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 CGR Director 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


“Keller’s smart, short new book tries to explain how America became so addicted to mass incarceration, and how we might finally reform a system which houses a disproportionally Black and brown population.” The Guardian

“Having spent years immersed in prisons as a reporter and teacher, Keller offers a blunt indictment of our broken prison system, while also pointing out real possibilities for reform.” Commonweal

“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

“It’s rare to finish the last page of a book on the criminal legal system with hope, and one does walk away with a sense that even just one person can positively impact lives of those behind bars. While the question of what prisons are for can’t be answered by any one text, Keller’s contribution to the conversation is an important one.” Brennan Center for Justice

“Readers might close What’s Prison For? reminded of the need to find less retributive ways to address the harms and pain imposed on crime victims.... Incarcerated people are people. Bill Keller reminds us that we must treat them that way, both to honor their humanity and to honor our own.” Washington Monthly

“Makes the case that governments routinely squander the opportunity to improve the prospects of people they view as dangerous enough to lock up for years or decades.” Reason

“A valuable and necessary book.” The Arts Fuse

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

“This book will resonate strongly with anyone impacted by US prisons, but is a good entry point into conversations about US prisons for all readers.” —CHOICE

“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


Why America’s Prisons Are Long-Overdue for Reform — Katie Couric Media

“What’s Prison For?”: Bill Keller’s critique of US mass incarceration — Midday

30 Issues: Mass Incarceration and Bail Reform — The Brian Lehrer Show

Bill Keller talks about his new book, “What's Prison For?” — Where We Live (Connecticut Public Radio)

Q&A: Bill Keller on rehabilitation and the waste of human potential — Open Campus

Understanding America’s Prison Problem — The Prof G Pod Office Hours

Prisoners Today, Neighbors Tomorrow — New York Times Race/Related newsletter

What Happens Inside Our Prisons & How We Got Here — Columbia University virtual event (video)

About the author

Bill Keller
© Emma 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