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

Praise

“Bill Keller has done something well nigh impossible: written a pithy, engaging book about prison reform, with flashes of wit and memorable quotes from both those incarcerated and their jailers.... Keller is refreshingly optimistic about the direction of prison reform, in ways small and large, and by book’s end you feel as invested in better prisons as if you yourself might do time someday.” Air Mail

“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

Bill Keller on Tour

10/6 • 6 pm ET
Brennan Center for Justice / virtual
with Jason D. Williams

10/7 • 5 pm ET
BookHampton, East Hampton, NY
with David Berg

10/11 • 6 pm ET
The Ivy Bookshop, Baltimore, MD

10/12 • 6:30 pm ET
Center for Brooklyn History
with DeAnna Hoskins & Wesley Caines

10/18 • 6 pm ET
Columbia University / virtual
with Vivian Nixon, Emily Bazelon, & Nicholas Lemann

10/28 • 6 pm ET
Harvard Book Store / virtual
with Jill Abramson

11/14 • 3 pm pT
The Commonwealth Club / virtual
with Lenore Anderson

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

Upcoming Event

Bill Keller with Jason D. Williamson

Bill Keller with Jason D. Williamson

Thursday, October 6, 2022
6:00pm — 7:00pm ET

Brennan Center for Justice / virtual event

Register Here

Upcoming Event

Bill Keller with David Berg

Bill Keller with David Berg

Friday, October 7, 2022
5:00pm — 6:00pm ET

BookHampton, East Hampton NY

Register Here

Upcoming Event

Bill Keller and WHAT'S PRISON FOR?

Bill Keller and WHAT'S PRISON FOR?

Tuesday, October 11, 2022
6:00pm — 7:00pm ET

The Ivy Bookshop, Baltimore

Register Here

Upcoming Event

Bill Keller with DeAnna Hoskins & Wesley Caines

Bill Keller with DeAnna Hoskins & Wesley Caines

Wednesday, October 12, 2022
6:30pm — 8:00pm ET

Center for Brooklyn History

Register Here

Upcoming Event

What Happens Inside Our Prisons and How We Got Here

What Happens Inside Our Prisons and How We Got Here

Tuesday, October 18, 2022
6:00pm — 7:00pm ET

Columbia University / virtual event

Register Here

Upcoming Event

Bill Keller with Jill Abramson

Bill Keller with Jill Abramson

Friday, October 28, 2022
6:00pm — 7:00pm ET

Harvard Book Store / virtual event

Register Here

Upcoming Event

Bill Keller with Lenore Anderson

Bill Keller with Lenore Anderson

Monday, November 14, 2022
3:00pm — 4:00pm PT

The Commonwealth Club / virtual event

Buy Tickets