Unfolding, Recoiling

Jim Ross

In the mid- to late-1970s, Robert Martinson was the biggest name in research on prisons. He’d gotten his first taste of prison life in 1961 during his grad school days at Berkeley when he’d been arrested as a Berkeley civil rights Freedom Fighter. After his arrest, he was held in maximum-security for 40 days. This experience helped form his attitude toward the rehabilitative potentials of incarceration.

In 1974, with funding from the New York State legislature, Martinson and his senior research partners (Doug Lipton and Judith Wilks) re-shaped thinking about the rehabilitative potentials of corrections by publishing The Effectiveness of Correctional Treatment: A Survey of Treatment Evaluation Studies. Applying rigorous standards, this systematic review of 231 correctional intervention studies concluded there was little to no evidence that the rehabilitative efforts by prisons reduced recidivism.

The media dubbed their report, “Nothing Works.” A showman, Martinson appeared on 60 Minutes without the consent of his senior research partners. He ballyhooed these findings in a second paper titled Nothing Works. Their intent was to say that prisons didn’t work so we should mostly close them and come up with better, community-based alternatives that more effectively promote rehabilitation. However, the two words—nothing works—hung on everyone’s lips because they implied: why bother?

In the Fall 1978, there were two reactions to his work. To “the suits,” who ran and profited from prisons, this said we should “lock ‘em up and throw away the key.” To prisoners, their families, and rehabilitation advocates, Martinson took away hope. On November 21, 1978, I was scheduled to be on a panel at a major national conference with Martinson and another researcher. The conference planners showed an odd sense of humor by throwing me, a first-time presenter, onto the same panel with Martinson, the iconoclast, the biggest name in the field. Being assigned to speak right before Martinson felt like being called up to the majors from Little League and been told to bat before Mickey Mantle.

Martinson was expected for two sessions. He no-showed the first. Our pulling out of the crowd a Federal worker who funded Martinson’s latest work as a stand-in satisfied nobody: the people wanted Martinson. The planners rationalized his train was late, but you could tell they were worried. When I reached the grand ballroom for the second session, it was filled beyond capacity. I didn’t see Martinson, but the pacing moderator—himself a famous researcher— whispered, “He’s here! Thank God he’s here!”

I planned to present again a stirring analysis of the fundamental quandary facing corrections, but when my turn came, as I tried to develop rapport with the audience, a wide-awake Martinson audibly snored into the microphone. I was both amused and appalled. Is this life in the big city? Was my role to serve as Martinson’s foil? Between us on the dais sat a frosty 2-quart pitcher of ice water. Visions of Niagara Falls pouring over Martinson’s head flashed before my eyes. Showing remarkably little showmanship, I restrained myself, said a few things nobody heard, and surrendered the stage.

Martinson’s faux snoring revved up the crowd. When he stood, the room fell still. He awkwardly carried the microphone to center stage and repudiated “this man named Martinson.” He ripped Martinson for having the arrogance to claim nothing works and steal people’s hope. “You probably think I’m a troglodyte.” He tarred and feathered Martinson with unkind words. His hair frazzled, unsure where to place his feet, uncertain who to call friend, he looked more like King Lear than the Martinson everyone expected. Nobody knew whether to feel vindication, disappointment, or shock.

A few weeks later, in the Winter issue of the Hofstra Law Review Journal, Martinson backed off, claiming the original meta-analysis overstated the lack of evidence of rehabilitation’s effectiveness. He re-reviewed the evidence to soften the original position, which had been circulating for five years. His revocation irritated and alienated “the suits,” who advocated a shift toward a deterrence and incapacitation model of imprisonment. However, they didn’t need him anymore. He’d already done their dirty work by justifying a shift away from a rehabilitative model of corrections, toward a model that viewed imprisonment largely as exile.

Both “the suits” and the rehabilitation advocates felt abandoned by his flip flopping. Months later, Martinson again grabbed headlines. Our King Lear, age 52, jumped out the 9th story window of his New York City apartment, across the room from his watching teenage son. Many claimed he jumped out of grief: instead of promoting the de-institutionalization of prisons and exploration of better, community-based alternatives, his work helped justify exactly what he didn’t believe in: sending prisoners into indeterminate exile.

Martinson’s self-repudiation, even his staged snoring, appears to have emerged from a grasping desperation. A bright researcher who threw himself into the limelight, he took to heart that he caused people to draw the wrong conclusions. Recoiling at the arrogance to which many intellectuals fall prey, Martinson left before tying up the loose ends. Clearly, someone should’ve done the man the service of pouring two quarts of ice water over his head.

After his exit, the nation sank into a deterrence and incapacitation approach to corrections for 30 years, meanwhile increasing its incarcerated population six-fold. Gradually, prison reformers began to restore the belief that exile is not the answer because we all have the right to try to redeem ourselves.

Ever since I watched Martinson repudiate Martinson, whenever I read a book or hear a speech in which a public figure, government official, or researcher repudiates everything they’ve stood for, I wonder what’s really going on and what to expect next. We still have Diane Ravich’s 1995 National Standards in American Education: a Citizen’s Guide on our bookshelves. Her 2013 Reign of Error completely dismissed national standards and alleged we’ll never achieve educational equality until we effectively deal with poverty. I agree with the new Diane Ravich, but the question remains, when I see someone repudiating themselves, as Martinson and Ravich both did, what am I to think is going on? Is someone trying to jump start a career, stir up interest in the next book tour, re-weight the research evidence, or grapple with an earth-shattering existential crisis? We should all grant ourselves sufficient grace to allow ourselves to say, as researchers and as citizens, "I was wrong."

Jim Ross, resumed creative pursuits in 2015 after retiring from public health research in hope of resuscitating his long-neglected right brain. He's since published almost 60 pieces of nonfiction, several poems, and over 180 photos in 70 journals in North America, Europe, and Asia. His publications include 1966, Bombay Gin, Columbia Journal, Friends Journal, Gravel, Ilanot Review, Lunch Ticket, MAKE, Meat for Tea, Pif, Riverbabble, Sisyphus, Stoneboat, The Atlantic, and Thin Air. He and his wife--parents of two health professionals and grandparents of four toddlers--split their time between MD and WV.

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