Are We Using Our Prisons Properly?


    Obviously, the recent government shut-down looms large in everyone’s minds. Between the time that I am writing this article and the time that it goes to print (a margin of about four days), I do not know what events will transpire. My simple prediction is that Congress will, as it has in the past, eventually pass a resolution that both funds the government and retroactively pays for the shutdown. I hope I’m not proven wrong. Regardless of how you, I, or any representative feels about the Affordable Care Act; it is effectively invulnerable so long as Democrats control the senate. Anyway, I have a more unusual topic in mind.

    What follows is a hypothetical discussion. If you read nothing else in this article, read the following sentence. I am not arguing that the following concept should be implemented, or even that it is a good idea; just that it is something to ponder.

    The United States is the world leader in prison incarceration. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, close to 7 million American adults were in prison at the end to 2011. Their report helpfully points out that, in 2011, “about 1 in every 50 adults in the U.S. was supervised in the community on probation or parole while about 1 in every 107 adults was incarcerated in prison or jail.” For the purposes of this article, let’s assume that everyone who is in jail belongs in jail (don’t feel bad if you disagree). This level of incarceration eats up an enormous quantity of money and resources. What if, instead of relying on prison as our primary correctional punishment, we turned back to forms of corporal punishment?

    Bear with me. Imagine someone who is convicted of a comparatively minor felony such as drug dealing, tax fraud, or chopping down a tree in a watershed. These are crimes that, in my opinion, could be conceivably committed by someone who is neither vile nor morally bankrupt; in short, someone who is still fit to function in society. So, instead of 5 to 10 years in prison, what if their sentence was 70 lashes with a whip; to be delivered 10 a day for one week. The convicts would receive proper medical and personal care throughout the ordeal. In all likelihood, after a punishment like this, they would also spend a month or two in government funded rehabilitation. Such rehabilitation would serve to assess their psychological stability as well as aid them in their recovery.

    The purpose of this draconian punishment is to speed up the reprisal process. Ok, you committed tax fraud. So now, you will have a really bad week followed by some time to think about what you did and receive counseling. Then, you and your scars can get back to work. If a person proved that they could not “get back to work” without causing trouble; then prison time could become a useful option. However, I am not convinced that we are using prisons properly. It seems to me that prison is best used as a means to extract chronically dangerous or destructive people from the population without killing them; rather than as universal punishment for all crimes.

    Our constitution protects people from cruel and unusual punishment. It is my personal opinion that prison time is a far crueler punishment than any single instance of physical abuse could ever be. The issue of false conviction illustrates this. Imagine a person who was falsely convicted and, thus, unjustly received a whipping. This is a correctable mistake. The government would pay for scar removal and plastic surgery to correct the physical damage as well as provide an additional settlement to atone for the victim’s suffering. How do you pay someone for their life? When we unjustly steal, say, 10 years of a person’s life; how can we pay them back? We claim that it is possible; otherwise we wouldn’t even bother paying out such settlements. However, is it not possible that incarceration is crueler and more unusual than corporal punishment?