The Case for Prison Reform

It's time to fix what's wrong with America's criminal justice system.

Many people in California voted in 2008 for Proposition 2, which requires the state’s farmers to provide chickens and some other critters with enough room to extend their wings, lie down and turn around.

My youngest daughter, a grand-champion chicken “showman” at county fairs, explained why: “Who can bear the thought of Henrietta spending her life in a tiny cage?” Despite its many flaws, it passed overwhelmingly. “I can’t bear the thought of it,” certainly isn’t the best standard to apply to politics, but there’s no doubt such sentiment can — and sometimes should — spur people to action.

California’s massive prison system spends nearly $50,000 a year to house each inmate. Californians are accustomed to outrageous displays of fiscal profligacy and they manage to grin and bear it. What’s really unbearable is the human tragedy unfolding at out-of-sight, out-of-mind places such as Pelican Bay and Corcoran state prisons.

The latest news is a hunger strike. It started with about 30,000 prisoners across the state who, earlier this month, refused food to protest what they say are inhumane conditions. The state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation pegged the dwindling number of hunger-strikers at 986 as of Tuesday, but the peaceful protest continues. It’s not hard to understand why when one looks at the conditions prisoners endure.

Most of the strikers live in Security Housing Units (SHUs) — 7½-by-12-foot windowless concrete cells, where they are stripped of most human contact, handed their food through a portal, and left with little to do for more than 22 hours a day. They get short periods to exercise in a small caged area.

Most people understand the need for solitary confinement for misbehaving prisoners in these tough prison situations. Someone who, say, assaults a guard in prison will have a hearing and can be sentenced to a SHU for specific time period. Otherwise, how does one punish prisoners who are already in prison?

But the vast majority of the hunger-striking prisoners are there for indeterminate sentences — not as the result of a disciplinary action, but because prison authorities say that they have gang affiliations. Mainly, prison authorities keep the prisoners there until they are “debriefed,” i.e., turn in other prisoners as fellow gang-bangers. Few inmates are likely to do so given the severe consequences in the prison yard, so they languish in these cells for years. The ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties believes prison authorities may rely on these cells because of so much overcrowding throughout the prisons.

According to the Center for Constitutional Rights, more than 500 prisoners at Pelican Bay have been in such cells for more than a decade, and 78 for more than two decades. Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the UC Irvine School of Law, told me that “indefinite days of solitary confinement are cruel and unusual punishment.” It’s hard not to agree, even though these prisoners are unsympathetic characters.

It’s not just left-leaning activists and academics who are complaining. Former Republican Assemblyman Chuck DeVore of Orange County is now vice president of the right-leaning Texas Public Policy Foundation in Austin. The group sponsors the “Right on Crime” project, which promotes prison- and sentencing-reform to conservatives.

Long periods of solitary confinement not only cause deep psychological problems, but increase the recidivism rate, he told me. In California, inmates in SHUs won’t renounce their gangs because their lives will be in peril when they are returned to the main areas, he added, but Texas officials are less apt to use solitary confinement and simply move these members who renounce their gangs to separate parts of the prison where they are protected from retaliation.

Texas has the reputation of being the “tougher on crime” state, yet it’s more willing to consider humanitarian reform — perhaps because officials there are more willing to take on the unions and bureaucrats who run the prison system.

California prison spokesman Jeffrey Callison reminded me that a new state pilot project is reducing the numbers of inmates in isolated housing and giving them more due-process rights before landing there.

But that doesn’t change the unbearable reality that California voters seem more concerned about the conditions faced by chickens than by their fellow human beings.

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  • Pro Libertate||

    As a means for punishment, prisons are imprecise. As a means for rehabilitation, prisons are extremely inefficient. Finally, as a means from keeping the dangerous from society, prisons (combined with the justice system) are no better than so-so.

    The solution? Freeze everyone who commits violent crimes and let later, more technologically advanced and enlightened cultures deal with them. It meets all three requirements, as the prisoners are punished by taking them away from their family and friends (and experiencing very uncomfortable freezer-burn), they're rehabilitated by the advanced future societies, and they're kept away from the rest of us.

  • Raven Nation||

    Nice try Phoenix, but you're not getting away with your crimes that easily.

  • Pro Libertate||

    Nah, I was thinking more other science fiction, like Niven.

  • plusafdotcom||

  • UnCivilServant||

    One problem - we can't freeze a person without killing them, as in having ice crystals burst all their cells killing them. That turns your proposal into effectively a cryonic death sentence.

  • Pro Libertate||

    Yes, yes, it's impossible, like rockets operating in space. I'm sure we can figure it out, maybe funded through civil forfeiture?

  • UnCivilServant||

    It is being worked on, but to change the prison system before the requisite technology is available...

  • Raven Nation||

    "There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why... I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?"

  • PH2050||

    "One problem - we can't freeze a person without killing them, as in having ice crystals burst all their cells killing them."

    Wrong, wrong, WRONG. Inform yourself or keep quiet.

  • gimmeasammich||

    How's that damn three seashells thing work?

  • PH2050||

    A current cryonic suspension policy from CI runs about $35K, I believe. Much cheaper than housing for life sentences.

    In capital punishment cases, suspension could be offered in lieu of execution.

    I operate from the assumption that rehab in prison is a joke and not worth pursuing. I would like to eliminate the rape, however.

  • jeanmorita||

    up to I looked at the receipt which said $7068, I be certain that...my... father in law woz like realie receiving money in their spare time at there labtop.. there friends cousin has done this for only about seventeen months and just took care of the debts on their apartment and purchased themselves a Lotus Esprit. this is where I went,www.Rush60.ℂℴm

  • plusafdotcom||

  • The Late P Brooks||

    But what about the Social Contract?

    You can't expect those union prison guards to go work at 7-11 after they have tasted Absolute Power.

  • AlexInCT||

  • John||

    Ending and or reducing parole and eliminating the death penalty is a lot of what got us to having places like the SHU. If you can't offer prisoners any hope of reducing their sentence and you can't threaten them with the death penalty if they harm someone, the only way to control them is to threaten them with worse and worse conditions.

  • ||

    It’s not hard to understand why when one looks at the conditions prisoners endure.

    I wouldn't care so much if it weren't for so many people incarcerated for bullshit. It's unjust to them, and it stretches the budget so that the conditions become unjust for the real criminals.

    But, when we assume legitimacy of the government, and punishing everyone who doesn't go along to get along, they are all seen as merely bad people, out of sight, and out of mind.

    Even for many of the crimes with victims, restitution to the victims rather than punishment would be much more just. I'd rather make a criminal work and pay back what he stole, than throw him in jail for years. That doesn't recover anything.

  • Raven Nation||

    Agree. Ending incarceration for most theft, etc. would be a huge step in the right direction.

  • ||

    I'd rather make a criminal work and pay back what he stole, than throw him in jail for years.

    That MAY be the best solution.

    The biggest impediment to reforming criminals is they can never re-enter society. Once they've been to the big house, their life is essentially over. They get out, and they are unemployable second class citizens F-O-R-E-V-E-R.

    Certainly, citizens have a right to know if the shitbag they are hiring has a record. But stigmatizing them after they've served their time only forces them to return to crime.

    So what? Prison-factories where non violent offenders are forced to work for half pay, the other half going to the victim?

    Everybody talks about prison reform, but I seldom hear any real solutions.

  • Inigo M.||

    "The biggest impediment to reforming criminals is they can never re-enter society. Once they've been to the big house, their life is essentially over. They get out, and they are unemployable second class citizens F-O-R-E-V-E-R.

    Certainly, citizens have a right to know if the shitbag they are hiring has a record. But stigmatizing them after they've served their time only forces them to return to crime.

    So what? Prison-factories where non violent offenders are forced to work for half pay, the other half going to the victim?"

    Right. Let's give the government the additional power to create what's essentially slave labor.

    In China, they do that to people simply for being members of the Falun Gong. Here, it will start happening to people simply for being members of the tea party.

    But hey, why not? Maybe we can harvest their organs too and quickly clear up those organ donor waiting lists.

  • ||

    Not sure how forcing them to work to repay their debt to society/the victim is any different than simply locking them up. They would still need to be convicted in a court of law before punished. How is it slavery? They would be repaying what they stole.

  • AlexInCT||

    "I'd rather make a criminal work and pay back what he stole, than throw him in jail for years."

    That's how indentured service and, eventually, slavery, came about in the old world. Most slaves were conquered people or criminals paying off their debt tothe respective society. Once that debt was paid, they became free people (again).

    These days slavery is seen as a bad idea because nobody wants to remember how it started and remain focused on what it ended up as towards the end.

  • Inigo M.||

    Wow, looks like you missed out on the revisionist history books! Don't you know slavery was always a racist institution?

    It's not like back in the days of the Roman empire you might find a dark-skinned Nubian citizen of Rome who might "own" a white-skinned member of a conquered tribe from Gaul or something. Nah, that never would have happened.

  • ||

    Well, once society's progressed enough to realize that enslaving humans is wrong, you need a better excuse than conquering.

    So, you dehumanize the slaves.

    People will go to great lengths in mind-twisting to defend violence when it's advantageous to them. Just look at our resident trolls.

  • ||

    That's how indentured service and, eventually, slavery, came about in the old world. Most slaves were conquered people or criminals paying off their debt tothe respective society.

    Actually, making conquered people work off their debt, or making criminals pay off their debt to society is exactly what I didn't have in mind.

  • ||

    Everybody talks about prison reform, but I seldom hear any real solutions.

    Politicians. People want revenge and punishment more than they want justice. They also have every incentive to pretend like they're doing a great job with the current system, however it works. Prisoners are just one of those minorities that the system is incentivized to ignore.

  • ||

    People want revenge and punishment more than they want justice.

    Revenge and punishment is what justice is. There is no good case that can be made on libertarian ethical foundations that "rehabilitation", whatever that means to the perpetrator or the victim of, say, a property crime, is a legitimate function of the justice system. Punishing crimes and providing means of redress for victims is the only legitimate function of the courts.

  • Libertarius||

    The incentives of a welfare state are largely what bring all these people into existence in the first place, and then the fact that everything is illegal compounds the issue.

    End the welfare state and reduce the role of government to that of punishing the initiation of force and fraud under objective laws, and make the punishment so costly as to provide a serious incentive against doing it.

    Man always has a choice, but it has to be right (accordance with reality) or he suffers the consequences.

  • coma44||

    To fix the "prison system"

    First we need to restart the whole mental health system and get the people in there BEFORE they end up in jail.

    Then we need to end the war on drugs so that part of the "criminals" are out of jail.

    Then what is left in there needs to actually work for their food and shelter. 10 hours a day 6 days a week 52 weeks a year. Prison needs to be harder than walking the line straight and narrow.

  • Scarecrow Repair||

    And what if they refuse to work for their food and shelter? There isn't any more public support for letting them starve and freeze to death than there is to let motorcyclists die by the side of the road for not wearing helmets.

  • coma44||

    For every day you don't do your work you stay another day, and the only thing you get the days you "refuse" to work is water and stale bread.

  • Mock-star||

    Or we could bring back the days of stocks, flogging, fines, or hanging. seriously, Prison was meant as a chance to reform criminals. In this regard, it has failed, and failed miserably, due to the above-mentioned fact that after paying their dues, prisoners are treated as second class citizens for life.

  • Scarecrow Repair||

    I would love stocks and pillories for first time petty criminals. Humiliate them, shock them straight. Just make sure people don't throw rocks or anything actually lethal, just rotten food.

    Or walk around town with a sandwich board.

    Anything is better than the criminal schools called jail at taxpayer expense.

    I don't like flogging for the simple reason that it literally scars them for life, marks them as a criminal, and that makes it too hard to rehabilitate.

  • MoMark||

    Well since everyone agrees that prisons don’t function very well, let’s get rid of them. How about instead of prison we give each person demerits for crimes? For each misdemeanor you get 3 demerits, for each felony you get 10 demerits, for each rape you get 15 demerits, and for first degree murder you get 30 demerits, and anyone amassing 31 or more demerits in their life, will be executed without appeal! Feed them to zoo lions, harvest their organs, I don’t care. Just think of the gratification a victim would have seeing a person who harmed them, being fed to a pack of lions. Why do fava beans come to mind?

  • hoppy||

    yes- but forcible rape should equal murder (especially pedophiles). Maybe the victims (or victims' family) should also get to choose manor of death. And as a deterrent, lets air it on national television MA only- obviously.

  • sweettea71||

    Send the violent prisoners to the Mexican prison system to serve out their sentence.

  • ||

    For people convicted in court of legitimate crimes, I don't give a shit about their mental well being during the time they spend in prison. Fuck them. It's supposed to be unpleasant. It's a goddamn punishment. They get what they deserve. Color me an asshole. I doubt sincerely that every poor lad in one of these 7x12 cells was a wayward teen who got caught with a few grams of pot. If you get sent to the pokey after having been convicted of a crime that violates the NAP, not only do you get no sympathy from me, but I want it to be miserable for you. The only reform the prison system needs is to make sure that only the true assholes land there. That's the court system and the legal system though, not the prison system.

  • Propecia||

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  • melpee||

    English speaking inmates in California should be given better treatment by separating them from the general population. But liberals will call it racial profiling.

  • hoppy||

    yeah probably because it is! You go to jail in Mexico and see how your idea works out for you.

  • hoppy||

    A good start for reform would be the for-profit prisons. When people are making money-and a lot of it- by incarcerating as many people as possible, there just might be problems. Everyone in prison for marijuana should be released. That would be a good start.

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