Corrections is a Misnomer

Corrections is a Misnomer

Interview of Author Ben Austen

On Wednesday, May 15, at noon, Rabbi Feinberg will interview Ben Austen, the author of Correction: Parole, Prison, and the Possibility of Change.  

Ben Austen is a journalist from Chicago. He is the author of Correction: Parole, Prison, and the Possibility of Change, named one of the best books of 2023 by the Washington Post. His book High-Risers: Cabrini-Green and the Fate of American Public Housing was longlisted for the Andrew Carnegie Medal of Excellence in Nonfiction and named one of the best books of 2018 by Booklist, Mother Jones, and the public libraries of Chicago and St. Louis. A former editor at Harper’s Magazine, Ben teaches in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Chicago. His feature writing has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, GQ, Wired, and many other publications. He is the writer and host of the upcoming Audible Originals podcasts The Last Days of Cabrini-Green and The Parole Room, and he is the co-host, with Khalil Gibran Muhammad, of the podcast Some of My Best Friends Are….

The interview will be on Zoom on Wednesday, May 15 at noon. Please register for the talk by clicking here. Upon registering we will send you the Zoom link. 

Read Rabbi Feinberg's review of Correction: Parole, Prison, and the Possibility of Change below.  

Corrections is a Misnomer for American Prisons

Review of Correction: Parole, Prison, and the Possibility of Change.

Rabbi Charles Feinberg

State and Federal prisons are usually called correctional institutions. FCI is the acronym for “Federal Correctional Institution.” Most of the 122 federal prisons are FCI. In Maryland and Virginia, most of the state prisons are called correctional institutions. Yet federal and state prisons don’t spend much of their budget on helping incarcerated people make different decisions for themselves. Educational, vocational, medical, and mental health opportunities are few and far between. Drug rehab programs are limited with long waiting periods to get into them. Many prisons don’t even offer drug rehab programs.

Ben Austen, who is a Chicago-based journalist and a faculty member at the University of Chicago, has written a compelling book on what happens to people who spend a long time in Illinois state prisons. The book centers on two men, Michael and Johnnie who were convicted of violent crimes in the early 1970s. Mr. Austen has befriended both men and learned as much as he could about their incarceration.

As the Prison Policy Initiative has reported, Illinois is one of 34 states that even offer discretionary parole, and those that do are generally not set up to help people earn release. As Mr. Austen documents, parole boards often choose to deny the majority of those who appear before them. Correction then is the story of Michael and Jonnie’s quest to be paroled before the end of their lives.

Both men were convicted over 50 years ago of killing another man. When he was 19, Michael, who lived in East St. Louis, Illinois, killed a young man while trying to rob him so he could buy some beer.  The young man refused to hand over any money, and Michael shot him.  Johnnie, who lived in Chicago, was convicted of killing two Chicago policemen on the grounds of the Cabrini-Green Housing Project.  Michael was sentenced to 101 years in prison. Jonnie was sentenced to an indeterminate sentence of 100 to 199 years.

Michael eventually admitted that he killed the young man during an aborted robbery. Jonnie, on the other hand, has always insisted on his innocence. Indeed, Mr. Austen brings persuasive evidence that Johnnie could not have committed the murders. He was in a place that made it almost impossible to shoot the policemen given where they were standing. Witnesses lied and the prosecutor’s theory of the case did not line up with the facts. But two policemen were shot dead in the line of duty. It was a sensational case in Chicago. Someone had to pay. 

What we learn from Mr. Austen’s account is how perverse the incentives are for a person to be paroled. The record that an incarcerated person compiles in prison: how many infractions he incurred, how many educational opportunities he took advantage of, and how determined he is to change his life and prepare for life after prison often make little impression on a parole board. What matters is that a person must show remorse for his crime, no matter how little or how much that person has changed.

We find out that this makes a big difference for Johnnie who insisted throughout his long incarceration that he was innocent of the crime he was convicted of. The Parole Board could not imagine releasing anyone who killed two policemen and not show any remorse. Michael, on the other hand, did admit to his crime and did show remorse through most of the time of his incarceration.

We also learn how influential the families of victims are. Family members of victims lobby the parole board not to consider releasing a person no matter how much he or she has changed. Often family members believe that the memory of their loved one will be desecrated if the perpetrator is released. In Johnnie’s case, Chicago policemen, most of whom were born decades after the deceased officers were murdered, regularly showed up at Johnnie’s parole hearing to make sure that Johnnie never was ever released.

After reading Correction, I came away believing that our society---not just our criminal justice institutions---is overly focused on punishment and pays at best lip service to the idea that people can change, they can self-correct. Because we are so hooked on punishment, we all become trapped by the memory of the crime and the victim. We have an incredibly hard time accepting that a person can change, and we allow the memory of the victim to paralyze us. Everyone involved in the crime---perpetrators, law enforcement, judges, and the victim’s loved ones--- becomes mired in the past.

Mr. Austen tells a great story about two men and their journey through the criminal justice system. By doing so, he sheds much light on the reality of criminal justice in America. 

You have a chance to listen to Mr. Austen at a Zoom meeting and ask him a question on Wednesday, May 15 at noon. Click here to register for the program. Once you register, we will send you the Zoom link.