An Alternative to Prison

It occurred to me that there are multiple cases where someone couldn’t be tried for a crime they couldn’t remember having committed.  I think it usually had to do with severe brain damage.  Effectively, as a society, we found it to be unethical to punish someone for a crime which they genuinely had no recollection of having committed.  I think that in many cases, the brain damage was severe enough to warrant keeping them in psychiatric care.. but it gave me an idea.

People joke about going back in time to kill baby Hitler.  The joke isn’t so much about stopping the Nazi movement but rather about the ethical dilemma of killing a baby who for all intents and purposes was an innocent person at that moment in time.  People playfully debate over whether or not they would do it and it becomes a discussion about whether or not you would trade one innocent live to save many innocent lives.  The compassionate crowd doesn’t want to sacrifice any lives.  The intelligent crowd think it’s easy math.  I would encourage using both parts of the brain in pursuit of a better option… reform.  Find baby hitler and guide him towards a better life.  For all intents and purposes, he was an gifted individual pointed in a terrible direction.  Why not show him a better way and see all that energy spent on the collective good.

So if we are born innocent, and destined for prison, there’s an inflection point at which society has deemed us no longer fit for the general population.  For those of us who are to be locked up forever… what if they could go back?  Like a back-up?  Like with a computer?  Go back to before the files were corrupted?

Clearly, this is some sci-fi shit and while fun to think about, it’s not a realistic solution for the near future.  What is likely to be a far better option and is readily available is a complete overhaul of our prison system.  At this point in time, the system is designed to punish those who have committed a crime.  The idea is that prison is such an unenjoyable place to be, that once released, they’ll do whatever it takes to not return.  It’s unfortunate that we still think we can control people with fear, because the numbers would suggest otherwise.  The culture within the prisons just like the culture within a company is enough to change who you are by the time you leave.  If that culture was one of intense negativity, who are we releasing back into the wild?  In what ways have they ‘paid their debt to society?’  There’s gotta be a better way.

As with all my ideas, they’re built on the ideas of others.  Prison shouldn’t be about punishment, prison should be about rehab.  It’s not that complicated.  I think that in many ways, it comes down to having compassion for people who are not your own.  Think of a wealthy family who has a kid that gets addicted to drugs.  And let’s say that kid gets up to no good while supporting that drug habit.  Does the world look at that person in the same manner as the crackhead trying to steal a TV.  One is likely to end up in the Mayo clinic as an act of compassion and rehabilitation while the other is likely to end up in prison as an act of punishment.  I would argue that this situations are much more similar than they are different and the rehab would be the best approach for each.  I would maintain that stance even if drugs weren’t the issue.

If I’m not mistaken, Sweden is one of the countries leading the way in this approach.  Prison isn’t about punishment, it’s about reform.  Through whatever path these individuals have had through life, it’s led them to a point where they’re extremely disruptive to society, or even dangerous.  The solution isn’t to lock them all away together in an environment which encourages their worst behaviors.  Especially when the plan is to release them back into the environments that they found to be so challenging in the first place.  The solution is to help them learn and grow into a productive member of society.

How many of these individuals lack truly employable skills?  How many people are in jail for crimes relating to poverty?  How many of these people have struggled to find an honest way to make a living?  How often does someone serve their sentence, only to find it harder to get a job than before?  I’m willing to bet good money that someone with a stable career and healthy income is much less interested in stealing.  I’m also willing to bet good money that a person who came from having to steal to put food on the table, to being able to do it with honest work will make one hell of a role-model for others.  But not everyone would agree.  Something to the effect of these are bad people, they committed crimes and should be punished and not rewarded.  And what about the costs of these rehab programs, tax payers shouldn’t be responsible for footing these bills.  These individuals would be shortsighted.

The brilliance of rehab over punishment is the increase in value of human capital.  In the current system, an average inmate will chew up government resources while incarcerated and come out in worse condition than when they went in.  As a result, they’re more likely to go back.  In more extreme cases, people learn to prefer the inside to the outside.  There’s a reason we don’t take this approach with our own children.  When we truly care about the well-being of others, it becomes paramount that we help build them back up.  The current system takes problematic individuals of society and puts them through a process that on average, greatly reduces their ability to be a  healthy, contributing member to society.  As a result, in one way or another, they’re likely going to cost tax-payers more money.

At one point, we even thought that the issue was threatening more jail time.  What if we tell them that if they go back for the third time, we won’t ever let them out?  And all of the sudden, the tax-payer is on the hook for a life-time of food, board, and supervision.  Why does it sound like such an extreme idea to invest the resources necessary so that this person can go out there and be a happy, healthy, productive member of society?  I can all but guarantee that over the long-term, costs would go down, and quality of life for everyone would go way up.

Within this idea, there’s plenty of room to explore as well.  Perhaps those receiving an education in prison would be able to commute their sentence by working it off through an apprenticeship.  A different approach to paying off your debt to society.  Prison labor is one of the biggest rackets in the country and has more in common with slave labor that paid labor but it doesn’t have to stay that way.  If these individuals are capable of doing quality work and earning a proper rate, why would we withhold that from them?  Why would it be paramount that we keep them from contributing to society?  If you consider how large the prison system is, there seems to be plenty of work to be done internally as well.  Imagine, a prison system powered by the minds, skills and labor of inmates who are committed to bettering themselves, supporting each other, and making this a generally positive experience.  Imagine the cultural shift.  Imagine someone going through a rough patch, and looking forward to prison, knowing that by the end of it, they’ll be on a better path.  At a certain point, perhaps prison is much more reminiscent of rehab, where you have the option to check yourself in if you think you really need it.

And yes, the whole thing is still funded by tax payers because as a society we realize that over time, this is a more cost-effective option than what we’re currently doing.  Not just because people will be less likely to return to prison.  Or because law enforcement will have an easier time with a rehabilitated population than a criminalized one.  Or because someone with a career pays more taxes than someone without.  Or because someone who’s been through that journey will be able to inspire others to avoid similar mistakes.  No matter how you break this down, it’s not that hard to see why this works.

Prison reform could be an entire series of books to itself so there’s a temptation for me to write everything else that I’ve considered on the topic but for today, I’d like to focus on just one more.  As long as time served in prison is viewed as punishment, the measuring stick for paying off your debt to society is the amount of months or years spent in prison.  As far as I can tell, there’s no data suggesting that the length of your sentence is designed to maximizes the chances of you being a law-biding citizen once back in society.  If true, time served is a terrible indicator of when someone is ready.  We certainly don’t provide a degree to someone based on the number of years spent in school.   If we’re going to be objective and accurate, we need a new set of criteria.  Maybe one based on the crime?  And the person?  And the dynamics that led them to be a criminal? What if you genuinely treated it like rehab and released them when they were ready, not before and not after?   Those who invested the effort and made real progress would return to their friends and family sooner.  Those who struggled wouldn’t be released prematurely.  And my favorite part?  If you were wrongly convicted, for whatever reason, you’d be out in a hurry because you wouldn’t require the rehab.  Genius 🙂