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Kennedy School Review

Topic / Fairness and Justice

“Nudging” Prisons: New Hope for Real Prison Reform


It was described as a fortress: a “brand new, state of the art, top-security prison.” Fortified by inner and outer perimeters, topped with razor wires, and circumscribed by a huge fence, it was protected by a hair-trigger alarm system and omnipresent security cameras. It was built not outside of Washington, DC, or next to the Russian Gulags, but on the beautiful island of Aruba. This led to a host of questions: “Who decided to build a top-security prison in a country where most crime is non-violent and petty and where a long sentence is regarded as one of eight months or more? Who decided to build a prison with so little access to light and air on a tropical island? Who felt that, in a place so small that personal relationships are all-important, the right prison was one controlled by electronic surveillance and high-tech gadgetry? How did such a completely Western construct end up on the beach of a South American island anyway?”[i]

Prison has become an addiction in the United States. We incarcerate a greater portion of our population than any other country in the world. The prison-industrial complex continues to grow, despite regular calls for reform from policy institutes and human rights organizations. Why has it been so hard to reform prisons, and what can we do about it?

In this article, I take a brief tour through prison history and suggest that the politics of prison reform are so loaded that calls for fundamental reform are unlikely to work. Instead, we need to reconceptualize prison as a space designed to keep criminals from reoffending. One tool that may prove particularly effective comes from behavioral economics: the nudge. By “nudging” prisons from the inside we can improve policy outcomes while minimizing the political obstacles.

A History of Double-Edged Reforms

Prisons as an institution have shifted as societal thinking has changed. Prior to the late nineteenth century, prisons were meant to hold prisoners until their “real” punishment, which was usually physically painful (e.g., public whipping) and could include public humiliation (e.g., the stocks). These places were filthy, brutish, and spread disease. As corporal punishment came to be questioned as ineffective, Quakers began championing prison reforms: religious instruction, solitary confinement, classification by offense. The Walnut Street Jail built in Philadelphia—with its expensive, beautiful architecture, central heating, and emphasis on peace and solitude for prisoners—exemplified these higher aims for prisons. The cells were left bare and bars put on the walls to symbolize austerity so prisoners could meditate on the transcendent and move away from their criminality.

But the history of prisons is one of ups and downs, divots, and double-edged reforms. In the Victorian era, a more “scientific” notion of prisons came into vogue, inspired by Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism: maximum punishment to help offenders right their ways. Prisons in the United Kingdom used back-breaking physical labor to punish debtors—usually drunks, beggars, prostitutes, and tramps—using a horrifying piece of machinery called the treadwheel that made grown men cry. Already poor, malnourished, and filthy, prisoners were made more so with rampant diarrhea, terrible hunger, and torture, in the guise of vanguard utilitarianism and rehabilitation. Audiences came for entertainment, as if watching caged animals at the zoo.

Starting in the 1930s, various prison reform movements began to converge, based on new work in psychology and sociology. Theorists and practitioners began to believe that criminality may be inherent in so-called “deviant” people who were destined to commit crime—and so the right thing to do was to lock them up and try to help them. This in turn spurred a warehousing of prisoners and medicalization of their treatment.

It wasn’t until the 1970s that this paradigm was thoroughly challenged by sociologist Robert Martinson, a former civil rights protester who had himself spent forty days in prison as a result of his activism. Asked by New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller to research prison rehabilitation efforts, Martinson helped produce an enormous, 1,400-page meta-study that found little evidence that any existing programs actually worked.[ii] He was determined to get this vital information out to the public, convinced that his results would lead to a thoughtful reexamination of prisons and perhaps their elimination. Instead, the press sensationalized it as proof that “nothing works” and policy makers followed suit by using his study to justify removing educational and vocational programs from prisons as well as counseling and community-based treatment. Stunned by how his work was used to justify harsher, more punitive policies, Martinson committed suicide.

Broadly popular “tough on crime” policies continued to increase throughout the 1980s as a reaction to public fear following crime waves. More people were locked up for longer sentences, a trend that continues to this day. We have seen its apotheosis in the high-tech, high-security, incredibly expensive Supermax prisons. Today, the United States holds nearly a quarter of the world’s prison population.

The costs of mass incarceration are widely agreed to be enormous. The financial cost of feeding and housing inmates can exceed the costs of attending a private university.[iii],[iv] There are also secondary costs to prisoners’ families: lost time and wages, humiliations experienced when visiting, and social costs of children growing up without parents.[v] Prisoners experience psychological costs, including heightened depression, anxiety, and suicidality.[vi] The economy suffers from lost labor and difficulty putting prisoners back to work. Finally, there’s the moral cost from human rights abuses endured and the psychic costs of wasted lives. All these costs are amplified by high recidivism rates and the long-term imprisonment of many offenders.

So what is prison? My argument is that prison is a muddled, costly attempt to simultaneously punish, rehabilitate, and warehouse those whom society considers deviant—yet none of those goals are satisfyingly achieved. It’s based on outdated thinking from bygone eras, it’s ineffective, and it costs huge amounts of money. So why don’t policy makers just reform them?

Why Reforms Have Stalled

There are three main reasons why prison reforms have stalled. First, the politics of prison reform are caustic. Politicians who seem “soft” on crime risk being voted out of office. This fear crystallized in 1988 after inmate Willie Horton escaped from a prison furlough program and attacked a civilian. That year’s Democratic nominee for president, Michael Dukakis, was bludgeoned in political advertisements and subsequently lost the election by an overwhelming margin. More recently, Mike Huckabee was tarnished as a 2008 presidential Republican primary candidate for pardoning a man who later allegedly murdered four police officers. Politicians strive to maintain an image as “tough on crime,” which in turn undermines serious reform efforts. Lacking a well-funded, well-organized public movement to give them cover, it remains difficult for policy makers to take a strong stand for prison reform—especially if that reform includes improving conditions for violent offenders.

Second, there’s an entrenched status quo. We think of prisons as normal, and this conception becomes reified; prisoners are thought to deserve their punishment, as though placing a human being in a metal cage is a proportionate punishment. There’s an added “out of sight, out of mind” problem: huge swaths of the public rarely think of prisons during their daily lives. The relative lack of public debate today about punishing offenders pales when compared to the 1800s. Prison architecture plays a role as well: anachronistic structures (e.g., cells with bars) are used to save money even though they reflect outdated philosophies of punishment.

Third, people are anxious about crime in a way that’s essentially primal. The specter of violent crime abounds, amplified by 24/7 cable news and screaming tabloid headlines about murders, shootings, and muggings—even as, ironically, violent crime rates continue to drop. Prison gives the illusion of security in a dangerous world; people believe it makes them safer. So it may be immoral, unjust, illegitimate, disproportionate, or incoherent—but at a gut level, it just feels safer to put so-called dangerous people behind bars. For this reason especially, attempts at prison abolition—such as those promulgated by the activist organization Critical Resistance—seem unlikely to be effective in the near term.

All these factors have contributed to gridlocked reform efforts.

A New Hope?

In 1998, Singapore was faced with similar problems: rising numbers of prisoners, overcrowding, high recidivism, and trouble recruiting and retaining correctional officers. Director of Singapore Prison Service Chua Chin Kiat changed the mission: now it would be “to get criminals out of prison.” The program implemented, “Prisons as schools for life,” recast guards as “captains of lives,” responsible for all prisoners’ human needs—physical, emotional, spiritual, vocational, educational—and future success. They tended to drug addictions, mental health, and character; focused on reintegrating prisoners speedily into the community through work release; and helped them secure steady jobs. Key components included a humane and trusting process, educating both prisoners and the public, developing effective after-care programs, and carefully monitoring and prioritizing key metrics for life success.

The results were dramatic. Within the next ten years, they slashed recidivism from 44 percent to a low of 23 percent, settling at 27 percent in 2009.[vii] Respect for guards skyrocketed above 90 percent. Assaults plummeted, guards reported better working conditions, and the recruitment problem was solved. Corrections officers enjoyed their job more when it was to help people get their lives back on track. The service’s slogan: “We’re trained to look for the sparkle, not just the flaw.”

A few key lessons can be drawn from Singapore’s experience. First, it is worth reconceptualizing the role of prisons: to prepare prisoners to be effective citizens. As Peter van Hulten notes, prisoners are really “citizens temporarily removed from society, but almost certain to return there, with all their civil rights.”[viii] When prisons become a revolving door, they are costly and a waste of human life. If we don’t prepare offenders for life outside the prison gates—and don’t remedy any preexisting problems that contribute to recidivism, such as mental health issues, illiteracy, educational deficits, and lack of job preparedness—we are paving the way for their return to prison.

Within the United States, we can also see reform programs, but they are more truncated. The drug court movement, in which drug offenders get treatment instead of jail, has been used to decrease crowded jails and save taxpayers money. Politically, they have garnered support from a wide range of actors, including fiscally and socially conservative politicians who might otherwise be opponents of “lenient” prison policy. But these courts focus primarily on minor drug offenders rather than the entirety of the current prison population.

Similarly, reforms targeting youth offenders in Massachusetts and Missouri have garnered public support for reducing the number of young people behind bars and saving taxpayer money, but it seems doubtful the public would support using these programs for higher-risk, non-juvenile offenders. The public views youth crime more sympathetically and is more willing to consider creative and restorative approaches. But the “tough on crime” factor for adult prisoners remains; increasing expenditures to help these offenders remains a tough sell to the American public.

“Nudging” Prisons

A different approach to reconceptualizing prisons is to reform them from the inside using “nudges.” Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler define a nudge as “any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives.”[ix] Small nudges to prisons hold the possibility of improving conditions and outcomes for prisoners while minimizing political risk and public objections.

For example, instead of asking the state to provide drug treatment to all addicted prisoners, prisons can post the phone numbers for free drug treatment programs (run by outside nonprofits) on prison bulletin boards and give prisoners access to phones that would let them take advantage of them. The Spring Hill prison in Grendon Underwood, England, does just that. Similarly, reorienting the role of correctional officers so that their primary purpose is to help prisoners make the most of their time in prison and succeed afterward, as Singapore has done, can reduce recidivism without increasing costs.

Nudges could also be effective in prisoner education. Many prisoners have difficulty reading: it’s estimated that 30 percent of the Philadelphia prison population reads at a second- or third-grade level, according to a 2010 article in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Renewed emphasis on developing literacy may be a critical stepping stone in helping prisoners gain employment. Many subtle nudges can help improve literacy rates. Prisoners can be given rooms with bookshelves filled with books donated from local organizations. They could be given a choice of afternoon extracurricular activities that consist of a few unpalatable options (e.g., weeding in the yard) or reading with a volunteer tutor; this wouldn’t force them to focus on literacy but would nudge them in that direction. There could be minor incentives (e.g., dessert at meal times) given to prisoners who read at least two books a week. None of these practices amounts to a “full push,” but all of them improve the likelihood of achieving a socially beneficial outcome at an incredibly low cost.

Nudges could provide crucial support to educational programs in prison. That’s because while numerous organizations across the United States help provide prisoner education, such as the Bedford Hills College Program in New York and the Prison University Project in California, a declining percentage of prisoners are participating in education programs.[x] Regardless of why prisoners may not take full advantage of existing programs, nudges can help encourage them to do so.

Although nudges can’t realistically be expected to fix all the problems in the criminal justice system—and may not represent the radical change that many feel the prison estate deserves[xi]—they have the potential to help build a more effective and thoughtful prison system. In particular, they can be used to help implement extremely important programs—such as those in education, drug counseling, vocational training, mental health care, and suicide prevention—at a relatively low cost while side-stepping public debate in an area that is all too frequently antagonistic and based on the politics of fear. Moreover, the essentially voluntary nature of nudges can empower prisoners by giving them an opportunity to regain control over their lives, rather than being forced to do one thing or another.

Though there still remains great reason for pessimism about the prospects for reforming the American prison system, there is also reason for hope. The politics are toxic, the status quo entrenched, and anxieties about crime and desires for punishment hardly rational, but there is a way forward for common-sense prison reform if we can begin to reconceptualize prisons as places to help prisoners fix their lives and reduce recidivism. This kind of humanistic yet results-focused philosophy—coupled with a series of thoughtful, internal adjustments and realignments, and aided by nudges—has the potential to pave the way for a more humane and effective system.


Mark Dlugash is a 2012 Master in Public Policy candidate at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He previously studied criminology and criminal justice at Oxford University.

Because of an editorial error, the acknowledgment for this article was not included in the print edition.  It should have read:


This article is based on a previous graduate dissertation “Nudges in Prison Architecture” and includes ideas, framings and excerpts from it and from an opinion editorial written for DPI-101C (Political Institutions and Public Policy).

[i]Shaw, Stephen. 2000. Prison architecture and the politics of reform. In Prison architecture: Policy, design, and experience. Edited by Leslie Fairweather and Sean McConville. Oxford, UK: Architectural Press, 151.

[ii] Elliot, Delbert, and Steve Aos. 2010. A life of unintended consequences. Prevention Action.

[iii] Fine, Michelle et al. 2001. The impact of college in a maximum-security prison. Changing Minds. The Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

[iv] Sim, Joe. 2009. Punishment and prisons: Power and the carceral state. London: Sage.

[v] Codd, Helen. 2008. In the shadow of prison: Families, imprisonment and criminal justice. Devon, UK: Willan Publishing.

[vi] Hamlyn, Becky, and Darren Lewis. 2000. Women prisoners: A survey of their work and training experiences in custody and on release. Home Office research finding.

[vii] Helliwell, John F. 2011. Institutions as enablers of wellbeing: The Singapore prison case study. International Journal of Wellbeing 1(2): 255-265.

[viii] van Hulten, Peter. 2000. Prisons in Europe: The Netherlands. In Prison architecture: Policy, design, and experience. Edited by Leslie Fairweather and Sean McConville. Oxford, UK: Architectural Press, 122.

[ix] Thaler, Richard H., and Cass R. Sunstein. 2008. Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

[x] Crayton, Anna, and Suzanne Rebecca Neusteter. 2008. The current state of correctional education. Washington, DC: The Urban Institute.

[xi] Liebling, Alison. 2006. Prisons in transition. International Journal of Law and Psychiatry 29: 422-430.