In one of its better recent episodes, Frontline looked at the rise of solitary confinement in American prisons. Like so many other mindlessly punitive and counterproductive aspects of our justice system, solitary confinement exploded in popularity during the Reagan years. The rationale sounds good on the surface – to remove inmates who are so violent and dangerous that the staff and other inmates are not safe around them. The problem, as the medical profession has known for well over a century, is that solitary confinement makes people insane. Like, really insane. And quickly. Take a superficially normal person, seal them in a box with next to nothing to do, surround their cage with other solitary inmates of dubious mental fitness, and wait about two months. See how normal they are then.

Our correctional and justice systems have been flawed for generations. In the last three decades, however, things have gone from flawed to irreparable. The bad ideas and the institutional pathologies have compounded one another as one harebrained Tough on Crime scheme after another – each chosen not because evidence suggested they would be effective but because they made old, wussy elected officials look Tough – was implemented to disastrous effect. It's hard to pinpoint just one factor as the predominant cause of the overcrowded, back-breakingly expensive mess we now have: abandoning the concept of rehabilitation in favor of a Dickensian punitive approach, mandatory minimum sentencing, the War on Drugs, the collapse of the manufacturing base in the 1970s and 1980s (When the factories and mills disappear, the prisons never fail to open up in their place), laws that target the poor and are designed to keep them trapped in the criminal justice system in perpetuity, the inability of convicted felons to get jobs and loans…take your pick. It is any of those and all of them.

If it feels like nothing we try to reform the prison system works it is because it is too far gone to be reformed. Sometimes I feel like the only thing we can do is burn it down to the ground and start over from scratch. It sounds like a desperate solution because it is, and if it sounds like a joke it's not. If nothing can fix this mess, then let's take everyone who hasn't committed a violent felony, release them, wipe the slate clean, and start over with a prison system that does something beyond warehouse the poor and ensure that everyone who leaves prison does so more violent, angry, and socially maladjusted than when they entered.

While the correctional systems in other countries are not flawless, the U.S. system stands alone among its peer nations for the dysfunction in our courts and prisons. Our prison system more closely resembles Mexico or Brazil than EU nations, Canada, or Japan. We are doing so many things that don't work that changing any single one is like bailing out the Titanic with a bucket. So we keep doing the things we know don't work – solitary confinement, for example – because we can't think of anything better or we lack the political will and intelligence to implement useful changes. It is fitting that so many Americans believe Criminals are beyond redemption since that phrase describes the prisons that hold them perfectly.

31 thoughts on “PRISONER'S DILEMMA”

  • The humane alternative to solitary confinement is a medically induced coma. It separates the dangerous prisoners from the general population while preventing the segregated inmates from going insane. Instead they're simply forced into unconscious for a few days or weeks or months. This allows an overtaxed prison system to warehouse more prisoners in a given space without worrying about them trying to escape or eat or otherwise cause trouble.

    We have the technology! Given the choice, some prisoners might prefer this alternative. Like a Rip van Winkle effect for instantly commuting otherwise interminable sentences.

  • Woo hoo! Bring back DST!! Not!

    Rehabilitation takes time, effort and money!!
    People in general and Americans (and Australians) in particular hate the first two—exercise to lose weight? Isn't there a pill for that?—and as a group hate the idea of being taxed for the last.

    Agitating at the state level via petitions or reps to remove the ability to discriminate for criminal conviction for jobs would go a long way to helping. To be exempted from this would be if it can be proven certain types crimes are relevant to the role. Having a conviction for dealing shouldn't prevent someone working as a bank teller.

  • So in order to look tough, we turned to repression. Then we put the repression in the hands of private prisons… What can go wrong?

  • That Frontline episde was very tough to watch. I was thinking about it again yesterday when MSN had an article about Pennsylvania working to eliminate (or at least drastically reduce) the use of solitary confinement. The article had the usual "I dare you to read the comments" section.

    As far as prisons, I've always been amazed that the solution continues to be a one-size-fits-all punishment regardless of crime. The system is also set up so that after someone has "paid their debt to society", they continue to pay and pay and pay, whether it is the continued loss of voting rights, or the fact that they have to notify any potential employer of their felony status. The system is rigged against them so the only plausible outcome is getting looped back into the corrections system.

  • The frightening thing is that Ed's proposal doesn't sound like hyperbole at all, but a modest and sensible suggestion.

    To excellent list of causes for this I'd add one more very important one: the very dearly held belief that the poor have to be driven with sticks and punishment in order to work. In fact, we make honest poverty in this country suck so profoundly that any treatment of prisoners that rises above inhumane disturbs the whole system. Give a prisoner education? What about the honest kid on the outside who gets no education and has to go into debt at the community college? Employment counseling? What about the high schoolers with no records who dumped into the job market with no marketable skills? Etc.

    Basically, most sensible policies that would make prison redemptive will seem like a reward compared to how we treat the working poor.

  • I've been disturbed by the privatization of prisons for some time, as it inevitably (shocking, I know, who could have predicted?) leads to corruption of judges and LEO to put people away for as long as possible or at least ensure that they are continually looped through the system. The system will likely implode when white middle class start going to jai/ have their lives wrecked for violating the miasma of laws on the books, like wearing a purple suit on Sunday or the thousands of other obsolete or inane laws on the books.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    We can't get money to fix roads or bridges, but when the call goes out for a new prison, somehow or other our politicians – of both parties – find the money.

    And now, the latest rage is Privatized Prisons.
    On top of locking people up and throwing away the key, we have provided a profit-margin for corporations to treat our prisoners even worse.

    Back in the late 70's until 1981, I used to teach in a Maximum Security Prison in Upstate NY.
    Prisoners got no time off, and had to study on their own time – but if they succeeded, they walked out with an Associates, Bachelors, or even Masters Degree.
    The recidivism rate was very, very low compared with non-participating prisoners.
    Of course, Reagan cut money to this program, and NY State couldn't afford to pick-up much of the slack – so, "Bye-bye degree programs," 'Hello! Nice to see you back in prison, scum. Your old cell's taken, so we've got you a different one."

    Feckin' eedjits!!!

  • "Basically, most sensible policies that would make prison redemptive will seem like a reward compared to how we treat the working poor."

    I'm sure you've seen the scandal and out rage. Out rage I tell you!! Over the plan to offer waived fees for CC education. Far out. They seem to suffer some kind of personality disorder. One says, you cannot be paid a living wage as you're unskilled. The other says they cannot have an education unless they pay for it themselves. Forget assistance programs, they need to get a job that pays a decent wage…

    Though Obama did use a red rag word, "free". He should have used "investment".

  • Let's not forget that in many places, prisoners provide an endless source of cheap/free (i.e., slave) labor. As long as that's going on, don't expect the prison/industrial complex to fix itself.

  • I'm sure most of you here are familiar with Michelle Alexander's "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration In The Age Of Color-Blindness". Many of these "disastrous effects" of the modern U.S. prison system are intended (or at least not unwelcome) outcomes– it's another "self-licking ice cream cone", like a domestic War On Terror. I.e., these "problems" are features, not bugs.

  • One thing you didn't mention as a cause is my #1 proposed fix.

    The privatization of prisons has failed. Like many of the other factors it expanded exponentially during the 80's but after 20-25 years it's time to take a stand, declare private prisons a failed experiment, & return management of prisons into government hands with all of the costs & responsibilities involved. This will immediately result in mass releases from prisons, reform in the judicial system to slow down the flow going in, prison closures, reduced operating costs (rehabilitation is cheaper than solitary), & higher taxes.

    Of course, this will never happen because Joe the Prison guard has a "good job", taxes are verboten, and the voting public is incapable of understanding that government has to pay more whether they run the prisons themselves and have direct costs or prisons are private or crappy and government has to pick up the pieces through indirect costs.

    Oh yah, that also was a result of the 80's.

    Related note: my governor elect in IL said in his inauguration speech: "Taxpayers’ money belongs to them; not the government. We have a moral obligation to minimize how much we take and to ensure what we do take is spent efficiently and effectively"

    Fucking idiot. By definition a taxpayer is committing a portion of their income to pay as taxes. That portion of their money is budgeted to the government and effectively does not 'belong to them'. Of course his second sentence can be translated to: I'm a white billionaire and government never did anything for me (despite paying ~19%/year on taxes (another Reagan gift)) so pull up your bootstraps all you poor people and get jobs so you can fend for yourselves. It worked for me(TM)

  • Each January I go out on a limb with a short list of predictions for the coming year. One of them for 2015 is that Obama will put mass incarceration onto the public agenda. It is mostly wishful thinking on my part, because I think the Republicans would completely lose their shit. Because race, class, money, violence, privilege and the way that the criminal injustice system bundles that all up into their ugly, atavistic psychopathology of fear, greed and otherness.

  • It's horrible, inhuman, and I don't know what an ideal situation would look like. (Coventry?)

    Even without addressing sentencing reform, for-profit prisons, and the rest of the long list of problems, can we admit that there is a problem with prisoners who harm other prisoners? The victims might be criminals, but they are not able to avoid danger and we are responsible for their health and safety. What punishes OR rehabilitates a criminal who feels he has nothing to lose?

    Perhaps small groups of otherwise-solitary prisoners would work out. I don't know. But the corrections mentality is not going to fix things.

  • Prisons like schools go through cycles of reform and neglect. The newest old ideas come with corporate control which makes them less accountable to tax payers. But our overlords are easy marks for the dumbest faddish ideas and they turn up in schools and prisons, as well as other settings for our most vulnerable citizens.

  • Good posts all.

    This is somewhat an aside from our medieval justice system but relevant:

    St. Reagan and Co. forced the shut down of hundreds of state mental hospitals too. We pay dearly for this shame and cruelty of neglect. Then there is the cost and the even worse shame of incarceration. True violent patients were fairly rare but by the time they are released from today's horror prisons; probably not so rare.

  • I agree that privatization has been an unbridled disaster, but the numbers suggest that the large majority of inmates are incarcerated in old fashioned state run facilities.

    There is a gray area, though, wherein the prisons are public but staffed by outsourced, private guards. That works real fuckin' well, by the way.

  • I watched part of the Frontline documentary on solitary. Holy shit is right. I mean, if you're like me and kind of a loner, you'd think "how bad could it be?" and then you see what happens to the people…. Oof.

    One of the links on the Frontline page is to an interview with a professor or something from Rutgers. In it he talks about how removing "criminals" from high-crime neighborhoods actually makes it all worse. Having worked in those neighborhoods for about 9 years, I can attest that is absolutely true. The idea that jail time is a deterrent is laughable at best, and people in those neighborhoods see "going to jail" as a normal thing: some people go off to college, some people go off to jail. Guess which one the poor neighborhoods send their young men and women to. So absolutely the "tough on crime" sells great in suburban neighborhoods- those kids aren't going to go into the system.
    The huge gap in "white-collar" sentencing vs. "violent" crime is also apparent. At Large Chain Drug Store we had an asst. manager at another store steal about $30k *that they could prove*. What did he get as a sentence? Probation as long as he paid the money back and HIS RECORD WOULD BE EXPUNGED when he finished paying it off. His parents footed $10k down, and the store got a check for like $50 bucks a month from him. I double-dog dare you to guess his race.
    Someone sticks a gun in a cashier's face at a Quik Trip, gets $150 bucks, gets caught and does 3 years for armed robbery and never has a decent job ever again, and then slings dope to make ends meet when he gets out and fed up of begging for odd jobs.
    America, don't you love it?

  • Strawberry Shortfuse says:

    "Longer than you think, Dad! Longer than you think! Held my breath when they gave me the gas! Wanted to see! I saw! I saw! Longer than you think!"

  • My #1 prison reform idea is to make it necessary for new drivers to be in school or have a GED. 70% of crimes are committed by high school dropouts.

    #2 is to let inmates shorten their sentence by getting a GED.

    #3 is to legalize drugs.

    #4 is to figure out what to do with the mentally ill people that can't be in the world with the rest of us but aren't stable enough to be around criminals who abuse them mercilessly. Seeing Dutch or Belgian communities for dementia patients, where there's a fake world where such people are always monitored and watched and kept safe, I think something like that could be set up for our crazy people. We have a lot of crazy people, and they need a lot help. Prisons aren't meant to do that.

  • Strawberry Shortfuse – where would you like your Internet delivered?

    Have to admit, the idea of convicts being put in coma reminded me of "Demolition Man".

  • Something else that hasn't entered this thread yet, but I've seen bandied about else where is the aging prison population.

    Some bright spark—not sure if it's an idea from the Left or Right—has hit upon the idea that you have someone who's now in their 60s or 70s, so they no longer pose a threat to society. Therefore why not release them from prison for the remainder of their days.

    Cruelest idea EVER! Stay with me here.

    If it's from the Left, it's a well intentioned "do-gooder" idea that will do more harm than good. Most likely ending disastrously for the former prisoner.
    If it's from the Right, then it's just par for the course and it's about money.

    The costs associated with keeping an aging prisoner will increase as healthcare requirements/needs rise as their health deteriorates. Thus we can observe the right wing desire to shift these prisoners out of the system as quickly as possible. Especially if it's a private prison where this will affect the bottom line.

    So why is this a disaster waiting to happen?
    • The individual has spent upwards of 20+ years incarcerated. They're highly institutionalised, lots of enforced structure: time to get up, time to eat, time to stand in that corner, etc. suddenly that's gone.
    • They would be a bit like Rip van Winkle waking from his sleep upon re entering the outside world.
    • Pretty much all of their family and friends have moved on or passed on. What kind of support network will they have?
    • They've spent their best earning years in prison, so they've got no assets or savings to retire on. I'm assuming the person could have found a job that could have enabled to save towards retirement.
    • Their health is failing for numerous reasons apart from age.
    • Those are the big ones, there are more.

    At least in prison they have a roof over their heads, meals and some form of healthcare. To just turn people out on to the street en masse like that would be unconscionably cruel. Like the character who is released from prison in Shawshank.

    A halfway house of some kind would be the answer, where they have the above, but have their liberty returned to them. However, that costs money, and these guys "never worked a day in their lives" so why should they get special treatment? Or whatever right wing justification that you want to insert as long as it's punitive and doesn't cost them money.

  • Dear Xynzee, I am usually right there with you on so many ideas, but not today, old chum.

    First: "the idea that you have someone who's now in their 60s or 70s, so they no longer pose a threat to society" is wrong. You can be very strong, wrong, vital, and bad in your 60s and 70s. They also need not have spent 20+ years incarcerated; older people go to jail for the first time. Jails have televisions and new blood; it's less like waking from a coma than you think. Families have not always moved on or passed on; what's more, families include younger generations who remain connected to the older, despite what TIME magazine says. Even many (most?) folks who have not spent their best earning years in prison don't have enough to retire, honestly, so it's Medicaid and Social Security or just Medicaid and State bennies all around.

    And then you close by returning their liberty to them. What crimes are you imagining them incarcerated for? Yes, there are stupidly long sentences for stupidly minor crimes. But that's not all.

    I loathe and despise our prison system, which is broken, but please don't think for a minute that "old" equals "can't" or "won't". One of my former patients was 78 years old when he violently raped another patient at the old folks' home the prison released him to. People who are old are still people — often as messed up, manipulative, and abusive as they were when they were young — but with less opportunity to do bad things.

  • Hi ladiesbane: the releasing of elderly inmates isn't my idea. I'm going with what I've read else where. One of the justifications that keeps cropping up is the "being too old to be a threat".

    My cynical view is that it is some kind of ploy to shift costs from the prison system to else where as medical costs do increase as a person ages. I can envision a clever socio-path coming up with a way to deny ex-felons from accessing SS and Medicare.

    Thank you for the corrections re filial connections.

  • In most countries once an inmate gets north of 70 they are released into quasi-halfway houses. Makes sense unless the person was convicted of so many violent crimes that they pose a threat at any age.

  • William C Wesley says:

    like any industry the prison industry seeks to maintain profits at worst and expand profits at best, its very very simple, what ever profits the prison industry will be favored by the prison industry. Rehabilitation reduces the customer base and hence the need for the industry so the industry actively tries to prevent it by any and every means available.

    Why is it so hard for people to grasp this simple truth? This simple law may be applied to each and every institution on planet earth, what ever profits ANY institution is good and what impoverishes it is bad absolutely without exception.

    The extremely naive and gullible masses insist on taking the cover story of each institution at face value, its a wonder adults don't continue to believe in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, no institution will ever seek resolution since that would negate need for the institution. Institutions that supposedly set out to combat something will instead seek to promote it, institutions that set out to promote something will instead seek to combat it.

    Endless discussions about an institutions failing to live up to the cover story are absolutly absurd, each institution exists for one purpose and one purpose only, to perpetuate itself and expand its subsidiaries exactly as do all organisms under evolution.

    Why do institutions stray so far from their protective cover story or camouflage so as to expose the lie? Because the population allows it, there is no need for expensive camouflage if the population is too ignorant to see the naked threat.

    Institutions can only get away with what the public at large allows them to get away with, if the general consensus is genocidal policies are OK then we will have institutions that promote genocide while if the general consensus is genocidal policies are not OK then we will have institutions that promote equality, a population can advance be by ether destructive or constructive means, it is a choice of FREE WILL! These choices are made by each individual, they are virtually NEVER the fault of leaders, it is ALWAYS the fault of the followers.

    If the people of this nation were to say "Enough is enough!" the abuse would stop instantly, but they are not a moral or conscientious people, they are vindictive and petty so they get vindictive and petty institutions to reflect this nature, they are not very constructive they are instead more destructive so they get destructive institutions instead of constructive institutions, the people are NOT THE VICTIMS, they are the VICTIMIZERS.

  • Phoenician in a time of Romans says:

    I'm pretty sure you can correlate the cruelty of a prison system with the social ideal of stratification between the rich and poor. In a society which "values" a huge spectrum, the rich won't go to prison and the poor will have really really shitty prisons because otherwise what's the point of being rich?

  • Agreed. I took a very horrifyingly educational class on corrections for my criminal justice degree and for a brief period thought I'd like to be a prison librarian, and both these things taught me our corrections are so so depressingly awful.

    I'd actually expand your idea to the entire criminal justice system being burned down and starting over, but I'd take just the corrections part of the system.

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