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Prisons do not make us safer

waking in prison dormLike many other ‘law-abiding citizens,’ I used to be reluctant to advocate the full abolition of prisons, despite knowing that prisons are a very inhumane institution. The logic behind my reluctance was that prisons, inhumane as they may be, do nonetheless serve to isolate from the general public many ruthless, violent, and sadistic persons and thereby protect us ‘law-abiding citizens’ – that is, people who do not deliberately violate the law except when cheating on their taxes.[1] Prisons make us safer – or less unsafe – than we would otherwise be. 

Or so it would seem. This argument is not wholly implausible. Prisons do separate us from many ruthless, violent, and sadistic persons who might hurt or kill us were they at liberty. Nevertheless, after further study and thought I have come to the conclusion that the overall effect of prisons is to make us more and not less unsafe. That is because prisons have two other effects that – certainly taken together and perhaps even taken separately – outweigh the ‘isolation’ effect.

First of all, the isolation of dangerous persons in prisons separates us from them only for so long as they remain in prison and we ourselves remain out of prison. Although most law-abiding citizens do not expect to find themselves in prison, many do in fact end up there at some time in their lives, and once there they are at the mercy of the sadists among their fellow inmates and the correctional staff. Getting arrested, indicted, and sentenced to a prison term is one of the most common routes by which a law-abiding citizen can be exposed to persons predisposed to assault, rape, torture, or kill him/her. 

In recent years scientific advance has made possible definitive proof of the innocence of some 2,000 convicted persons so far. Such proof, however, is as yet possible only in cases where DNA testing is feasible. In most cases it is not. 

Why then do so many innocent people end up in prison? The explanation lies in the modus operandi of the law enforcement and ‘justice’ systems. [2] 

Police officers have a strong incentive to appear to solve as many reported crimes as possible, while prosecutors have a corresponding incentive to secure as many convictions as possible. Professional reputation, promotions, public confidence – all depend on this. Appearances are what matters here. Private detectives may do their very best to find out who really dunnit – at least the ones on TV do – but what matters to cops and prosecutors is to pin the crime on someone. At quite an early stage of the investigation, therefore, they convince themselves that they know who the culprit is, however weak or circumstantial the evidence against the person chosen for this role. After that they focus solely on proving his/her guilt. Contrary evidence is overlooked, concealed, even destroyed. 

The victim of this procedure then faces a painful dilemma. Up to 95 percent of criminal cases are resolved by means of a plea bargain: the suspect agrees to plead guilty and in exchange is promised a shorter sentence, often on a less serious charge. As one researcher remarks, it would be more accurate to call US courts ‘plea bargain courts’ rather than ‘trial courts.’

But what if the suspect is actually innocent? Accepting a plea bargain may still be the rational course even for an innocent suspect who foresees that it will be difficult to persuade a jury of his/her innocence, especially if he/she has a second or third-rate court-appointed defense attorney, has no alibi, and/or belongs to a stigmatized social group. But even a ‘reduced’ prison sentence is a bitter pill to swallow if you are not guilty! There is a strong temptation to go to trial, but that will annoy the court as ‘a waste of time and money’ and if found guilty the defendant can expect harsh punishment for such stubbornness. 

One consequence of convicting innocent persons for committing crimes is that the actual perpetrators of those crimes usually remain free to continue their criminal careers. The protection that the judicial system provides to the general public is therefore rather limited.

Let us bear in mind not only the completely innocent person sent to prison for nothing at all but also the person who did commit a crime but under extenuating circumstances that were not taken adequately into account by the court. Even a ‘law-abiding citizen’ may commit a crime under the goad of extreme need – for instance, shoplifting something to eat when broke and hungry or an urgently needed but unaffordable medication. A minimally compassionate society would forgive and forget such ‘crimes’ – not, however, these United States! Indeed, some states treat a fourth shoplifting offense as a felony – ‘felony shoplifting’! – however low the value of the stolen items.         

So one effect of prison is that many people who have committed only the pettiest of offenses or no offenses at all are exposed to serious risk of grave violence. A second effect is that those sent to prison, including law-abiding citizens and petty non-violent offenders, are under pressure to adapt to the prison subculture in order to survive. Thus even those who were not violent before are likely to acquire a propensity to violence as a result of their imprisonment. Upon their release many of them cannot but pose a danger to others, especially to those with whom they closely interact, who may well respond with violence in their turn. Like war, prison does not brutalize only those directly involved. As for violent offenders, they can be expected to leave prison even more violent than when they went in. 

Moreover, prisons harm and corrupt not only inmates but also correctional staff, who work under conditions of constant stress and danger and who are given ample opportunity to abuse helpless people, almost always with impunity. Correctional staff have families too, and their families are likewise affected.

Reformers seek to introduce and expand programs to “rehabilitate” prisoners. Not too much should be expected of such programs, because they are implemented within a deeply counter-rehabilitative physical and social environment – the environment inside the lawless institutions that Tolstoy so aptly called “universities of crime.” A few prisoners may succeed in partially rehabilitating themselves, but they do so mainly if not solely by their own efforts, possibly with the help of friends outside the institution – despite and not thanks to the noxious internal environment. A realistic approach must therefore start by clearly acknowledging the counter-rehabilitative character of prisons and asking how their counter-rehabilitative impact might be moderated.   

To sum up, prisons are major incubators and generators of violence. A massive prison system like that in the United States traumatizes and deforms the millions who pass through it as well as millions of their family members, causing numerous divorces and child neglect on a huge scale. It is therefore one of the main sources of the violence in American society, not a means of limiting or restraining that violence.   


[1] Cheating on taxes surely cannot be strictly illegal, seeing as even the president does it. I hasten to add that this exception does not apply to the most law-abiding members of the class of law-abiding citizens, such as myself.  

[2] The following summary is based on the substantial body of academic research that now exists on this topic.  


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