In writing about other cheerful topics (rape, police brutality against blacks, what happened to Sandra Bland) I keep dancing around my thoughts on punishing people - even when it's rightfully so, at least in the eyes of the law - by admonishing them to jails or prisons. I think there are only a few good reasons to ever put someone behind bars and they can all be summed up by saying, simply enough, "So they don't get killed".
- Most crimes involve taking something from someone, and most victims tend to want to take something in return. That something will often be your life. If the victim is dead or otherwise incapable or unwilling to take from you in return, then by golly, of course they will often know someone who can do that for them. So the primary purpose of putting someone behind bars is twofold: a) to avoid vigilantism by keeping the accused alive until trial and b) to avoid vigilantism by keeping the accused alive after conviction.
- Incidentally, keeping vigilantism at bay has the almost accidental side effect of ensuring the safety and well-being of victims and society at large. A lot of people might say: "But MM! The first reason you lock criminals up or keep them locked up is to protect the innocent, right?" Nooooooo. Not in this country. Our jails probably came about because every house had a musket or good strong knife and the only way to keep those from being used against perps was to ensure English law carried on - at least in some loose form - over here. We didn't even used to have prisons, really, until people realized, "If we keep this eye-for-eye thing up we're all gonna be dead pretty soon, so let's build some of them dang thangs."
I'd like to point out I'm not the first person to propose that jails and prisons serve no real purpose. You don't make someone feel bad by putting them behind bars. You make them feel bad by making them feel bad. True remorse doesn't come from having a terrible time in jail or knowing you're going to die in prison or getting beaten up by correction officers or getting raped by fellow inmates (these things can make a person regret they got caught; but that's not the same as regretting the harm you've done, or truly wishing you could take every moment of it back).
And if jail or prison were honestly some sort of a deterrent, crime in most places with jails and prisons would probably hover at or near zero into perpetuity. Obviously criminals weigh the risks against what they feel they might gain, and obviously they come to the conclusion that what they're about to undertake is either worth the risk or does not represent a risk - ie, jail is like a second (or even primary, or at least vastly preferred) home to them.
Society always speaks of the redemptive, rehabilitative quality of locking people up. Without turning this into a formal white paper, and because I'm covering ground that's been trodden so many times my feet are mucking about in the footprints of others much more qualified to speak on this topic than I am, let me sum up some of the so-called rehabilitative features of the typical lockup today (while temporarily discounting the fact that some people are falsely accused, falsely tried, and falsely convicted - for that reason alone I'd almost be willing to abolish the criminal justice system, just to prevent one more person from having to endure such a travesty - and while also discounting the fact that since the breakup of the US mental institutional system, jails are used to warehouse the mentally ill even if they've committed no crime outside of acting out in ways that, for the time being, they cannot control).
If someone's done something morally wrong (and it stands to reason most crime is morally wrong) what they might most need is to regret what they've done, fully understand why they'd think it was wrong if it was done to them, and fully commit themselves to not doing such thing again. US society has this romantic idea that getting locked up results in remorseful rehabilitation. Remorse doesn't work this way because it can only come from within. Within can happen anywhere. There is also the case of psychopathic lack of remorse. People who can't feel bad for what they've done can't benefit from jail or prison (and will only feel bad out of a sense of narcissistic self-pity, since they tend to blame others or society at large for anything others hold against them) they need a max-security mental health facility with a strong focus on offenders' lack of empathy.
Despite most crimes springing from an inward lack of morality - a lack of thinking ahead to consequences suffered by others one would not want visited upon themselves - we do nothing in this country to make anyone feel bad for any crime they've committed except lock them up. Magic America, where locking people up is religion - our form of redemption for those we consider soulless - where just locking 'em up (and optionally, throwin' away the key) solves the problem. He served his time? Sure, let him out! He learned his lesson, didn't he...
Chances are, not the lesson one might be expecting. Here's a short, off-the-top-of-my-head list of what he did learn:
- That jails and prisons are for committing crime. I've known those "on the inside" and have heard most of them spend almost every waking minute on how to break the rules to live like they're still on the outside. If they smoke anything on the outside they'll smoke it inside. If they drink, alcohol will be procured or homemade. If they're violent, tools will be acquired or hand-fashioned. If they rape, well...you do get the picture, I presume.
- That correction officers aren't paid enough to do their jobs, and certainly aren't paid enough to protect inmates from them or each other. Sometimes COs become friends and buddies, turning a blind eye to much mischief; other times they'll only do so for a price. They can also turn on someone on a gang's or favored cellblock's or individual inmate's suggestion or for no reason at all.
- That the primary modes of therapy are "time on your hands" and "survival". Say someone freshly locked up does feel a little bad for what they've done. How do they make a better turn of their lives? There might be a Bible kicking around, but no clergy to help them through it; they might be told repeatedly by COs or other inmates what a rotten person they are, but no one will show up trained to help them deal with and overcome the reason for that.
- With every distraction and thing against them, from bad food in paltry amounts that don't properly nourish body or brain, to near impossible sleeping conditions, ridiculous amounts of noise, constant privacy intrusions, lack of physical and emotional safety, lack of useful ways to occupy their time that won't turn them into slaves of the state, and copious amounts of crime going on on the inside, there's little time or emotional space to actually learn anything in jail except your capacity for survival against bleak odds.
A lot of people marvel at how you can send someone to jail or prison who never offended before and they'll come out a full-blown criminal. They did not go in except for one infraction (say, getting caught with drugs) but they come out better at crime than they were before they got inside of "the place". And that's true, because nothing in this country grooms one for criminality quite so well as getting locked up, where oftentimes corrections are so corrupt and uncaring and inmates so out of control that there's nothing useful to glean from time locked up except how to become more like what you see.
I can imagine someone saying, "It sounds like maybe you favor the European model." And while I do, I've had to shake off a good 30 years of being married to the belief that Europeans are a bunch of wusses who coddle criminals/go soft on crime/"Not here in America, we do it right" *fist shake*. The US are heathens about justice. Most of us think you get what you deserve. To most of us, *that* is the rehabilitative magic of being locked up to begin with. Somehow it cures you, and you will never, ever do the bad thing again, because we fucking said so, and if you do *fist shake*. We might be preventing one facet of our society's thirst for vengeance by locking criminals away from those on the outside who'd only too gladly kill them for their misdeeds, but we do nothing to discourage the other facet of our vengeance, the one that expresses itself in a thirst to watch those fuckers pay, that makes someone say: "Yeah, so I hope everything you described, MM, happens to them 20 times over in there - and that they die before they ever get out".
That attitude is not helping our recidivism rates, nor is it helping people to not wish to re-offend. Which is the other side of the coin; we lock people up in nasty, barbarian hellholes called 'jail' or 'prison' for varying lengths of time depending upon completely arbitrary bullshit that happens to them in court, but because we need the space they're taking up to lock up even more people, we let out all but the worst offenders, eventually. Then, after being subjected to scenes that at their most banal can cause depression and suicide, and at their worst, are barely fit for a chainsaw massacre movie, we let them out, and we call that rehabilitation. On top of that, we make it almost impossible for them to not re-offend by inflicting a huge round of strictly punitive punishments upon almost every one of them:
- We often make it a condition of their parole or probation that offenders get a job, but we make it impossible for them to work by giving them "a record". In our country "a record" is today's scarlet letter. You're not getting work with one of those unless someone is almost insanely willing to overlook your record or else you find a job "off the books", which is a) almost impossible with most typical, non-criminal employers and b) of course forces people to break the law just to stay on parole or probation. So to not break the law you have to break the law - or else violate by not finding work and go right back to jail or prison. Nice catch-22 we've got going there... *hat-tip to America*.
- Whether or not an offender finds work, they have to pay to be on parole or probation - and charges can run from the low hundreds into many thousands of dollars per year. They have to find transportation not just to and from any job, but to probation reporting and back, and also miss work over it. They have to pay incredibly steep prices (from $70-$300 per week) to comply with any GPS or alcohol monitoring. They have to pay incredibly steep prices ($35-$100 or more) for each required drug or alcohol lab test, which are performed randomly once or twice per month, and they have to find transportation back and forth to labs, and they usually have to miss work to take lab tests, as well.
- Offenders often have to pay restitution which they cannot afford to victims. Paying victims for medical expenses and emotional and physical trauma doesn't sound evil on the face of it but when even the victim knows the offender can't pay, you can see a serious problem. It just becomes a trap to force the offender back to jail - and I don't think most victims want most offenders to go back to jail simply for being too poor to keep up with costs. If they've already done their time, this is a grave injustice.
- The offender has to pay court costs. This can involve paying the state for the cost of the prosecution against them, paying fines for DUIs and other driving infractions, and paying fines for the administration of their cases by clerks of court and other government entities.
While the extreme punitive damage visited upon the typical criminal might warm the cockles of any "tough on crime" heart, none of this is helping your average offender. It just proves our society has turned criminal activity into a pay-to-play game; the less money you have, the less you'll play, but the more (as a percentage of your income) you'll pay. Most people on probation or parole don't have time to reform themselves - they're too busy worrying about how to stay out of jail, since one missed probation visit, one drug test not taken on time, one payment that can't be made for lack of funds is all it takes to land them back in hot water. Making sure they don't miss a drug test or parole visit can cause them to lose their jobs, which will also land them right back in jail, as lack of employment can also violate the terms of their release.
At this point, we're not re-imprisoning people for committing new crimes, but simply for being poor - trapped in a system that's almost impossible to get out of.