A Sin Against the Future: Imprisonment in the World

A Sin Against the Future: Imprisonment in the World, By Vivien Stern

This is one of the best books I’ve read about prisons, and the one which goes farthest toward suggesting how they could be minimized (not eliminated).

My first encounter with the idea that prisons might be a bad idea was in reading Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish (1975). He spoke of alternatives or substitutes for prison, and also for factories, schools, barracks, and hospitals, all of which he said resembled prisons. But he said not one word about what such alternatives might be, and his style struck me as pretentious. So I didn’t pay much attention.

I believed, of course, that we ought to have been devoting much more time and money to alleviating poverty, educating children and adults, providing decent homes and medical care, training people for enjoyable jobs, treating the mentally ill and those addicted to drugs. I believed that we in America were wrong to allow people to live in horrible conditions, to supply everyone with guns, and then to address crime after it happened. But I didn’t think much about the way in which we addressed it.

I did have some general, vague, and ill-informed complaints with our approach to punishment. I rejected the common demand for vengeance and the philosophical demand for justice (a.k.a. vengeance) as barbaric and counterproductive. I was disgusted by the fact that our government supported crime victims in believing that they could be helped by seeing criminals suffer. I opposed the death penalty because there was no evidence that it deterred crime, saved money, or helped to civilize anyone. The whole idea of vengeance seemed to conflict with reducing crime in many ways. Those “mentally incompetent” often couldn’t be confined for society’s protection, and couldn’t be given the help they needed if they were confined. Restitution was never made to victims or communities, because those who ought to have been making it were locked away as monsters.

I didn’t yet understand the degree to which prison trains those monsters to be monsters, and teaches people to see society as an enemy and themselves as wrongly treated. Nor was I aware how little evidence there is that prison (not just the death penalty) deters crime. I wasn’t aware how unlikely recidivism is in many cases, or how small a percentage of prisoners had been convicted of violent crimes. I didn’t know how large a percentage of prisoners are mentally ill or addicted to drugs. Nor did I have much idea what went on in prisons, how torturous imprisonment is, how solitary confinement produces insanity, how common rape and murder are in our prisons. Nor did I know anything about our recently developed private prison industry, an industry without the competition of the free-market, but also without the accountability or financial stability of the government. We now build unneeded prisons in the hopes that prisoners can be found to make them profitable. And there are alternatives.

Imprisonment is highest, and rising the fastest, in the United States. In Russia it is decreasing, and reliable numbers cannot be obtained for China. No other country is anywhere close to the U.S. in rate of imprisonment in proportion to population. Stern documents that most penal reform reports by governments around the world “begin by questioning the efficacy of the institution of prison itself.” And she questions the idea that the recent increase in incarceration in the U.S. has reduced crime outside of prisons, either by deterrence or by temporarily removing potential recidivists from society. She goes on to suggest that mass incarceration will increase crime by the destruction it does to families and communities.

Stern also cites studies showing that Americans are less intent on massive incarceration than are their elected representatives. The cowardly appeals of “hard on crime” politicians to the basest instincts of the majority may actually be appealing to a minority. The parallel with the Republican Congress’s recent impeachment of Bill Clinton, regardless of what the public might want, is striking.

In suggesting alternatives to prison, Stern cites examples from New Zealand, Vermont, Quebec, Africa, and India. The U.S. could drastically reduce its prison population by treating drug use as a medical, rather than a criminal, problem. It could go further by learning from some of the examples Stern cites in which greater use is made of probation and community service, greater emphasis is placed on restitution and answerability to victims. In New Zealand an offender and his or her family sit down with a victim and family and moderators to arrive at a punishment acceptable to all, including an apology. This is not the U.S. version of victim involvement in which restitution and apology play no part but the victim (who has no knowledge of the offender’s psychology) recommends a length of prison sentence. As Stern puts it:

“With prison the victim is not healed. The victim is forgotten. The community breach is not healed – but widened – and society has become more dangerous.”

Clearly there is something flawed in the idea that we can reduce crime by temporarily removing people from society, if while they are removed they are trained to be more serious criminals and in fact allowed to commit crimes against each other, and if nothing is done for the wellbeing of those damaged by the removal of these people. But there are two reasons why many Americans want to proceed in this way nonetheless. One is the desire for vengeance. Let more crime victims be produced, this thinking goes, as long as the current ones can be made to feel overwhelming hatred for those who abused them. The other reason, one which I think Stern may underestimate and which may be less in some countries, is a belief in the deterrent power of prison.