, as long as he was telling the truth about the book.”

What upset Lipton the most was that the world was changing in a way that he felt was bad. “It was not a good way to go.”

In the 90s Lipton was hired by Tony Blair to help reform UK prisons, an effort he reports was very successful. After 7 years, he returned to the US and headed up the National Institute of Drug Abuse.

In that role he applied for and was awarded a grant to do a follow-up to the study—to find out, once and for all, what kinds of treatment programs helped people stay out of jail.  For the second time in his life he spent two years collecting studies from all over the world. He presented encouraging preliminary findings at a conference in 2000; stuff can and does work.

The study was abandoned when the research he’d collected was destroyed in the attacks on September 11th.

Michael, now 53, older than his father ever was, related how this experience led him into fundamentalist Christianity. He’s less hardcore now, but I think his faith has helped him to a healthier understanding of his father’s legacy than may be possible from within the social sciences.

A few years back he surprised some criminologists with this comment on a blog post:

“Impersonal forces and persons remain definitionally different, sociology is not physics – or at least not Newtonian physics, to predict the discrete behavior of objects under stress – because the human is a subject which only violence can reduce to an object. To Martinson’s surprise, his generation decided that violence (mass incarceration) was the only reliable tool to get Newtonian results in a world of stubbornly quantum human individuality. They solved the non-scientific problem of human choice and freedom by refusing individuals both en masse. They answered this question [What Works?] definitively, at least for his generation. But the question was not meaningless, it was loaded.”

Note: This essay is based on an in-production documentary on Robert Martinson and his impact on the American penal system. You can contribute to the GoFundMe here. We are also seeking production and distribution partnerships. For more information email

All Rights Reserved, Copyright Videospa Incorporated, 2016.

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Ribbonfarm is a longform blog featuring a variety of themes and perspectives. One-off contributions are published under this Guest Contributor account. Contributors with 2 or more posts have their own bylines, and are listed here


  1. damn interesting subject and writing. looking forward to this film.