Despite all evidence to the contrary, we have put our faith in the penal system’s ability to eradicate addiction, mental illness, poverty, and under-education. That it has failed to do so ought to surprise nobody. Prisons, as both Perkinson and Kerman relate, are unpleasant places, institutions where conditions range from miserable to downright deadly.

No doubt there are some people so violent, so predatory, so dangerous to the broader society that they need to be incarcerated. But the premise that society is best served by locking up an ever-increasing swath of the population strikes me as an absurdity. Neither the mores of the Texas Department of Corrections nor the routines of Danbury truly rehabilitate people or prepare them for a law-abiding, functional second act in the outside world.

Want to know how to vote the next time a politician runs on a gimmicky “tough-on-crime” platform? Read Texas Tough or Orange Is the New Black—or both. And then, if you really want to be tough on crime, vote for better funding for drug-treatment centers, for more money for schools and after-school programs, for job-training opportunities for poor kids on the cusp of adulthood. Alternatively, you could vote to lock up more people. But then you must hope against hope that this time around, your hard-earned tax dollars won’t simply churn out more damaged ex-cons with no economic prospects and a whole lot of bitterness to bring back into their communities. And as Perkinson and Kerman both suggest, that’s more likely a delusion than a realistic hope.

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Sasha Abramsky is the author of American Furies: Crime, Punishment and Vengeance in the Age of Mass Imprisonment (Beacon Press, 2006). His most recent book is a profile of President Obama titled Inside Obama’s Brain (Penguin Portfolio, December 2009).