She Might Be Right About This One

CampusReform is calling attention to the writings of a feminist professor who wants to eliminate prison for women. The argument she's forwarding is better than the soundbite version of it, though. "Essentially, the case for closing women’s prisons is the same as the case for imprisoning fewer men. It is the case against the prison industrial complex and for community-based treatment where it works better than incarceration."

If you formalize what she is calling that essential argument, it sounds reasonable:

1) (Fact) The majority of offenders are nonviolent but poorly educated persons who have suffered abuse in their lives.

2) (Assumption) Offenders of this kind should be rehabilitated rather than destroyed or permanently removed from society.

3) (Fact) Prison is very expensive, involves significant harm to persons, and shows poor outcomes in rehabilitation.

4) (Fact) Community intervention centers show a much better rate of success at rehabilitation. ("The program coordinator has told me that 68 percent of the women who completed the program had no further involvement with the criminal justice system.")

5) (Conclusion) Therefore, for the class of nonviolent offenders, community intervention centers are better options than prisons.

I've marked as "facts" those assertions that can be empirically verified. Facts, for this purpose, are statements that could be true or false. If the facts she asserts are true, and you share the moral principle she is assuming in premise (2), the conclusion seems to follow.

You get to "no women should ever go to prison" only by the magic of clever headlines designed to draw eyes. However, it is true that this would largely eliminate women from prisons; there aren't that many women in prisons to start with, and she estimates this kind of program could remove 80% of those few.

I would argue that prisons are such a bad option that we should eliminate them generally, replacing them with a three-tiered system of financial, corporal and capital punishments. That would involve a significant expansion of capital punishment, though, to deal with the kind of un-reformable cases we currently pay vast fortunes to keep in prisons. Corporal punishment likewise is often a reasonable alternative: for example, English law in the 15th century held that rapists should be castrated or executed, understanding that the castration often was adequate. We tend to argue that corporal punishment is too great a violation of human dignity to employ, but the truth is that prison involves substantial informal capital punishment and ongoing violations of human dignity: exposure to rape and beatings, periodic strip searches by authorities, etc. If we are honest with ourselves about that, we see that we aren't choosing not to violate human dignity, but choosing between options that violate dignity. Of these, corporal punishment may often be the lesser violation.

Both the increase in capital punishment and the re-introduction of corporal punishment are very much against the current mood of the American people. I'm not expecting Congress to pass a law in the next few years pursuing this set of options; I just think, philosophically, that it's a better set of options. Prisons create people who are permanently unemployable and dangerous, and they require prison guards who are also at risk of significant moral harm from their duty to act in ways that violate human dignity in a regular and ongoing basis. We'd be better off if we could move towards a nation in which we did not have so many prisoners, nor so many prisons.

In the meanwhile, this professor's proposal might be a reasonable place to start.

UPDATE: The comment crew at Hot Air responds to the proposal 'America should stop putting women in jail for anything' with:

"+1. Front line combat duty instead."


james said...

How about using imminent domain to take a section of the common area of shopping malls and put up stocks for first-offender teenagers?

Texan99 said...

If it's a good idea to eliminate prison for nonviolent but poorly educated persons who have suffered abuse in their lives, why don't we do that instead?

Grim said...

That's just what she wants to do, eventually.

Joseph W. said...

The U.S. Supreme Court has gone so far in the activist direction on "cruel and unusual punishment"...throughout my lifetime...that I am afraid we'd need amendments, or an overthrow of the order, to get anywhere near what you propose. That I think is how we have ended up with so much prison...everything else that can really be called punishment has been declared out of bounds, by judges enacting the fashions of their day as "constitutional law."

I agree strongly that a return to corporal punishment as an option would be an excellent idea...I've read 19th-century sentences that were perfectly simple: that [whoever it is] be taken from this place to the town square, and there receive thirty stripes on his bare back. It would work especially well...especially for some of those young offenders...if trial and punishment followed swiftly after the crime.

The first section of this classic book was a long interview with a Depression-era prison warden, who ran high-security prisons at a time when flogging was still allowed. He discussed the kinds of prisoners who needed it and responded to it -- as he put it, "Some of them, you can just talk to them, and they'll do right. Some of them, it's like they're from Missouri..." Interestingly, that warden said he never took their "good time"...when he had the proof, he would "get their attention" with a flogging or the "doghouse"...something quick and dirty that got his message across.

(Also interestingly, despite his devout Christian views, he didn't interfere with consensual sex in the prison..."them gal boys" as he put it...unless it led to some kind of disciplinary issue.)

That may be something we've lost in the great accretions of due process this last century. If a man's going to spend time in a prison and have "bad paper" for the rest of his career, I want him to have every inch of room he needs to fight his case. But if he's going to get a flogging that will heal in a few weeks, and no bad paper...he and the authorities are a lot better off sacrificing "quality" for "speed."

The military equivalent is falsely-called "corrective training"..."smoking" the disrespectful boy, or making him stand around with a humiliating sign. That has been unlawful for ages, at least my entire career and I bet much longer. (The closest legal equivalent was the Correctional Custody Facility, but those were all closed before I got in.) But even as a defense counsel I usually advised my clients not to worry about it; sore muscles and bruised egos heal a lot faster than bad paper in your personnel records. When the command tried to "double dip," by charging something they'd already illegally punished him for, that's when I'd raise trouble.

Joseph W. said...

I see that the author you quote, being stuck with the blank-slate fashions of our day, has to stop at "ill-educated" and can't take the next "natural-born stupid," which is what an awful lot of our habitual criminals really are.

I think quick discipline works a lot better than protracted punishment on "stupid."

Grim said...

I think you're right, both about what would be necessary for reform, and about her (and her class') inability to talk about stupidity (except in Republicans, in whom it is assumed). To call someone stupid is itself an insult to their human dignity, which was the thing to be prevented!

And yet, of course, it is often the case that nonviolent criminals steal just because they aren't clever enough to get elected to Congress.

Eric Blair said...

How about not making so much stuff against the law?

Joseph W. said...

Eric, well, I'm all for that a "both/and" rather than an "either/or" kind of way.