A graduate of the University of Connecticut, he studied investigative reporting at the American Press Institute at Columbia University, and received an M.A. and Ph.D. from the State University of New York at Albany. As an academic he has directed numerous research projects and taught at several universities including the University at Albany, Union College, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Empire State College and Bard College. He has also lectured at Harvard, Princeton, Georgetown, John F. Kennedy Library, and dozens of other venues. He has published many scholarly monographs and articles in law, criminal justice, history, journalism, sociology and psychology journals. Some of his work has been cited by the United States Supreme Court.
He held several positions in New York state criminal justice system, including as director of prison investigations for the state’s corrections watchdog agency, executive assistant to the State Director of Criminal Justice, deputy director of probation and correctional alternatives, and deputy director of parole operations. He spent seven years as a gubernatorial aide. After leaving government he worked for several advocacy and reform organizations and returned to full-time writing and teaching. He has won numerous awards for his journalism, writing, government service and community service. He has appeared on CBS evening News, ABC World News, CNN, C-Span, the History Channel, BBC, NPR, ARD and local TV and radio.
His book, With Liberty for Some: 500 Years of Imprisonment in America (Northeastern, 1998), traces the history of imprisonment in American society from Columbus to the present day. It won the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award Distinguished Honors and a Choice Award for Outstanding Academic Book of the Year and was hailed by historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. as a “remarkable work... that moves the issue toward the top of the national agenda and provides the historical and social context for all subsequent discussions of a most tormenting concern.”
Condemned: Inside the Sing Sing Death House (NYU Press, 2000) and its companion traveling documentary photography Exhibition use official state files to expose the inner workings of the world’s most famous prison, where 614 persons were legally executed between 1891-1963. Condemned has received worldwide acclaim. The book and exhibition have received international attention and spawned numerous media reports and documentary films.
Innocent: Inside Wrongful Conviction Cases (NYU, 2003) documents the problem of ongoing wrongful conviction based upon historical study and research into current cases. Innocent was also an exhibit that was funded by the New York State Defenders Association and the Puffin Foundation. He continues to remain involved in trying to help gain the release of the prisoners he profiled; thus far, six of the twelve have had their convictions overturned.
Notorious Prisons: Inside the World’s Most Feared Institutions (The Lyons Press, 2004) examines many of the world’s worst prisons throughout history, from ancient times to the present day. (He wrote about Abu Ghraib before the scandal broke.)
Bodies of Evidence: Forensic Science and Crime (Collins and Brown, 2006; The Lyons Press, 2006) studies the evolution of crime scene investigation and forensic science in crime-solving from the 1930s to today.
He also writes extensively about slavery, the Underground Railroad, politics, and many other subjects.
He is married to Tamar Gordon, a cultural anthropologist, and has three children: Kelly, Emily, and Jonah.