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?
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.
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!