Reporter's Notebook

So What's the Solution to Mass Incarceration? Goldberg v. Coates
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Below is the back-and-forth blog exchange between Jeffrey Goldberg and Ta-Nehisi Coates on the question. It was spurred by Coates’s new essay, “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration.” For our broader debate over the essay, go here. If you’d like to contribute your thoughts, email and we’ll do our best to include them.

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The Work of Generations

Hey, Jeff. Yeah that was a fun convo. I respect Mayor Landrieu too, though my differences with him were, I think, pretty clear. One thing I want to clear up: I think I said “open the jails” or something like that when asked for my solution. I didn't mean let everyone, everywhere out. What I was trying to get at was this palatable—but fictitious—idea that we can decarcerate without having a very hard conversation over what we mean by “violent crime” and what kind of penalties we want to attach to it.

So, in answer to your question, here are a few places I'd start:

  1. Old people. To my mind, the point of prison is two-fold—to protect the public from dangerous criminals and to attach meaningful sanction to acts which harm society. I know that there are others who believe that vengeance on behalf of victims should play some role. I am less than convinced. The argument has a strong hold on me emotionally. But I am mixed on how much of a role what victims and victims families think should happen to offenders. I just don't know. At any rate, 10 percent of our prisoners are over 55. By 2030, that number will grow to a third. This is, all at once, the population least likely to re-offend and (one of) the population most vulnerable to the violence of prisons. Shortly after I closed my piece, 58-year-old Odell Newton—who is featured—was attacked by some younger prisoners. So I agree with your cousin, Burl Cain. Start with those who've gone through “criminal menopause.”

  2. I'd lessen the sentences for violent crimes. This isn't a matter of “who” I'd release, so much as who I'd keep from staying so long. Life with parole used to be a thing in this country—and then it became politically advantageous to run against it. I would look at the rest of our peers around the world and work really hard to bring our penalties in line with them. Decarceration, I suspect, is going to be the work of generations. A good way to begin the process is to stop feeding people into the system in the first place.

  3. Juvenile lifers. This isn't about numbers so much as it is about morality. Usually you are talking about people who committed violent acts as children. With our growing knowledge of neurology and how the human brain matures, I don't know how we justify life-terms for the acts of juveniles. I'd actually extend this beyond lifers and look at juveniles, period. If you are given a 10-year sentence as, say, a 16-year-old, your life is on the shelf. When you come out, no one is going to want to employ you. Whole careers will be inaccessible to you. You will be ineligible for several government programs meant to address poverty, and you will have a significant chance of going back to jail.

  4. “Non-violent drug offenders.” I think this case has been made pretty well by others, most impressively by Michelle Alexander. I agree with it. I just want to make sure the conversation doesn't end there. Still, this has value beyond the sheer size of our prison system. Drug arrests are not the reason why there are so many people in prison, but they are among the most common charges brought. This has meaning. An arrest record is a kind of brand—a credential, as Devah Pager argues—that makes garnering gainful employment difficult. When I argue against focusing merely on “nonviolent drug offenders,” it’s not because I don't think the Drug War meant anything. I just think it's meaning lies elsewhere.



  1. That was a fun conversation for you, maybe, because you weren’t the moderator. I was busy trying to keep peoples’ heads from exploding. I mean, sometimes exploding heads are preferable in panel discussions, but this would have been outré in Aspen, I think.

  2. I agree that “decarceration” (is that an actual word yet?) is not going to be achieved by going after only low-hanging fruit, though I’d like to hear you describe your own definition of “violent crime” before I comment.

  3. Your categories sound correct. I mean, the Angola penitentiary, for instance, has a hospice. A fucking hospice. Staffed, by the way, by murderers who have been trained as hospice attendants, and who seemed like—I spent some time with them—some of the gentlest people I’ve ever met. They told me they do this work in order to repent for their crimes. Amazing people who, by the way, could not be hired in hospices in the outside world because they are convicted murderers. Not that they’re ever getting out, because murder comes with life without the possibility of parole in Louisiana. Just think about this hospice for a minute: You’ve got guys dying in prison who could, in some cases, be dying with their families. As it is, family members have to make the long drive to Angola (it’s a pretty long way from anywhere) to be with their dying relatives. Someone would have to pay for their end-of-life care, but I’m reasonably sure their care would cost less than the $25K it costs the state to house a prisoner in Angola each year. But all of this isn’t even the point: A guy with pancreatic cancer is not a threat to society. Neither is the murderer who has gone blind in prison. Seriously, I was told that Angola holds an elderly, blind murderer.

  4. One of the inmates in the film we made in Angola (the excellent team of Kasia Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg, Sam Price-Waldman and Paul Rosenfeld is responsible for this video) is a guy named George Gillam, who was convicted of murder at age 16. He’s an inmate-minister now, and has probably steered dozens, if not hundreds, of his fellow-inmates onto a straighter path. He’s an intelligent, thoughtful, charismatic person who, by all accounts has made himself into a model of repentance and redemption. The thought that he might die in Angola—he’s 40ish now—is terrible. I don’t forget that he killed someone, but I also don’t forget that he was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole as a juvenile.

  5. Burl Cain, the warden of Angola, isn’t my cousin: He’s my brother. We’re all brothers, because we’re all created in the image of God. Even atheists such as yourself.

  6. I think your last point, about the difference in the way we approach issues, is interesting, and more-or-less correct. I would say that I have more tolerance than you for politicians who are trying, imperfectly, to fix problems we both think are important. I’m not arguing that this is a good thing, necessarily. I think you know, in your heart of hearts, that America is not granting reparations to African Americans—not that you would admit this, by the way, which I understand. But by making this demand, you’re shifting the conversation toward solutions that, while imperfect and incomplete, might otherwise not even be discussed. That to me is the real value of your approach. (In my opinion, you will win the reparations argument when the U.S. makes a concerted effort to a) bring African American mortality rates into line with white mortality rates; b) desegregate housing in a comprehensive way; c) treat the homicide problem in segregated, impoverished African American neighborhoods as the crisis it is; d) institute police and penal reforms that will remove inequality from enforcement and sentencing; and so on.)  Not that I want to rehearse the gun debate again, but I think you’ve nailed it—I start from the position that there are more than 300 million guns in circulation in this country, and that any constitutional effort at gun control will be inadequate to the task of disarming people who need to be disarmed. Which sends me down the path of looking for ways to help people protect themselves. But I always wonder: Maybe I should just be working toward universal disarmament—except I then think that there is no such thing, so why waste my time? By the way, now I’m turning over this idea in my head, that you might actually believe that you’re going to convince America to grant reparations to African Americans. Is that so?

It’s interesting. People often ask me if I think reparations will happen and my answer is, “Not in my lifetime and probably not in my child’s lifetime.” But I wouldn’t go so far as you think I would—which is to say “America is not granting reparations to African Americans.” I wouldn’t say that because history, itself, shows that stranger things—more terrible and more lovely—have happened.

What I suspect is that if reparations came about they would come, not simply as a result of agitation, but because of some exterior force in American life that made them necessary. That has been the case for every single advance in our politics around the divide of racism. You can’t imagine emancipation without Southerners deciding they wanted an entire country founded on the expansion and cultivation of slavery. You can’t imagine the civil-rights movement without the Cold War and without the Holocaust and the direct evidence of white supremacy taken to its logical conclusion. I can’t even imagine this moment of seemingly bipartisan (if somewhat thin) agreement around the perils of mass incarceration, without falling crime. Let that crime start to rise and this moment will be vapor.

This is scary because we don’t know why these things happen. We still don’t have a good explanation for why crime rose and fell. And so our current consensus is essentially rooted in the weather. If it’s sunny tomorrow we decarcerate. (Yes, it's a word!) If it thunders we retrench.

So no, I don’t put reparations off the table.


You can claim that “decarcerate” is a word all you want, but Microsoft Word is telling me it’s not, and, as you know, I’m very corporate about these things.

I wouldn’t argue with you about the necessity of the call for reparations, and I agree with you that history is filled with strange and surprising turns. I tend to think that reparations may come about, but by another name, and also, not soon. I mean, this country is still in its suppression phase; we’re not Germany, which is dealing openly with the consequences of the worst thing it ever did (or more to the point, it was forced to grapple with the worst thing it ever did as the price for re-admission into civilization).

By the way, here’s a formula I’ve been thinking about that has pissed off the four people I’ve mentioned it to so far: The relationship between African Americans and America is in some ways less similar to the relationship between German Jews and Germany than it is to Austrian Jews and Austria. Which is to say, Jews in Austria today (all nine of them) walk the streets of Vienna knowing that most of their countrymen are still in denial about what their country did. All analogies are imperfect, maybe this one more imperfect than the norm, but the point seems salient.

One other thing: Your observation about the possibly imminent vaporization of sympathy for the disproportionately incarcerated is right—if crime rates go back up (as they are doing in some cities already), you’ll see a quick end to the discussion about sentencing reform. We’ll be back to Democrats building more prisons. And speaking of prisons ...

Look, Angola is complicated.