Jail, … Huh! … What Is It Good For?
A recent Boston Globe article caught my eye: “Correction system ‘mess’ held inmates past their time – Man imprisoned four years too long”
Now, this story is a pretty sad one. A man suffering from schizophrenia is sentenced to 30 years in jail for various assaults, is released on parole, re-arrested for drug possession, released again, rearrested again etc. As a result of his bouncing in and out of parole, and an out of date algorithm in the computer systems used to calculate sentences, he serves 12 years instead of 8 (if I read the article correctly).
Now, it is tempting to go off on a anti-state rant about the indifference of state officials to doing their jobs properly. It is also tempting to attack the drug war in that, as best I can, tell he never actually harmed anyone to prompt his rearrests; he is in jail for a political crime, collateral damage of the War on Some Drugs.
However, I have a more fundamental question: why do we bother with jails anyway? After all, it was an arcane court ruling that changed how sentences should be calculated. If he had never been on parole, or if the court had never made that ruling, the jail time he had served would have been “correct” and there would have been no scandal. This sad man would not have a lawyer preparing the inevitable law-suit. He would be facing a life of poverty, mental illness and probable future arrest or involuntary commitment during his periodic psychotic episodes, and the Boston Globe would not devote tens of inches of precious column space detailing his life. Sometimes people even get wrongly convicted or get double the jail time they deserve. If this has happened to you then you may want to contact someone like this philadelphia criminal lawyer for legal help.
My question is, what purpose did those extra four years in jail serve? Did they make him a better citizen? Probably not. Did they somehow reimburse his victims for those crimes committed two decades ago? No. Who, other than the prison guards employed at tax-payer expense to restrain him, actually benefitted?
Up until a few hundred years ago, prisons were comparatively rare, and people rarely were imprisoned for more than a few months at a time (prior to the 19th century, prisoners were so poorly treated than surviving more than a year of confinement was pretty much impossible – one of my ancestors apparently lasted less than 6 months on a British prison ship in the early 1800’s). Most crimes were punished either by execution, corporal punishment, public shaming or fines.
The modern prison or penitentiary is the product of an idea that criminals could be reformed by establishing a conducive environment. They would be locked up alone so that they were insulated from corrupting influences or temptations for wrongdoing. They would be fed and well cared for so that they were not distracted by physical distress. And, they would be handed nothing but a Bible to read. Their boredom would lead them to read God’s word, and thus open their hearts to redemption. This idea was so attractive that it was rapidly adopted throughought the western world in the 19th century. Certainly it was more civilized than lashing a prisoner in front of a jeering mob.
However, the modern reader will recognize that prisons do not have this effect. I doubt you can find anyone arguing that a modern supermax prison does anything to civilize people. A longer jail term does not lead to more godly behavior. To the contrary, prisoners are routinely hardened, learn new tricks from fellow inmates and have a better than even chance of landing behind bars again. So why do we bother with jails?