What’s Prison For?

What’s Prison For?
Punishment and Rehabilitation in the Age of Mass Incarceration

What happens inside our prisons?

What’s Prison For? examines the “incarceration” part of “mass incarceration.” What happens inside prisons and jails, where nearly two million Americans are held? Bill Keller, one of America’s most accomplished journalists, has spent years immersed in the subject. He argues that the most important role of prisons is preparing incarcerated people to be good neighbors and good citizens when they return to society, as the overwhelming majority will.

Keller takes us inside the walls of our prisons, where we meet men and women who have found purpose while in state custody; American corrections officials who have set out to learn from Europe’s state-of-the-art prison campuses; a rehab unit within a Pennsylvania prison, dubbed Little Scandinavia, where lifers serve as mentors; a college behind bars in San Quentin; a women’s prison that helps imprisoned mothers bond with their children; and Keller’s own classroom at Sing Sing.

Surprising in its optimism, What’s Prison For? is an indispensable guide on how to improve our prison system, and a powerful argument that the status quo is a shameful waste of human potential.

Read Nicholas Lemann’s Letter to the Reader

What’s Prison For?
  • ISBN: 9781735913742
  • Price: $16.00
  • E-book ISBN: 9781735913759
  • On Sale: October 4, 2022
  • Pages: 160


“A brisk and impassioned indictment of the U.S. prison system.... Detailed and empathetic, this is an airtight case for reform.” Publishers Weekly

“America’s unjust system of mass incarceration tears families apart, costs taxpayers billions of dollars each year, and doesn’t make our communities any safer. Bill Keller has been shining a light at our broken criminal justice system for years, and powerfully argues that America can and must do better. To do nothing or say nothing only reinforces the current nightmare. I hope you read this book, learn, and in some way, join the growing bipartisan efforts to bring about urgently needed change.” —Senator Cory Booker

“A compassionate argument about why any reckoning with mass incarceration should transform imprisonment itself.... A strong single-volume response to a seemingly intractable national dilemma.” Kirkus Reviews

“A learned, lucid primer on the American prison system—its history and particularly on the best ideas for reforming it. Broadly sourced, intelligently curated, wisely explained.” —Ted Conover, author of Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing

Upcoming events

More information to come soon, but in the meantime, save these dates on your calendar!

The Brennan Center for Justice — October 6, 2022 / virtual event

The Ivy Bookshop (Baltimore) — October 11, 2022 / in-person event

Center for Brooklyn History — October 12, 2022 / in-person event with Wesley Caines (The Bronx Defenders) and DeAnna Hoskins (JustLeadershipUSA)

Harvard Book Store — October 28, 2022 / virtual event with Jill Abramson

The Commonwealth Club — November 14, 2022 / virtual event

About the author

Bill Keller

Bill Keller is founding editor-in-chief of the Marshall Project, an independent nonprofit news organization focused on crime and punishment in the U.S. He previously spent 30 years at The New York Times as a correspondent, editor, and op-ed columnist. As a foreign correspondent, he reported on the collapse of the Soviet Union, winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1989. Following Moscow, he became chief of the Times bureau in Johannesburg, covering the end of white rule in South Africa. During his eight years as executive editor, from 2003 to 2011, the Times won 18 Pulitzer Prizes. He lives in Southampton, New York.  @billkellernyc