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 As a result of his bouncing in and out of parole, and an out of date algorithm in the computer systems used to calculate sentences, he serves 12 years instead of 8 (if I read the article correctly).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?

I am an anarcho-capitalist living just west of Boston Massachussetts. I am married, have two children, and am trying to start my own computer consulting company.
  • http://tales.redcardgroup.com Saul

    Foucault took a similar route to get to his critique of mass society. I find that connection rather interesting, much in the same way as Sartre and liberty. The Marxists walked the same path, and ended up in a radically different place.

  • Ted

    I always found prison to be rather amusing in a dreadful way.

    “Sir… you are charged with stealing from little children and women.”

    “Judge, I did so.”

    “Because you have done so, we will limit your freedoms…but we will also give you shelter, food, and better living conditions than most people on your block, at taxpayer expense. Are you sorry now?”


    “You will be in 4 years.”

    A friend once told me that the only reason to send a little fish to the big house was so that he could become a bigger fish.


  • http://kponly.blogspot.com Ryan

    What do you offer as an alternative form of punishment for crime?

  • Aimee

    I for one think the system sucks. Personal experience has caused this. I have an ex-husband who hurt our son who was 2 at the time, choked me, tried to push my vehicle with 2 kids in the car into oncoming traffic with his vehicle, who keeps beating up his new wife, has beat up her kids, false imprisonment, 3rd degree battery, attempted suicide, and theft and forgery, just to name a few. And all this bastard keeps getting is a slap on the wrist with probation. He keeps violation his probation, failing drug tests, not doing his domestic violence classes, and keeps getting probation. Right now is in jail, sort of, it might as well be called overnight camp. He spends the night in jail and gets up the next morning and goes to work, of course none of it is going towards child support. He is basically getting free food and a free room for the next couple of months.

    Another problem I have is with forcing people to take domestic violence or parenting classes. Yes, you can make people go to it, but you can’t force them to change. If they go to these classes several different times, they are going to learn what the judge wants to hear in order to make it look like they have accepted the help and really want to change. It is a joke and a waste of tax payer’s money.

    For repeat offender’s like my ex, he will be paid attention to when he kills someone, and then it will be too late. Then there will be an outcry, all the signs were there, he’s had several arrests, there was a pattern, etc.

    If only I could plant a dime bag on him…

    In other words, I don’t know why we bother with jail either. It seems like the wrong people end up there, and the one’s that should be, are still out walking amongst the public.

  • Ted


    I was unsure if your comment was for Tarran, or simply an open call to the floor, but I thought I’d respond.

    I admit, I do not have a plan. I really have not thought about it. But I have a few ideas. I’ll be glad to share them, and you can point out any flaws in my ideas(Which I am sure are numerous).

    1. We need to pare down the list of crimes to those that we can enforce. There are too many laws out there, too many sin laws, too many laws we cannot enforce.

    These should be laws that everyone can agree is bad; such as Homicide, Theft, Assault.

    Drug offenses should be negated, save where one commits one of the other offenses while on it. Same with other minor laws – negated.

    If one is speeding, crashes, and kills someone, it is homicide.

    For offenses like Theft, I believe reimbursment, and public shaming is a great thing. It worked wonders back in the day. Pay it back, work it off, and spend time in the stocks, or with a tshirt on that says “I stole 3K from Loyds Burgers.”

    For offenses like assault, I am a big fan of whippings. As someone who has been torn a new one by a bullwhip…well, I remember it vividly. A public lash or two for it, then it is forgotten. A few more for worse crimes. Maybe multiple sessions for finding out someone repeatedly beat a child(as well as no further contact).

    Homicide is where it gets tricky. There is Lashings, Branding, Mutilation, Exile, Imprisonment, and finally Death. It would have to be well thought out, of course. If Prison were still an option, it would need to harken back to the days of “You will be locked in a 10 foot cell, with basic necessities, no contact with the outside world, no comforts.”

    In all cases, I feel that a verdict would need to be found of guilty in one of those laws, then after guilt is decided, punishment would be based on extenuating circumstances.

    A jury would be 12 of your peers, with no choice from either side of ejecting people from the jury. A Jury will have to find 100 percent in favor of Guilt, or the defendant is found not guilty.
    Prior acts, Prior incidents(Guilty or Innocent) are always allowed as evidence in the sentencing phase.

    These are just ideas…do not take them as my belief, as I am unsure about them myself. I just know that shame and pain worked on me in my life, and more people are afraid of those two things than of being locked up in a room where they can get a better life than their normal neighborhood.

  • http://kponly.blogspot.com Ryan

    Yea I guess the question was for anyone… and I agree that prisons are a big drain on the economy and they are very inefficient, but I don’t really have much better of a plan. I agree with your point that we have too many “sin” laws. The question you have to ask though is “what is cruel and unusual punishment?” and, “how much power do we give the state to punish people?” Just my thoughts.

  • Aimee

    It is too bad we can’t have an eye for an eye system, but then the question would always remain, who gets to dish out the punishment.

  • http://www.tfsternsrantings.blogspot.com T F Stern

    The idea of removing folks from civilized society because of crimes against society is ancient and even prehistoric. The original idea did not include prison but instead usually included a form of exile; to include shunning or abandonment. As societies grew, the areas of abandonment became more defined; deserts or islands which had natural boundaries became natural prisons since they provided a means of separating undesirable individuals from the rest. The Americas were used as a dropping off place for such undesirables, specifically Florida and Georgia if memory serves; it’s been a long while since I studied that portion of our history. Australia was another dropping off place for criminals as it was geographically convenient; far removed from most of the British Empire. The advent of air travel has made distances to these remote locations readily available and so the idea of separation from the rest of society has become nearly impossible; hence, prisons have taken on much more of the burden of separation.

    The notion of rehabilitation while in that state of isolation from society is also relatively new. I would venture a guess, rather than rely on history, that the same folks who believe in forced rehabilitation of socially undesirable folks also hold considerable stock in the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus.

    Your identifying prison as an issue which should be carefully rethought is valid. I would hesitate to provide a viable solution at the drop of a hat since this deserves considerable more thought.

  • tarran

    The question of how to react to crimes is a complicated one. I’m not certain what the “right” answer is, but think that jail is certainly one of many “wrong” answers.

    Obviously, the best justice is one where the victim stops the crime. The would-be thief is run off, the would-be murderer is killed by his victim etc.

    Next is the situation where the victim is made whole. The thief returns the stolen property + some penalty. The batterer pays medical bills and lost wages of his victim.

    Of course, it’s impossible to unrape or unmurder a person. In the case of murder there is no victim left to “make whole”. So even this ideal or goal is not appropriate in all cases.

    If one looks at decentralized legal systems such as common law and Brehon law, one finds that the focus is mainly on calculating how much restitution the criminal must pay to his or her victim or their heirs. Additionally, there is little emphasis on punishment (capital or otherwise).

    In the anarchocapitalist society I advocate, courts would be dependent on the voluntary compliance of those who were found guilty or to owe compensation to make the court’s judgment a reality. They could not force it at gun-point or by other threats of force.

    One legitimate form of sanction, though, is shunning. The Amish literally ignore those who are deemed to have violated their rules. They won’t do business with them or communicate in any way. I am told that this is quite devastating, and that people do not remain defiant long.

    In Spain, where the courts are incredibly hostile to people owed a debt, the debt collectors have resorted to just this trick. They publicly shame the dead-beat by following him around. One debt collection outfit, for example, dresses its staff in monk’s habits. They don’t speak a word. They just follow their target around, proclaiming to the world that he won’t pay his bills. They apparently have a high success rate.

    Again, I don’t know what the answer is. The beauty of leaving problems to the free-market is that someone, somewhere will figure it out and implement a good solution, which will come to be widely adopted. If I believed otherwise, I would be advocating central planning.

  • Ted


    I had not heard about the debt collectors who did such in Spain. I think that is a very interesting approach.

    I’ve done my share of debt collection here in the US, and I was wildly successful (Collected over 1 million dollars in under a year… sadly, I was working for a firm that did not provide comission, as we were a first party collection department)… and even here, it’s about how the debtor perceives you, and perceives themselves.

    I have to say, I am interested in your anarchocapitalist ideas, and look forward to hearing more.

  • tarran
  • Ted

    Thanks Tarran!

  • tarran

    You’re welcome. The gun-toting farmer taking shots at “Zorro” cracked me up.

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