Friday, March 27, 2009

Finally, Prison Reform

It takes a bulldog like Virginia Senator Jim Webb to advocate for an overhaul of the criminal justice system without being stuck with the "soft on crime" label. A serious-minded effort is long overdue, and with the United States incarcerating a larger number of its own citizens than any other country, there is no better time than the present to tackle this issue. There is considerable resistance to any effort which might result in less misery for those behind bars because... well, they deserve it, right? Violent, anal rape is a punchline for many Americans, who forget that innocent people go to jail, too.

It's accepted that our nation's prisons be an amoral nightmare. Let them be a breeding ground for criminality, so long as the state makes sure the experience is unpleasant. It's punishment!

I happen to think that we can do better than that. We must. The punishment is a profound loss of freedom, not being cast into a years-long thug life boot camp. The process starts with honest dialogue about law enforcement priorities, and the laws which direct them. Then it moves to sentencing guidelines, and reclaiming a sense of proportion in that respect. As far as conditions in the prisons themselves, I look at this as an engineering problem.

Here, we have the most captive audience possible, and the means at our disposal to relentlessly counter-program against the various forms of pathology that landed them there in the first place. Some are probably hopeless cases, yes, but should we let those marginal figures control the fate of so many others? Now's our chance to bombard them with strategic information which might make inmates more resistant to the apparent short-term payoffs of adopting a soul-killing gang mentality. The technology will soon be available that would allow us to affordably broadcast a non-stop tide of video into every jail cell, constantly illustrating, educating, dramatizing. We can exploit their entertainment-starved minds in order to reduce their odds of recidivism. We could even reward them for internalizing lessons with family video chats, or even porn. Yes, porn. With constraints.

I don't see why we can't prohibit racial segregation in our prison populations either, if we took it upon ourselves to work out how it might be prevented. Perhaps that would make it hard on the guards. Hire more guards! And give administrators the tools to design and monitor integration initiatives. We have cameras mounted on street corners equipped with software that can differentiate between vehicle make and models, identify patterns of suspicious behavior, and even recognize license plate numbers, which can then be run against a warrant database to trigger action from law enforcement. I fail to see why the same ingenuity cannot be applied to the problem of inmate control.

We've grown up as a society in so many ways, but fossil traces of our pitchfork-wielding past remain. We no longer turn out to the public square for executions because it's the liveliest show in town, which was true not so very long ago. Instead, we've just turned a blind eye to the problems in our detention facilities, and let them fester. Why should we invest in those people? Because it's investment in crime prevention.

Or we could just send them all some soap-on-a-rope and call it a day.


  1. What an unflattering picture. Jim Webb is a bit of a dick though, right?
    Prison reform is a serious thing, yes. It isn't all just prison rape. Unless of course you ask Norm MacDonald.

  2. I don't care if he broke up the BEATLES, as long as he is making right policy.