Rehabilitation in the Punitive Era: The Gap Between Rhetoric and Reality in U.S. Prison Programs


  • For an invaluable array of comments and critiques, I would like to thank Malcolm Feeley, Amy Lerman, Christopher Uggen, Kim Scheppele, Lynn Chancer, Paul DiMaggio, participants at the 2009 Law and Society Association annual meeting (where an earlier version of this article was presented), and the journal editors and anonymous reviewers. Special thanks go to Devah Pager, who provided invaluable support and guidance throughout the course of this project, and to the many faculty members and students at Princeton University who commented on this work. This research was completed while receiving funding from the Department of Education's Jacob K. Javits Fellowship and the National Science Foundation's Graduate Research Fellowship Program. Please address correspondence to Michelle S. Phelps, Department of Sociology, Wallace Hall, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ 08544; e-mail:


Scholars of mass incarceration point to the 1970s as a pivotal turning point in U.S. penal history, marked by a shift toward more punitive policies and a consensus that “nothing works” in rehabilitating inmates. However, while there has been extensive research on changes in policy makers' rhetoric, sentencing policy, and incarceration rates, scholars know very little about changes in the actual practices of punishment and prisoner rehabilitation. Using nationally representative data for U.S. state prisons, this article demonstrates that there were no major changes in investments in specialized facilities, funding for inmate services–related staff, or program participation rates throughout the late 1970s and the 1980s. Not until the 1990s, more than a decade after the start of the punitive era, did patterns of inmate services change, as investments in programming switched from academic to reentry-related programs. These findings suggest that there is a large gap between rhetoric and reality in the case of inmate services and that since the 1990s, inmate “rehabilitation” has increasingly become equated with reentry-related life skills programs.