06 February 2012

Law, Order and Prisons

This is a truly bizarre article.

The author, Christopher Glazek, makes a lot of good points about the American prison system, in which prisons are run by the inmates. He points out that according to some statistics, the majority of all rapes committed in the US occur in prisions. We have heard elsewhere recently that more black Americans are in prison today than were in slavery in 1860, and that more people are in American prisons than were in the Gulag Archipelago (although, to be fair, that is partly because the latter tended to die).

The solution proposed by Glazek is: to let the prisoners out to commit more crimes. There is no mincing of words; the title of the article is "Raise the Crime Rate". Not for Glazek any wishful-thinking "prison doesn't work" rhetoric, his thesis is clearly that it does work, but the price is too high.

Part of the weirdness is that he seems to regard a reduction in crime partly as a bad thing in itself:
Certain breeds of urban dwellers benefit, too. In gentrifying sections of Brooklyn, for example, steep drops in crime, combined with the virtual depopulation of entire city blocks, has underwritten a real estate boom. In neighborhoods like Fort Greene and Clinton Hill, wealthy people with children have reaped the benefits of climbing land values from apartments they never would have bought had it not been for the removal of tens of thousands of locals from adjacent areas.
Er, yes. Reducing crime makes neighbourhoods nicer and encourages people to live in them. That's more or less the point.

What Glazek never addresses is the question of why the US is unable to keep order inside its own prisons. From an international point of view, this is the obvious question. The UK, as he observes, imprisons fewer of its criminals, but here there is no assumption that prisons are run by the inmates. There is a possibility that here we are just misled, but I don't think so. There was for a time one exception to the rule, the Maze prison, where Northern Ireland's terrorists were held, but the management of that prison, with opposing factions kept in separate wings run by their own paramilitary hierarchies, was a major controversy. The terrorists were de facto prisoners of war, though de jure that status was always denied them, and the contrast demonstrates that the situation in the mainland prisons really is different. Compare to this astonishing paper on the Mexican Mafia, which demonstrates that gang prisoners in California have essentially the same status as the paramilitary POWs of the Maze H-Blocks.

There are statistics in the article: the US spends 200bn a year on a system which employs 500,000 correctional officers to supervise 2.3 million prisoners. Is it really not possible to control crime inside the prisons with a ratio of more than one officer to five prisoners?. The abandonment of law and order inside American prisons is a choice, one probably inherited from the country's frontier days, and one which simply cannot be justified. If violent criminals continue to commit — and suffer — violent crime inside prison, the answer is surely not to move them out to prey on the law-abiding, but to actually enforce order in the one place where it ought to be easiest of all to do. Don't, as Glazek recommends, put TV cameras all over the country: put TV cameras all over the prison. (That was a progressive idea in 1791). And finally, if you're going to release prisoners because there are too many, release the ones that don't commit crimes inside.


Olave d'Estienne said...

I'm glad you're blogging on this. The situation in prisons is something I've thought about a lot, gotten a little bit despondent about, and not blogged too much about.

Thinking about the problems of American prisons fuels my racial paranoia as much as anything else. But there is more to it than that.

There are certain situations in human life where victimizing a person in a certain way causes people to not view the person as a victim but as someone who was justly punished for being subhuman. Prison sodomy is obviously one of these things. The slang term "butthurt" (a term I revile) rose in the same atmosphere--if you are victimized and you dare to admit it, and air your grievance, then retroactively you deserved it.

People can even convince themselves that "sodomy is something prisoners suffer" while somehow blinding themselves to the fact that the prisoners who perpetrate it presumably enjoy it. Of course the perps and the victims aren't the same class of criminal at all; the former much more likely to be large and have mafia ties.

So why does the general public tolerate a system that objectively sentences smaller and younger individuals who lack organized crime ties to vastly worse punishments? Doublethink, willful ignorance, and perhaps morality left over from school. People assume that if a bully isn't punished he's really done nothing wrong; if a victim is injured he must have done something wrong.

So in a sense the public has its morality deadened by years of exposure to bullying in schools. Let me clarify that bullying in schools is in general vastly less horrible than prison rape, but that they are formally similar in terms of the way third-parties observe them. Being able to put aside veil-of-ignorance / deontological morality quickly and efficiently, and to laugh at a small friendless child as he's getting his smashed into a chalkboard--this is a learned skill, and the US public has learned it well. When they hear about prison rape, their guffaws and gesticulations drown out the likes of Kant and Mill and Bentham. There's really no contest. Multiply this by the massive, endemic inefficiency of American civil servants, and their utter unwillingness to stand up to black- and Hispanic-perpetrated violence.

(Apparently you "opened my floodgate". I heard another of my coworkers laughing his head off about prison rape the other day. It left me a little restless.)

A Nonny Mouse said...

Yes, Prison Rape really is a pain in the arse.

I would expect a Libertarian response to crime to be more anti-prison, though. Basically, the cheapest ways of dealing with crime had all been invented by the 18th century: criminals might be executed, or have their hands or some other body part severed, or be sold into slavery, or exiled, or fined, or branded or flogged and released: but never, never, held unproductively in prison for years at a time, because that is a drain on resources.

I am not a Libertarian though. I'm quite happy about the state extracting money from citizens to fund projects (like jails) which pump money into local economies, because money, from society's point of view, is indestructable: when you've spent it, it's still there. However, it does strike me as sad that so much money should be spent on making people unhappy: if might be worth paying Black men to go to Training College, instead having Prisons as the Black Man's equivalent of University.

I am surprised at you suggestion to "put TV cameras all over the prison". I think you have to consider the logistics of dealing with the population that the U.S.'s judges have thoughfully sentenced to 100 years + life. Whatever it is they might be doing, I can't see that the possibility of being on tv would deter them.