“Time was a beast, a big, indolent immovable beast that wasn’t interested in my efforts at hastening it in any direction,” she writes of the strange daily rhythms of life behind bars. Later in the book, she observes, “No one who worked in ‘corrections’ appeared to give any thought to the purpose of our being there, any more than a warehouse clerk would consider the meaning of a can of tomatoes, or try to help those tomatoes understand what the hell they were doing on the shelf.”

Perkinson describes a world of gangs and rigid racial loyalties, where weakness invites predators to “turn out” inmates in a series of unfathomably violent rapes. Kerman, by contrast, explores the formation of prison “families,” complex relationships in which some women become “mothers,” others become “daughters” or “sisters.” Her book is punctuated with touching rituals: new prisoners being provided with soap, shower shoes, and other necessities by a “welcome committee” of old-timers, or mothers interacting with their children during visiting hours. Holidays like Mother’s Day, Halloween, and Thanksgiving take on huge import, opportunities to decorate the dull, institutional walls and to fantasize about lives unfettered by prison regulations. And Kerman dwells on the small joys of her incarceration, whether it’s an illicitly cooked dinner or jogging in the prison yard, the cacophony of her surroundings drowned out by her favorite radio show playing through her commissary-issued headphones.

The story of America’s modern-day experiment with mass incarceration—a process that has, over the past forty years, turned the country into the world’s busiest jailer—is overwhelmingly a saga of futility. The more people we lock up, the angrier we get when criminals continue to commit crimes. And our response seems to exemplify the old definition of madness: repeating the same thing over and over again while hoping for different results. We ramp up our criminal-justice expenditures and build more prisons. The war on drugs in particular has wasted hundreds of billions of dollars over the past decades, pursuing pointless and stunningly punitive solutions to intractable social problems.

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.

 

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).