Robert Martinson, Freedom Rider

face of a prisoner

Amid Robert Martinson’s graduate education in sociology, he and other students found themselves in an extraordinary position:

We walked barefooted, two by two, into our cages and stood there embarrassed, naked, outraged.

This environment could easily break the spirit of most graduate students:

a one-story, cement-block structure composed of two wings. It is surrounded by a high, barbed-wire fence with guard towers at the corners. It is a prison within a prison, especially designed to break the spirit of the toughest felon. … The inmates are caged in small, two-man cells and look out upon a bare cement corridor bathed in perpetual light.

Yet even in these oppressive conditions they maintained and valued communication with each other:

Imagine the frustration of maintaining democracy under such physical conditions. Someone in cell No. 2 on the far side makes a motion which is ponderously passed from cell to cell, to our “pivot man” and down the thirteen cells on our side. Assuming the motion managed this precarious passage without distortion (or objection), the debate began. Each person’s remarks and interpolations had again to be passed around the block. After everyone had had his full say, the voting would begin. “How does cell No. 4 vote?” “One for, one, against.” “O.K. Cell No. 5, what about you?” “Two abstentions. We want to explain our abstentions.” A series of low groans would break out. This democratic spirit was doggedly defended to the very end.^

The democratic spirit implies inclusive discussion. Such discussion can be long, tedious, undisciplined, and apparently futile. Participants often groan and suffer while awaiting action that has already been widely anticipated. Nonetheless, Robert Martinson and his fellow Freedom Riders were committed to upholding ideals of democracy even while incarcerated.

The effects of freedom depend greatly on its relationship to true knowledge. Among Freedom Riders, Robert Martinson perceived freedom in knowing and acting on the truth:

{The Deputy Sheriff} asked a young Negro why he was smiling and received no answer. He repeated the question in his deadly way: “Boy, what you got to smile about? You in jail, you know.”

“Sheriff,” he answered, “you just wouldn’t understand. I’m smiling because I’m free.”

And I was witness to the fact that, indeed, a new kind of freedom — tough, critical, unsentimental, knowing — is being forged in the jails and prisons of the South. Those who emerge from these jails will never be the same again.^

The democratic spirit of freedom encompasses more than just freedom of discussion. This spirit also includes the hope that true knowledge – “tough, critical, unsentimental, knowing” – can help free discussion to produce less groaning and more smiling.

Robert Martinson and Nothing Works

face of a prisoner

After his experiences as a Freedom Rider incarcerated in the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, Robert Martinson returned to graduate school. He had entered University of California at Berkeley as a graduate student in sociology in 1958. He finished his Ph.D. dissertation, Treatment Ideology and Correctional Bureaucracy: A Study of Organizational Change, in 1968. Martinson was then working as a lecturer at City College of the City University of New York. He subsequently became a junior professor at City College.

In 1967, New York State initiated a study of the most effective means for rehabilitating prisoners. Martinson joined a team of experts that New York State sponsored to survey rehabilitation programs. Reviewing the English-language literature on results of rehabilitation programs throughout the world from 1945 to 1967, the survey team identified 231 studies that met their standards for social science research. They then reviewed, re-analyzed, standardized, and summarized this set of studies.^ None of these studies concerned prisoners’ communications with family and friends. This major effort seems to have been a sincere quest to develop expertise on rehabilitating prisoners.

The knowledge resulting from the New York State survey was not radically new. In an article published in 1972, Martinson introduced his summary of the survey’s findings with these general observations:

The aim of research is knowledge not justification. Without more and better research, we will permit arrogant assertion to rule us.

These general observations contrast knowledge with sophisticated verbal practices (“justification”) and entrenched authority (“arrogant assertion” that will “rule us”). Martinson allied the survey’s findings with consensus and folk wisdom:

The conclusions will not come as a surprise to those engaged in correctional research, or to many practitioners who have long suspected that it is difficult to treat persons who do not wish to be treated. The Office of Crime Control Planning (now the Division of Criminal Justice) was farsighted in underwriting scientific inquiry with no instant guarantee of pay-off. I absolve them and my co-workers from responsibility for the interpretation that I place on these findings.

Martinson then summarized the survey’s findings:

On the whole, the evidence from the survey indicated that the present array of correctional treatments has no appreciable effect – positive or negative – on the rates of recidivism of convicted offenders.^

Other scholars who had earlier reviewed relevant evidence had reached similar conclusions.^ Martinson, identified in biographical blurbs as “co-author of The Effectiveness of Correctional Treatment,” stated that an eight-hundred-page volume extensively documenting the findings of the survey that New York State sponsored would be published later in 1972.

New York State attracted attention to The Effectiveness of Correctional Treatment by attempting to suppress it. New York State had hoped for knowledge to inform planned new rehabilitative programs.^ The findings of the survey did not serve to justify such programs. For several years, New York State refused to allow the survey to be published. In an article published in a public affairs journal in 1974, Martinson explained what happened:

By the spring of 1972 – fully a year after I had re-edited the study for final publication – the state had not only failed to publish it, but had also refused to give me permission to publish it on my own. The document would still not be available to me or to the public today had not Joseph Alan Kaplon, an attorney, subpoenaed it from the state for use as evidence in a case before the Bronx Supreme Court.

During the time of my efforts to get the study released, reports of it began to be widely circulated, and it acquired something of an underground reputation. But this article is the first published account, albeit a brief one, of the findings contained in that 1,400 page manuscript.^

In the 1974 article, Martinson again summarized the survey’s findings:

With few and isolated exceptions, the rehabilitative efforts that have been reported so far have had no appreciable effect on recidivism.^

This conclusion differed little from the one Martinson set out in his 1972 publication. Nonetheless, Martinson’s 1974 publication, and this conclusion, became highly influential in discussions of prison reform.

Martinson’s article fostered polarized discussion of rehabilitation. The first clause of his 1974 article’s title was “What works?” The last section heading of that article was “Does nothing work?” “Nothing works!” became a pithy, emphatic summary of his article’s conclusions. This sensational claim, along with the additional benefit of attempted censorship, apparently was enough to win for Martinson an appearance on the TV show 60 Minutes:

in August of 1975, {Martinson} appeared on 60 Minutes in a segment entitled, “It Doesn’t Work.” Mike Wallace, as the interview proceeds, announces that Martinson’s “findings are sending shockwaves through the correctional establishment”. When probed by Wallace about his research, Martinson offers that various treatment approaches have “no fundamental effect on recidivism”. He depicts parole as “almost a Machiavellian attempt” by offenders “to get out”. Psychological counseling may be a “good way to pass the time,” he admits, but otherwise it has “no effect”. In the end, Wallace is left to ask, “Is it conceivable that nothing works?”. The answer is obvious.^ Cf. ^

Douglas Lipton, the lead author of the study on which Martinson’s article was based, was furious with the media’s treatment of Martinson:

The {60 Minutes} segment made no mention of Martinson colleagues, who had worked on the project far longer than he. (Martinson had worked on the project for about eighteen mongths, according to Lipton.) Nor did it credit them for their research. When the camera showed the title page of the book, the names of his coauthors were cropped out.

This kind of treatment enraged Doug Lipton. … “Everyone kept calling it ‘The Martinson Report,” which it wasn’t. I wrote to 60 Minutes, and I wrote to Newsweek, but nobody wanted to hear what I had to say.”

“I was the voice of reason,” {Lipton} said, “but he was the sound bite.”^

“Nothing works!” attracted those who sought to get tough with prisoners to combat a perceived lack of respect for law and order. “Nothing works!” also attracted those suspicious of state power used for involuntary therapeutic treatment and concerned that indeterminate sentences linked to treatment success created systematic racial, sexual, and class inequities under law.^ A significant constituency also existed under the counterpoint banner, “Treatment works!” As Martinson himself acknowledged in his 1974 article, some treatment programs did work.^ Participants and supporters of those programs, the many persons who sincerely sought to help prisoners and dedicated their lives to doing so, as well as others who just feared job loss, income loss, or loss of intellectual status, all could unite under the banner, “Treatment works!” More than thirty years after Martinson’s articles, this organization of discussion remains deeply influential.^

Martinson Repudiated “Nothing Works!”

face of a prisoner

After his 1974 article on the ineffectiveness of rehabilitation had attracted widespread attention, Robert Martinson repudiated most of its analysis and some of its conclusions. Articles published in 1976 and 1977 with Martinson as co-author highlighted the value of parole:

At the very least, the data in table 1 should give pause to those policymakers and legislators who have been operating on the unexamined assumption that parole supervision makes no difference. In face of the evidence in table 1 such an assumption is unlikely.^ ^

In an article published in 1979, Martinson explained:

{The Effectiveness of Correctional Treatment} focused on summarizing evaluation research which purported to uncover casuality; in our current study we reject this perspective as premature and focus on uncovering patterns which can be of use to policymakers in choosing among available treatment programs. These patterns are sufficiently consistent to oblige me to modify my previous conclusion. …

Indeed, it was misleading to judge criminal justice on the basis of these evaluation studies.

Martinson’s approach in 1979 was more impressionistic. His new compilation of findings was not limited to “experimental (evaluation) research,” which comprised only about 10% of available studies. Any study presenting relevant, verifiable statistics for a group of more than ten sentenced offenders was included in his meta-analysis. His paper presented a wider variety of data organized in more diverse, less disciplined ways. His main conclusions insightfully explored challenges of program evaluation:

contrary to my previous position, some treatment programs do have an appreciable effect on recidivism. Some programs are indeed beneficial; of equal or greater significance, some programs are harmful. …

The most interesting general conclusion is that no treatment program now used in criminal justice is inherently either substantially helpful or harmful. The critical fact seems to be the conditions under which the program is delivered.^

Leading critics of the claim “Nothing works!” substantially agreed with this conclusion. A 1987 review of evidence that concluded with strong support for rehabilitation efforts also observed:

we are absolutely amateurish at implementing and maintaining our successful experimentally demonstrated programs within the social service delivery systems provided routinely by government and private agencies. This is what doesn’t work! We have made only very tentative progress in examining the conditions under which the principles of effective intervention can be implemented and maintained successfully in the real world (see Backer, Liberman, and Kuchnel 1986; Fagan and Hartstone under review; Gendreau and Andrews 1979; Shadish 1984).^

In the real world, undoubtedly persons in a variety of positions – prison staff, professional service providers, volunteers – appreciably help prisoners. That help, however, has been difficult for scholars to appropriate through treatment expertise.

In 1989, a rehabilitation professional wrote an article entitled “Criminology: Is Rehabilitation a Waste of Time?” It appeared in a prominent U.S. newspaper. The article began thus:

LATE ONE gloomy winter afternoon in 1980, New York sociologist Robert Martinson hurled himself through a ninth-floor window of his Manhattan apartment while his teen-age son looked on. Martinson had become the leading debunker of the idea that society could “rehabilitate” criminals.^

Contrary to this Gothic introduction, Martinson committed suicide in the summer of 1979. The treatment Martinson received from rehabilitation professionals contribute to his personal anguish:

Martinson was plagued by professional worries. “What Works?” had come under heavy attack. Critics accused him of everything from scholarly malfeasance to sheer stupidity. So serious were the charges that a panel from the National Academy of Science retraced his research. It concluded that Martinson was essentially correct, and in 1979 it issued the article a clean bill of health.^

Martinson’s publications as early as 1976 exude frustration and a sense of persecution:

some treatment advocates have been motivated to become kinglike and shoot or at least shoot down the messengers. We have been tagged “yellow scientists” (apparently close kin of yellow journalists), pessimists, and idealists in search of the magic cure for all offenders all the time.^ ^

Martinson seems to have suffered from lack of appreciation for treatment, broadly understood. The rehabilitation professional’s 1989 article, “Criminology: Is Rehabilitation a Waste of Time?” concluded:

A fitting epilogue to the rehabiliation debate can be found in the research conducted in 1987-88 on New York’s successful “Stay’n Out” thereapeutic community drug abuse treatment program – another model with an extensive aftercare component. Both male and female drug addicts showed dramatically lower arrest rates than control groups. The research monograph was coauthored by Douglas Lipton, senior author of the 1975 survey which Martinson claimed showed that “nothing works.” Lipton is now a leading advocate of rehabilitation in corrections.^

This sinner-saved narrative fits well the theme of rehabilitation. Rehabilitation of prisoners has thrived as a professional field. In 1970, the U.S. incarcerated 161 persons per 100,000 residents. By 2010, that ratio had risen to a world-leading 733 incarcerated persons per 100,000 residents. The need for rehabilitation professionals is now greater than ever.