Penitence, Punishment, Prevention, and the Purpose of Prisons 3

Work: the key to staying out of jail.

This series was triggered by a Scragged reader to whose provocative comment we keep returning:

Are you proposing the horrific prisons in the US should do this [force inmates to play online games to earn salable game points]. Are you not aware that guards in our prisons are forcing women to have sex with them in exchange for a bar of soap and a towel...

The phrase "horrific prisons" goes to the heart of the matter - what are prisons for, anyway?  If "horrific" prisons make inmates not want to come back, isn't that a good thing?

Why Lock 'Em Up?

There are three basic reasons why societies are willing to pay the cost of running prisons: punishment, prevention, and penitence.  The first two articles in this series discussed prevention and punishment.  As a society, we'd prefer that prisoners repent so that they "go and sin no more."  Keeping them locked up is expensive, whereas if they go straight, they become taxpayers instead.

One approach is making prison unpleasant enough that inmates won't want to go back.  Time reviewed Peter Moskos' In Defense of Flogging which pointed out some of the advantages of flogging criminals instead of sending them to jail:

Despite what you may think, Moskos is not pushing flogging as part of a "get tougher on criminals" campaign. In fact Moskos, who teaches at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, begins not by arguing that the justice system is too soft on criminals, but the opposite. So before you accuse him of advocating a cruel and unusual form of punishment, he offers this reminder: in the U.S., there are 2.3 million inmates incarcerated in barbaric conditions. American prisons are bleak and violent, and sexual assault is rampant.

And, Moskos points out, imprisonment is not just cruel — it is ineffective. The original idea for the penitentiary was that criminals would become penitent and turn away from their lives of crime. Today, prisons are criminogenic — they help train inmates in how to commit crimes on release.

Flogging, Moskos argues, is an appealing alternative. Why not give convicts a choice, he says: let them substitute flogging for imprisonment under a formula of two lashes for every year of their sentence.

Since prison costs between $50 and $100 per day, swapping a year of jail for two whacks would save the taxpayers over $25,000 per whack and create that rare and unique situation of a government employee actually saving taxpayers more than his own salary.

Mr. Moskos is correct in arguing that our prisons encourage further crime rather than preventing it.  Despite offering classes in life skills such as anger management, and attempts to educate inmates so that they can find jobs should they decide to repent, American prisons have an unacceptably high recidivism rate - between 60% and 80% of released felons reoffend and are back in jail within a year or two.  On that basis, every state "Department of Corrections" is a miserable failure.

Assuming that an inmate decides that prison isn't really the place to be, how can someone with a criminal record find any kind of job at all?

The answer is to let inmates hold jobs - real and useful jobs, not make-work or punitive "rock-pile" jobs - while behind bars.

The Wonders of Work

Giving an inmate the equivalent of a high-school degree is better than nothing, but most employers are all too aware that high school diplomas mean little in these days of social promotion and grade inflation.  The Guardian argues for England's authorities to arrange matters so that prisoners could have real, productive jobs while in jail.

The Government's sentencing changes have sparked controversy, but prison reform plans are about more than just numbers. Kenneth Clarke wants to fix a system that fails on rehabilitation – partly because prisons do not do enough to make their captive audience more employable.

Last October, the Justice Secretary said: "We need to instill in our jails a regime of hard work." People expect prisoners to work, but the default life of most prisoners – especially those on shorter sentences – is just a few hours a day of association and "purposeful activity" such as education, with only a small part of that involving work. The rest is lounging around on bunks, bench-pressing and lots of television.  [emphasis added]

As anyone who's ever hired anyone knows, there's no substitute whatsoever for real work experience, the tougher the grind the better.  If nothing else, having prisoners work would teach them the value of just showing up ready to work.  Having spent years in jail where the guards tell then what to do every minute of the day, prisoners lack essential skills such as caring enough about what they're doing to keep a regular schedule by themselves.

American labor unions have been the primary opponents of letting prisoners do useful work.  They're afraid that letting chain gangs clean up trash alongside roads or scrub graffiti off buildings will take jobs away from their members.  They are completely correct, which should make taxpayers all the more eager to support the idea.

In these days of austerity, we simply can't afford to keep so many people locked up doing nothing useful.  Even if inmate work didn't make a significant dent in the rate at which prisoners come back, at least some portion of their earnings would help cover the costs of their incarceration.

Who knows?  We may have to return to the days of making little ones out of big ones.

The phrase "making little ones out of big ones" used to refer to the custom of having prisoners keep in shape by using sledge hammers to break big stones down into gravel which was used to pave roads.   Rock breaking might not have transferred all that well to private-sector employment, but it made going back to prison seem less desirable.  Prisoners are now given weight rooms in which to work out; some people actually enjoy that.

"Making little ones out of big ones" was the inspiration for the Kingston Trio's "ninety-nine years on the hard rock pile."  Having convicts literally work off their debt to society has become so unfashionable that most Yahoo voters thought it was the opposite of "making mountains out of molehills."  The fact that the majority of Yahoo voters had no idea what the phrase means shows a) the limits of democracy as a decision-making mechanism and b) contemporary attitudes towards "horrific prisons."  Folks used to say, "If you can't do the time, don't do the crime."  How times have changed!

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Law.
Reader Comments

One of the biggest problems with the criminal justice system today is the permanent criminal record, available at the flick of a keystroke to anyone who wants it. If you commit a few crimes, you'll never be employable at anything but the most menial jobs, perhaps not even that. You can even fall into this by accident (DUI, etc.), by your girlfriend falsely accusing you of rape/abuse, or by stupid childish pranks as a kid. The only thing that you'll be able to do is (guess what?) more crime. Even if you decide to go straight, it's extremely hard.

Once upon a time, if you screwed up in one state, you could move across the country and begin your life anew, and get it on the right track. Now, your record will follow you across the country, and sometimes across the globe, making starting over nearly impossible.

The criminal justice system is not designed to help people "become penitent and turn away from their lives of crime". It's designed to keep people in the system as long as possible, in order to drain as much money as possible from taxpayers, and fund as many lawyers as possible.

July 12, 2011 11:46 AM

This whole article is written with he "typical generic hardened criminal" of TV Land projected into the assumptions the article is built around.
The fact is the great majority of the incarcerated are average joes and janes in on some minor drug rap or other nonviolent 'crime'--another significantly large percentage are simply innocent and falsly found guilty. And we can here the horror tales of those who are finally found to be innocent after spending 20--30 years of their lives behind bars...and then simply let go. Like "sorry Charley" know too bad, what can I say.

I think we should all think things through with the shoe on the other foot in mind.
I am not saying that just punishments aren't needed. I am just saying that keeping perspective is needed on all counts. Generic solutions are not just--only convenient.
What this nation needs all around is less convenience and more justice.
Especially so when it comes to lazy thinking.

July 12, 2011 11:54 AM

"It's designed to keep people in the system as long as possible, in order to drain as much money as possible from taxpayers, and fund as many lawyers as possible."

I tend to agree with Hank here as well.
There is more to be said on the social engineering aspect of 'crime and punishment' as well. How this situation is stroked and stoked as a strategy of tension in a Machiavellian realpolitik draconian power state manner.

It can also be noted that via the high tech panoptic system, the entire society is now locked within a maximum security state under the strategy of Full Spectrum Dominance. These threads of thought show that the greatest and most dangerous criminals are running the asylum. And any thorough accounting of the overall paradigm proves this to be the case.

July 12, 2011 12:03 PM

Here's one crook who won't soon forget the wages of sin:

A Russian man who tried to rob a hair salon ended up as the victim when the female shop owner overpowered him, tied him up naked and then used him as a sex slave for three days.

Viktor Jasinski, 32, admitted to police that he had gone to the salon in Meshchovsk, Russia, with the intention of robbing it.

But the tables were turned dramatically when he found himself overcome by owner Olga Zajac, 28, who happened to be a black belt in karate.

She allegedly floored the would-be robber with a single kick.

Then, in a scene reminiscent of Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, police say Zajac dragged the semi-conscious Jasinski to a back room of the salon and tied him up with a hair dryer cable.

She allegedly stripped him naked and, for the next three days, used him as a sex slave to 'teach him a lesson' - force feeding him Viagra to keep the lesson going.

July 12, 2011 12:24 PM

"another significantly large percentage are simply innocent and falsly found guilty"

Aha ha ha ha ha!! Just the humor I needed.

Seriously though, the flogging concept is interesting but I can't imagine that any criminal would mind getting 20 lashes in exchange for walking away from a 10 year sentence. Think about that for a second - a 10 year sentence is a long hard grind. You get that for bank jobs, rape, even attempted murder. To be able to walk away from all that for a few minutes of extreme pain? It would be a no-brainer to me.

July 12, 2011 12:48 PM

"Aha ha ha ha ha!! Just the humor I needed."~Ifon

That's what I like about you Ifon, your twisted De Sade sense of humor.
You are a curious study in pathos.


July 12, 2011 1:12 PM

What are the chances of giving Ifon & Willy 20 lash's for not finding something else to do.....

July 12, 2011 11:19 PM

Bob, it should be quite clear that I am doing study for a social engineering paper.

That you would volunteer such useful dialog is greatly appreciated.
I won't give you my interpretation of the subtext, as there is this squirmishness for what is misscalled ad hominem.
I don't mean that I call you any names or anything, but the profile is unflattering.

A simple point would be, why provoke a response for something you find unproductive? You should realize you give such things new life. Why look right here. I, one of your disdained, is now actually addressing you.

Well, shiver me timbers and now what???

July 12, 2011 11:43 PM

"It is the function of the CIA to keep the world unstable, and to propagandize and teach the American people to hate, so we will let the Establishment spend any amount of money on arms." -- John Stockwell, former CIA official and author

July 13, 2011 12:50 AM

Just a note in comment on the Stockwell quote above:

What he is referring to is something I have mentioned here before; The Strategy of Tension. This is a cooradinated strategy that involves several layers of opperation to achieve, both private {"non-governmental entities} and governmental. The press and media are all on duty for such.
It is a type of ongoing "low intensity conflict," and includes Machievellian realpolitik actions of local "law enforcement" as well. This has become particularly streamlined in the new "Homeland Security State."

Many naive citizens have little idea of how easy and simple it is to become a target of opportunity for such goonery. One can be totally innocent of any real crime and still be wound into one of these deadly theatrical games. That is one of the points of tension in a police state.
At some point it sinks in that when the law in out of bounds, just being at the wrong place at the wrong time can be a life changing experience.

Those who consider such information as the fantasy of some "tin hatted conspiracy nut", are in no less danger due to their ignorance, but in fact more tending towards rupture from inattention.

July 13, 2011 1:07 AM

To get back to punishment and deterrence, liberals whine about capital punishment not deterring. Studies show that it does, but like everything governmental, capital punishment does not work as well as it should.

Consider Bernart Goetz. Back in 1984, he pulled a gun and shot 4 black guys who, he said, were mugging him on the subway. Many subway riders applauded him, saying they were worried all the time. Others sayd he was a racist for shooting black guys.

Didn't get much ink, but subway muggings were down for 6 months after the shooting until the bad guys decided nobody else had guns.

Government-administered capital punishment is ineffective, private sector punishment, and he didn't even kill anyone, reduces crime.

July 13, 2011 6:57 AM

So Nate...I take it that vigilantism is your advice..??

Gotchur Batman outfit?

I'm not saying I disagree. Not saying I do agree.

The whole thing has become slush...this society is a well oiled swamp.

July 13, 2011 2:08 PM

The NY Times is all of a twitter about what to do about mass murder

Justice? Vengeance? You Need Both
In Norway, a 21-year prison term doesn't seem long enough to avenge the deaths of 76 people.

NORWAY, a nation far removed from the wickedness of the world, is now facing one of its greatest moral challenges: What to do with Anders Behring Breivik, the man who has confessed to massacring 76 people, many of them children. Norway does not allow for capital punishment, and the longest prison sentence a killer can usually receive there is 21 years. A country of such otherwise good fortune and peaceful intention is now unprepared — legally and morally —to deal with such a monstrous atrocity.

The United States, unfortunately, is much more familiar with this problem. Americans have spent several recent weeks in a vengeful fury over the acquittal of Casey Anthony, who partied for an entire month while her 2-year-old daughter, Caylee, was supposedly missing but might have actually been murdered — by Ms. Anthony. Many believe that Caylee was denied justice; her mother, meanwhile, has been released from prison and remains hidden in an undisclosed location, largely to protect her from vigilante justice.

The inadequacy of legal justice is one thing, its outright failure is quite another. But in both cases the attraction of a nonlegal alternative is a powerful one. Are these vengeful feelings morally appropriate? The answer is yes — because the actual difference between vengeance and justice is not as great as people think.

It’s difficult to have honest conversations about revenge. Seeing someone receive his just deserts often feels righteous and richly deserved, and yet society regards vengeance as primitive and barbaric. Governments warn citizens not to take justice into their own hands, insisting that the state alone has the duty and right to punish wrongdoers — pursuant to the social contract.

As a result, most people hesitate to frame their anguish in terms of revenge. Some, however, are more forthright, proclaiming a moral duty to avenge, especially when the law fails and breaches its part of the social contract.

Next month, Michael Woodmansee, who in 1975 gruesomely murdered Jason Foreman, a 5-year-old, is scheduled to be released from prison after serving only 28 years of a 40-year sentence. Rhode Island, where he was convicted and sentenced, has an “earned time” law, which shortens prison sentences for criminals like Mr. Woodmansee who work prison jobs while incarcerated.

John Foreman, the boy’s father, now faces the prospect of bumping into his son’s murderer in their small town. On learning of Mr. Woodmansee’s impending parole, Mr. Foreman said, “If this man is released anywhere in my vicinity, or if I can find him after the fact, I do intend to kill this man.”

Such statements of unvarnished revenge make many uncomfortable. But how different is revenge from justice, really? Every legal system, however dispassionate and procedural, must still pass the gut test of seeming morally just; and revenge must always be just and proportionate. That is what the biblical phrase “eye for an eye” means. Justice requires that no less than an eye can be taken in retaliation for a lost eye, but no more than an eye either.

Despite the stigma of vengeance, it’s as natural to the human species as love and sex. In art and culture, everyone roots for the avenger, and audiences will settle for nothing less than a proper payback — whether it comes from Hamlet, or from the emotionally wounded avengers in “Gladiator,” “Braveheart” or “Unforgiven.” Recent studies in neuroscience and evolutionary psychology have claimed that human beings are hard-wired for vengeance.


July 28, 2011 8:28 PM
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