Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Musing about prison

I recently read Michael Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, a classic historical analysis of punishment and prisons by the prominent twentieth century French philosopher. Foucault’s primary context is France, yet his observations ring true with respect to the United States’ penal system:

1.    “Prisons do not diminish the crime rate; they can be extended, multiplied or transformed, the quantity of crime and criminals remains stable or, worse, increases.” (p. 265) The U.S. penal system has the highest rate of incarceration in the world (1 in 100 Americans) and some of the highest crime rates (

2.    “Detention causes recidivism; those leaving prison have more chance than before of going back to it; convicts are, in a very high proportion, former inmates…” (p. 265) Foucault’s analysis highlights ways in which prison contributes to recidivism, e.g., the social stigma attached to a prison record limits employment opportunities for released convicts and the impoverishment of their families becomes a catalyst for committing additional crimes. The federal Bureau of Prisons estimates that recidivism in the U.S. exceeds 50% of state and federal prisoners returning to prison within three years of release (

Foucault incisively argues that the criminal justice system has become a means of identifying, typing, and controlling a segment of the population that, in turn, creates employment (police, judges, lawyers, jailers, bail bondsmen), institutions (courts, prisons, probation/parole offices), and lifestyles dependent upon perpetuating the system rather than changing behavior.

Clearly, society needs protection from individuals who represent a threat to the well-being of others by their propensity for committing violent crimes. Until the mental health profession develops the knowledge and techniques to help such individuals effectively control their anti-social behavior, their confinement is an unfortunate necessity. Imprisonment costs approximately $50,000 per year per prisoner in the United States. Imprisonment is a high cost option in terms of its financial cost to taxpayers as well as its harmful effects on many prisoners (i.e., the likelihood of their committing new crimes when released).

In this era of huge federal deficits and significant fiscal struggles by most state and municipal governments, reducing the number of people in prison becomes a win for all concerned. Imprisonment of non-violent offenders does nothing to repay whatever harm or injury a criminal may have caused. Concurrently, imprisonment increases the probability of the prisoner committing additional crimes in the future. And, society bears a heavy financial burden to produce these negative results.

What alternatives exist?

First, decriminalize as many behaviors as possible. Decriminalizing most, if not all, drug offenses would dramatically reduce the number of people in prison, create a new tax revenues (i.e., by taxing drug sales and drug dealers’ incomes), reduce the number of crimes drug users commit to buy drugs by lowering the price of drugs, and free criminal justice authorities to focus on violent crime. (Cf. Ethical Musings: Ending the war on drugs and Ethical Musings: Some data about the war on drugs) Other behaviors, now often criminalized, might also be legalized, e.g., attempted suicide. Legalization implies neither moral nor social approval but recognizes the reality that criminalization represents a costly failure to achieve society’s goals.

Second, explore alternatives to imprisonment, e.g., electronically monitored home confinement at the confinee’s expense and involuntary military enlistment for men and women of an eligible age (the military can cope with a relatively small number of such individuals and more often produces a positive outcome than does imprisonment).

In the 18th century, bankrupt individuals unable to pay their debts went to debtors’ prison until they paid their debts. That approach to irresponsible spending never made sense to me. How can a person in prison earn money to pay his/her debts? More often than proving a solution, debtors’ prison created a welfare case (the debtor’s family) and imposed a cost on the government (keeping the debtor in prison). Bankruptcy, rather that debtor’s prison, has proven widely beneficial by eliminating those costs. Bankruptcy proceedings that wipe out debts have not incentivized overspending; indeed, the stigma attached to bankruptcy generally deters people from overspending, unless lenders collude in it, as happened with mortgage companies granting mortgages to people who had no realistic hope of repaying the debt.

Instead of being a growth industry, governments should reduce spending on prisons, using scarce tax dollars in more beneficial ways (e.g., reducing the deficit, feeding the hungry, helping the cold buy heat, etc.).


hank wall said...

I understand your point of view, but as a father of several twenty-somethings whose lives were damaged by drugs and addiction, I find the message to "decriminalize" drugs to be the least loving thing a society could ever impose on its children. It might solve the problem of incarceration, but not the problem of addiction. A policy of appeasement is not always a policy of peace.

George Clifford said...

Hank, Although I’m not a parent, as a priest I have known people trapped in the grip of addiction to drugs. Prohibition did not reduce or end addiction to alcohol nor has making gambling illegal cured or reduced addictions to that destructive behavior (cf. the current discussion of the futility of Kansas’ laws permitting the banning of addicts from casinos in that state). The same is true for addiction to drugs: criminalizing the behavior has not even reduced the rate of addiction. Indeed, the U.S. had its largest problem (in terms of the percentage of the population) with addictive drugs in the second half of the nineteenth century. Decriminalization is not appeasement. Decriminalization is simply recognizing that making drug usage a criminal offense has failed as a strategy for ending widespread abuse of mind-altering drugs and, unfortunately, caused other major problems. Finding an effective way to end drug abuse begins with the demand end of the equation: what causes people to seek out mind-altering drugs? What is the best way to help people say No? How can we as a society address the factors that prompt people to want to use mind-altering drugs? Frustration in solving those very difficult problems, problems to which we don’t even know most of the answers, that leads to criminalizing drug use/abuse is understandable but counterproductive.