Prison Break?

You’ve caught a criminal responsible for a serious crime. What do you do with him? If the crime is bad enough, comedian Eddie Izzard jokingly suggests, you should send him to Texas to get hit over the head with a brick. But short of that, what’s the best course of action?

In most Western countries, of course, you don’t even have to think about the question. You put the offender in jail. Almost every episode of almost every crime drama ends with the criminal led away in handcuffs, as though that’s the end of the story.

But it isn’t, of course. Most people agree our prison system needs help.  The question most people aren’t asking is whether the problem is the implementation, or the model itself.

The Backstory

There was once a time in Western countries where there were more options for criminal punishment. The infliction of pain in beatings and the infliction of public humiliation in the stocks are two examples. Typically, prisons had only two purposes: punishment and deterrence. Consequently, they tended to be small and local. Lock the fellow up, and he won’t be robbing you again for a while.

But in the early days of America, we tried adding a third purpose: reformation. In fact, what led Alexis de Tocqueville to America was not a desire to study American democracy, but a desire to study America’s prison system. The Quakers in Philadelphia had started using the word “penitentiary;” a place to make someone penitent. The Puritans in New England (whom Tocqueville admired so much), with their strong beliefs in state-enforced morality, quickly followed suit. Henceforth, incarceration would have as part of its purpose the moral reform of the criminal. For such a daunting task, neither the old methods of punishment nor the old local jails would serve. The Americans needed large, centralized prisons.

Tocqueville was fascinated by this approach, believing that unequal social conditions produced the vast majority of criminals. He was horrified by the town jails in the South, writing:  “In locking up the criminals nobody thinks of rendering them better, but only taming their malice; they are put in chains like ferocious beasts; and instead of being corrected, they are rendered brutal.” He praised the citizens of Boston and Philadelphia for their humane approach, and soon after his report, Europe began following America’s lead. Ever since, criminal punishment—except for the most vile offenses—has mostly been measured by the amount of time spent in prison.

The Present Problem

Of course, the investment is incredibly expensive and incredibly risky. For all the money poured into today’s penitentiaries, there is a certain irony involved in locking up all the most dangerous people together in one place. If the state’s reform efforts fail, there is the risk that a criminal will just spend his time networking with future associates and plotting his next crime.

Worse, someone who perhaps made an isolated bad decision will be exposed to drugs, or to much more sophisticated methods of crime. I recently spoke with a colleague who, due to a few too many speeding tickets, had to take a remedial driver’s ed class. All the other people in the class were what we might call career traffic violators, and most of the conversation involved sharing tips on how to evade the police next time.

Sure enough, these kinds of influences are reflected in America’s recidivism rate. Studies by the Bureau of Justice over the past three decades have consistently revealed that over 60% of prisoners released from the “penitentiaries” are re-arrested within three years (example, PDF). Among postindustrial nations, America has—by far—the highest percentage of its citizens behind bars, at 0.75% (as of 2008). In short, prisoners might just be the only group in America getting a worse deal from the government than kids in public schools. After all, isn’t the government supposed to “fix” the criminals?

What to Do?

But perhaps it’s just our approach. After all, if our approach nets the highest percentage behind bars, maybe we’re just the country that’s most consistently catching and punishing criminals. Maybe we just need more money in the prison system, or better reform efforts (perhaps religious ones from nonprofit entities like Prison Fellowship).

But it seems the continent that so blithely followed America’s penitentiary model isn’t faring much better. British politician Daniel Hannan (famous for his scathing diatribe against then-PM Gordon Brown) recently wrote a disgusted critique of the U.K. prison system. He notes that in the U.K., 40% of offenders are re-convicted, and this for a price tag higher per person than paying a child’s way through a top boarding school. Hannan suggests:

“It is surely worth exploring more effective alternatives. A police superintendent in my constituency, for whom I have enormous respect, thinks that the key is to stop pretending that punishment and rehabilitation can be combined. He wants to give criminals a short stretch of hard labour, complete with bawling drill sergeants, the sole purpose of which would be to make the convict think: “I never want to come back here again”. Once the explicitly penal part of the sentence had been completed, the emphasis would be on imparting skills and equipping the prisoner for gainful employment, a process that would not require 24-hour incarceration except where justified on grounds of crime-prevention.”

The best way to go about this, Hannan argues, is to return to a localist form of criminal punishment. Stop herding all the criminals together, let local law enforcement set penalties, and let the laboratories of democracy work out which ways are most effective. Maybe, Hannan adds, we should even privatize the reform role of the penitentiary. Give that task to churches, nonprofits, perhaps even businesses. “Governments were hopeless at building cars, operating airlines, installing telephones. Why should they be any better at reforming scoundrels?” (Adopting Hannan’s suggestions might be the only public policy initiative I know that would please libertarians, corporate conservatives, and Porchers all at the same time.)

Concluding Thoughts

Hannan has proven himself a superb critic over the years. His alternative suggestions are usually less well-rounded, more often in fact experimental (which perhaps suits his role as a blogger more than his role as a politician). These ideas are no exception. Hannan doesn’t know the best way out, and doesn’t claim to. He simply says the way we’re headed is unacceptable, throws out a few ideas to start conversation, and suggests the solution be returned to local governments.

But if Hannan is right that turning back the clock is the right approach, should we turn it back even further? Should we separate entirely reform from punishment? Should we open up the possibility of criminal punishments that don’t involve prison? Nobody is suggesting tar and feathers, but perhaps older ideas, such as public humiliation, might work.

Like Hannan, I don’t know. But I’m beginning to think it’s time we figured it out.


  • July 19, 2010

    Bryan Wandel

    Here’s one small question: Is there public humiliation without a public? Isn’t the “Community” too big to care?

    It is interesting to note that punishment lessened (early 19C) at the same time that public participation in the law process was dwindling. And maybe this even made them less of a public.

  • July 25, 2010

    Brian Brown

    An interestingly-timed question:

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