Tuesday, October 16, 2012

American Prison Blues

Being "tough on crime" is a fundamental part of nearly every politician's platform in the American political system. It makes for great soundbites and on a base level makes a lot of sense. Who doesn't want people to be tough on crime, besides criminals, obviously.

The problem is that to actually impact crime in any meaningful way is complicated and not the kind of thing that lends itself to simple arguments and soundbites.

First off, I think there is some data that we need to get out of the way. America has the highest incarceration rate in the world, far and away. Worse than any repressive regime you can name, and way worse than any developed nation in this world that has even the pretense of freedom.

Now, you could certainly make the claim that maybe these other nations are killing people rather than arresting them, thus keeping the numbers low, but Russia is about 300,000 behind us, and that would be quite a feat; I think it would probably have made the news.

It is also worth noting that this is a relatively new thing. Incarceration rates were fairly stable for a long time, and then suddenly jumped up in the 1980s. It is not my intention to get too deep into that, but pointing out that incarceration rates are going up while crime rates are going down seems worthwhile.

These are not my main points, but will absolutely become relevant in a little bit.

Beyond the meaningless fluff of the concept are some very real ideas. "Criminals must be punished" and "Prisons are too comfortable these days" are pretty common ideas. We have Sheriff Arpio in Maricopa county Arizona being lauded from the right for his imaginative and arguably cruel methods. We have large numbers of people promoting and defending the concept of torture, under the Machiavellian theory that "the ends justify the means." We have seen a very real shift towards hardline punishment, and a sense of callous disregard towards people who commit crimes at all.

When a bunch of students sitting on a sidewalk at UC Davis were pepper sprayed for not following an order to leave, we heard "Well, they should have done what they were told" from a huge segment of society, ignoring the fact that they were non-violently protesting. It is clear that we take being tough on crime very seriously, regardless of the nature of the crime. We see a belief that the law is the law, without even looking at whether the law is just.

And that is where we are today. We believe that crime requires severe punishment, and that whatever we have to do to get that perceived justice is fine; We believe that if we have to break a few eggs to make that omelet, so be it.

And before my liberal friends go off the hook on me for saying that they believe that, there are plenty of people who do not believe these things, but our culture en masse has accepted this as the way of things.

Now, for all the talk that prison has gotten to be too gentle, let us first all admit that we still would rather not be there. Yes, they get passable food, and apparently cable tv, and get to go work out regularly, but personally, I like being able to go where I want; to leave. And we can talk about how harsh prison should be, but we also need to talk about the why. I have been unable to find any evidence that the recidivism rate in Maricopa county has changed in any statistically significant way since Arpio took over. The crime rates don't seem to be particularly affected either.

So the only real argument for these harsher methods is that it should be punishment, justice; It should be vengeance. If the punishment doesn't lessen the recidivism, and can't be demonstrated to be a deterrent, then we are only left with it being a form of collective revenge.

So we take these criminals and we lock them up. We take them out of society and we put them into cold, concrete cells with other criminals. If there is the slightest bit of truth to television and movies, regardless of the cable tv, prison is not the best place ever. The biggest issue is the very nature of the people involved.

The prison community is one of dominance through force; Violence and sexual predation. Rape, murder, assault and gang violence are all kind of the norm, along with a thriving black market for various goods and services. This is the community we throw these people into.

So lets say that a person is arrested for robbing a bank. I'm not going to sit here and say he's a good guy; he robbed a bank, and didn't physically hurt anyone in the process. This guy is probably looking at fifteen to twenty years in prison for it.

We have all heard the ubiquitous advice to people going into prison. "Don't drop the soap" and "When you get in, find the biggest baddest guy you can, and hurt/kill him." The first is obviously about protecting yourself from rape, and the second is about positioning yourself in the power structure of the prison community. You have to prove that you are not someone to trifle with.

And for fifteen years, our bank robber will live in that society. Never mind the fact that he will be sitting around with other criminals, often talking about crimes and committing them. We are taking a relatively bad guy and putting him into a situation where being the worst guy you can possibly be is one of the better survival tactics. He will be conditioned to it- he has to be in order to survive. He will learn to see vulnerabilities and attack them, viciously. He will learn to react to any attack on him, regardless of scope or scale, with extreme escalation because that's how you protect your reputation as the biggest and baddest.

And then he will be released when his time is served.

So now this thing, this animal, this warrior that the prison culture is in the real world, but all of those instincts and conditionings are still intact. Add on the fact that he's going to have a difficult time getting a good job because he's a felon, and has a fifteen year gap in his work history. If he's lucky he ends up at a minimum wage job. So he works his minimum wage job, but that's not really enough money to survive, so now we have a trained, vicious animal in a place of desperation.

Is it any wonder that recidivism is so high?

There is a fundamental flaw in this system, because it creates conditions to make people worse, not better. And yes, there are certainly people who come out completely reformed, but they are not the norm. They are what we should be trying for.

But rather than trying to fix this system and build it towards rehabilitation, we're incarcerating more and more people, driving more people into this world of crime.

Rehabilitation vs. Punishment has always been the argument about prisons, probably ever since we started building prisons. I get the instinct towards punishment. Revenge is sexy, and in the heat of the moment it can feel great. It can even be righteous. The question we have to ask, however, is whether it furthers society as a whole.

Pretty clearly, I'm contending that it doesn't.

We need to control the violence, and break up the gangs in prisons if we ever want to let people come out whole and functional. If we continue with what we are doing, we're going to just see these cycles continuing.

We should have education and job training in prisons, and it should be mandatory. We should have therapy, both group and individual to try and help people actually see what they have done as wrong. It will not be easy, and it will not be one hundred percent effective, but it is the only way to have a hope of giving these criminals a real sense of remorse.

Without remorse, they have nothing that will really keep them from repeating the behavior.

And we need to keep non-violent offenders well away from the population that breeds this kind of violence, because all we do by locking them together is create more violent offenders with short sentences.

This is getting longer and longer, and I could just go on, but it may be time to stop. If you will only indulge me on one last little trip.

We are now talking about privatizing our prisons. Outside of the huge risk for conflicts of interest between judges or attorneys and the owners of the privately run prisons, and ignoring the fact that this ends up costing the state more while removing oversight, there is a base problem here.

Do we really want it to be in anyone's best interest for the incarceration rate to go up? Should we have owners and stockholders rooting for it? Encouraging it?

Like I said, I understand the desire for punishment for the wicked, and I'm not saying that there shouldn't be punishment. Personally, the idea of being locked up and unable to roam is maddening and terrifying to me-that covers the punishment in my book. But we have to decide if that punishment is the best thing we can hope for, or if we can perhaps strive for better. To actually make these criminals better; to make them able to be part of society.

I'm struggling to conclude this, because the conclusion seems very clear to me. As this blog continues, you will often see me advocating for the less satisfying answer because it's also the answer that better solves the problem. It's not about feeling better, it's about being better.

What we are doing is clearly not working, and we need to fix it.


  1. What bright, creative, caring and resourceful person wants to dedicate their life to reforming the prison system? What an incredible downer! And therein lies a fundamental problem. Our prison systems are doomed to mediocre results because, frankly, there ain't no Harvard graduates lining up to have anything to do with it.

    A prisoner's daily contact with the "real world" is an under paid, under educated, and under motivated prison guard, some of whom are worse than the prisoners they command.

    It's all such a horrible conundrum. So the ultimate solution, as was suggested by Barack Obama in last night's debate, is to get at the fundamental economic and social causes of crime and violence. Those include the breakdown of the unitary family, the decline of basic moral values (like it or not, derived from religious sources), lowered standards of academic achievement and poor economic prospects.

    Nevertheless, there are things that can be done with the prison system to help reduce recidivism. But the bottom line is cash and one culprit is surely the privatization of prisons. Private prison companies are incentivized to run the cheapest possible hotel with the strongest possible security. Rehabilitation is not on their agenda. Rehabilitation is expensive. How much are you willing to pay an English or math teacher to work in that environment? If I were motivated in retirement to do that, how far must I drive to get there? (After all, how many long term prisons are near the city? They are all in remote towns destitute for even dead end prison jobs.)

    I'm throwing up my hands. I give up. I'll just buy a gun and keep it under my pillow at night.

    1. Carl, I'm really pretty flattered that you keep putting this much effort into responding to my stuff.

      That said, yeah... it's a huge problem. One of the issues I have writing these things is that I see the system, not just a specific piece. Trying not to go into education, and social safety nets, and pop culture and all that while writing about this was very, very hard because they're all relevant.

      And the problem is way too big.

      But any ER doc will tell you that the trick to dealing with the really big problems is to break them down into smaller, more manageable problems and just go piece by piece.

      I gotta have faith, because without that I've got nothing.

  2. Solutions not rhetoric will go further - you offer no solutions.

    Obama is correct; it is a social problem. But he doesn't go far enough either. You've gotta go where the problem actually begins - with the parents! When these 'criminals' were kids they had a rotten upbringing - physical and verbal abuse, seeing their mothers (and other family members beaten), incest, child prostitution and/or you-name-it.

    Far too many of the inmates are low-level 'criminals' - selling marijuana or smoking it, and other lesser crimes. Probably half of the prison population could be released without incurring a dramatic increase in more so-called crime -- IF they were given the training for available and needed jobs on the outside. Without that there's a continuing vicious cycle that never ends - and these 'criminals' are not decent role models for their children.

    Some of the billions given to prisons - state, federal or private - should be redirected to non-Medicaid funded therapy (Medicaid is an avalanche of virtually needless and repeated paperwork often filled-out in longhand). What is NEEDED is state-of-the-art therapy, such as EMDR. Look it up on Google for an adequate explanation.

    1. While you certainly went into more detail than I did, Im pretty sure I wrote down "job training, education and therapy" as things we need.

      I will look into emdr, never heard of it before.

    2. Understanding is always a good asset, and to that goal, you may want to look into (and buy) a copy of Kim Iannetta's publication: Danger Between The Lines, A Comprehensive Reference Manual for the Profiling of Violent Behavior.

      Learn more at http://trialrun.com/dbtl_overview.html

    3. Gordie,
      I have to tell you that I am pretty skeptical of that last one. Graphology has been pretty well discounted by modern science and psychology, with the exception of a few neurological disorders.

      And given the claims that they are making about how effective it is, you would think there would be a lot more chatter about it out there.

  3. Carl, I couldn't disagree with you more. There are plenty of bright people interested in prison reform. My sister- and brother-in-law have both been working on the reform of death penalty and drug laws in California across the country, and while they may not be Harvard law grads, they're Georgetown grads. And then there's Senator Jim Webb -- again, not Harvard, but a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy -- who early in his term proposed a sweeping prison reform bill (original news here; excellent commentary on the proposal by bill failed, naturally.

    The problem isn't that good and smart people aren't involved in the issue. It's that there's too much money being made on incarceration. Not only do Corrections lobbies have loads of power (see the Pennsylvania Corrections lobby donations to Gov Corbett and the corresponding budget appropriations), but the private corrections sector spends lavishly on campaigns. Campaigning for prison reform is tough because it's a complex issue; campaigning as being tough on crime is easy, especially when wooing seniors and suburbanites.

  4. Oops, that comment was all messed up. Let me try again.

    Commentary by Glenn Greenwald on Webb's reform bill.

    Senate rejects Webb's proposal.

  5. Great article. They had an election this past week in the UK to vote for each regional police force's Commissioner. I figured I'd want to find out more about each candidate before I voted so I checked each person's statement online.

    The only thing I was looking for was someone to support prevention rather than treatment. Yet just one candidate out of the 7 standing in my area even mentioned this. The rest focused on how they would lay the smackdown on every criminal and come down hard on everything. Rather depressing.

    1. Thank you

      It is a little disappointing to hear that you're having the same issues across the pond, but not hugely surprising. I suspect it's really more of a human nature thing. We are, at our cores, irrational and easily frightened as a species. In a lot of ways, that is what this whole blog is about.

      On a side note, I'm really curious about how you found me.