We say “serving prison time,” which I believe is a phrase that enables us to avoid confronting the truth of what we are doing to our prisoners. I have come to believe that the idea of imprisonment as a routine punishment for all manner of transgressions against the community is a moral outrage. Next to our life itself, our freedom of action and movement is the most precious thing we have, and indeed some would say that without it life itself is worth very little. Yet we debate between locking people away for ten years or fifteen as though there were little to choose between them. We speak blithely of locking people away for the rest of their lives, with not even the remotest conception of what we are condemning them to. 

It is not simply the deprivation of freedom, though that is in my mind enough alone to condemn the practice, it is also the conditions under which prisoners are kept. They are put almost entirely at the mercy of prison staff, who are hired largely for their “tough” qualities. A kindly, empathetic prison guard will not last long at the job. We have seen from well-known experiments the effect on people of giving them power over others, even in academic laboratory settings. Imagine how bad it can get in real life situations in such places as maximum security prisons. The truth is truly horrific. 

The social purposes supposedly being served by this system are said to be fourfold: rehabilitation, segregation, deterrence and punishment. Cure them of their criminality, put them where they cannot do further harm, and apply sanctions for their criminal behavior that provide serious consequences and by their harshness discourage others from doing similar things. 

Rehabilitation is so little practiced in our prison systems that one might say that the exact reverse is taking place. There may be, it is true, places in the US where genuinely “enlightened” prison methods are being used, though the expression itself seems to me to be an oxymoron, but if so they are very much in the minority. The rest of the system can fairly be described as schools for crime. Universities, in fact. Prisons turn a large proportion of their inmates into lifetime criminals. 

Locking criminals away does indeed prevent them from committing further crimes while they are locked away, but at very great cost. The main problem is that at some point most of them will end up being released. After perhaps decades of harsh inhumane treatment they are turned loose with only whatever possessions they had with them when arrested, and a few dollars. Is it any wonder that they have difficulties readjusting to outside life, or that many of them end up back inside within a short time, sometimes preferring that life to the challenges of freedom. The only thing they know is the criminal life, and the only people they know are criminals. 

Deterrence hinges on the idea that people will avoid crime for fear of the punishment. Increasingly harsh sentences are imposed, often cemented in place by minimum sentencing laws, in pursuit of this aim. Psychological studies, however, seem to show that this is not effective. The likelihood of being caught seems to weigh much more heavily than the fear of punishment; criminals do not expect to be caught, so the severity of the punishment is immaterial to them. Furthermore such considerations do not even come into play when it comes to crimes committed in the heat of the moment, without forethought. They are also of little weight when the crime is truly one of need.

So we are left with punishment. The criminal did a bad thing, and must suffer as a consequence. This (in the absence of the other three) is perhaps the least defensible rationale. If this is indeed the only remaining justification, then the degree of punishment must bear a direct relationship with the harm done by the crime. I would argue that this is almost never the case. Instead prosecutors brag about the number of criminals they have caused to be imprisoned and for how long.  Far from carefully suiting the punishment to the crime (which would require individual examination of the circumstances of each case, and of the circumstances of the criminal) punishment is decided in most cases by a bargaining process between prosecutor and the defense counsel. The vast majority of criminal cases are decided by plea bargaining; not only is the defendant effectively denied the benefit of a jury trial, even the judge plays almost no part except rubber stamping the result.

This is done by charging the defendant with the most serious crimes that the circumstances of the case could possibly justify. The prosecutor does not imagine that he could obtain a conviction from a jury on these charges, that is not the aim. The aim is to frighten the defendant into pleading to a lesser charge that he may not even be guilty of so as not to have to run the risk (however remote) of a conviction on the harsher charges. Ironically in this situation draconian minimum sentences do act as a strong incentive, an incentive to accept a manifestly unjust punishment in order to avoid the risk of an even worse result.

There are many facets to this issue which is the great shame and crime of our society. There is the disgrace of private prisons run for profit. It outrages me that anyone should even require reasons for condemning private prisons; are they not morally unacceptable simply on the face of it? Take all of the evils I have already described, add to them the incentive to operate the entire concern as cheaply as possible and remove even the pretence of accountability imposed by a publicly run system? What could possibly go wrong?

There are the various industries that prey on the prisoners and their families. The private phone companies that charge unconscionable rates for calls. The prison run banking system that charges hefty fees for depositing money into prisoners’ accounts. The prison labor racket where prisoners are paid pennies per hour for work that is sold for regular prices, with most of the profit going to private contractors. 

All these circumstances, and many more that I do not have space for here, combine to make prisoners’ lives almost insupportable. And all of it is on top of what is already the most severe deprivation short of death, the deprivation of freedom. Even if you hold that we should lock people away, is it even good policy to make the conditions so severe? Would we not be better served by a system that really did rehabilitate people? Regardless of whether you think that this is a morally correct thing to do, surely it would be the sensible thing to do.