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Do We Need Prisons? An Exchange

In response to:

The Human Sewer from the April 3, 1975 issue

To the Editors:

I completely agree with Garry Wills in his review of Tom Wicker’s book, A Time to Die [NYR, April 3], but I wonder what he has to say about prisons as retention centers. We have to do something with the criminals we catch. Currently, we stick them in brigs, pokeys, oubliettes, concentration camps, or whatever. A lot of people think we should experiment with community-based programs—wall-less prisons, victim compensation schemes and the like. I think in a society of our numbers this might be as optimistic as the eighteenth-century reasoning that resulted in our prison system in the first place. Should we try anyway? We could keep our prisons, or build less oppressive ones, grant prisoners more rights, and put people less morally deficient than Nelson Rockefeller in charge. But who are these people, and how do we get them in charge?

Peter Koenig

Edinburgh, Scotland

To the Editors:

I have just finished reading Mr. Garry Wills’s insightful contribution entitled “The Human Sewer” in the April 3rd issue of your excellent publication, wherein he analyzed Tom Wicker’s new book.

My hat is off to Mr. Wills for attempting to show where the American penal system has been a flop. However, I note that, like many other antagonists of the penal status quo, Mr. Wills fails to come up with a viable alternative to this madness we call penal “rehabilitation.”

Although only thirty-four years of age, I have been confined for seventeen of the past twenty-two years and am now doing an eight-year stint for bank robbery. I find that, unfortunately, we still do have a need for prisons in America. What does Mr. Wills suggest we do with people who go about chronically molesting children, or continually stealing and burglarizing, or is a four or five time loser for armed robbery (like myself)? Does he feel these persons need to be loosed out upon society to prey at will upon innocent victims whose last line of defense is a questionable police department; as in the case of Inez Garcia, who had to seek her own form of retribution (defense), only to be caught up in this sick and twisted matrix of criminal justice herself? I trust that Mr. Wills can answer these questions, because I have been trying to do so in my own case for many years, and one could say I have a direct personal interest at stake.

I am working on an extensive volume dealing with the American criminal justice (?) system and if Mr. Wills can provide me with the answers to the above questions perhaps I can make that tome much more insightful.

Raymond E. James

United States Penitentiary

McNeil Island, Washington

Garry Wills replies:

The chronic child molester seems to haunt America’s mind. When anyone suggests abolition of our prison system, he is bound (I find) to get letters saying he wants to loose the molesters on our children. This assumes, of course, that child molesters are by and large in prison to begin with—a terribly sanguine assumption. One problem with the attempt to cram our prisons with the whole “criminal population” is that the wrong people crowd the courts and jails, letting the “right” people go free in too many cases. It is easier to catch, say, a drunkard or gambler than to find and convict a rapist or molester. The system tends to overdo what it can do easily, to compensate for the things it finds difficult; yet this very distribution of emphases makes the hard thing harder.

Still, once we properly identify the chronic molester, he should be removed from society. An attack on the current prison system does not rule out all use of sequestration. That system rests on several assumptions, all of them faulty—that prison should be the normal punishment, indeed the norm of punishment; that serious crimes should be measured, on a scale of equity, by length of incarceration; that promise of release should be made an instrument of reform; that rehabilitation can take place—i.e., that prison “repairs” criminals as well as punishing crime; and therefore that all criminals should undergo this reforming process, be “graduated” from it. The results are comic, in their grisly way. On the one hand, we send even minor offenders to jail, which are schools for crime. On the other hand, we look to the release of almost all criminals—even confirmed sociopaths—somewhere down the line. The system, unwilling to admit its own bankruptcy, exaggerates its beneficent effects, and releases criminals who are guaranteed to commit new crimes.

Before the Enlightenment gave us this unworkable system, there were detention houses for the truly dangerous—for lepers (uncurable at the time), for the violent insane, for plague carriers, etc. There is an irreducible minimum of people who present an active danger to society whenever they are released into it. They should be sequestered, in places which have no other aim except sequestration. There should be no further punishment, and no denial of access for relatives or for any well-wishers requested by the jailed. But the jails themselves should not try to “reshape” the sequestered, or experiment on them. Oddly enough, liberal rhetoric and hopes for rehabilitation condemn many to prison who should not be there, and prevent us from taking a hard look at sequestration as an aim in itself for the permanently unsocializable.

If jails were given this narrowly defined aim of sequestration, we would not lightly send people to them. Incarceration would be a last desperate necessity, not an easy first choice. A series of benefits would be the result:

1) The “victimless” crimes would have to be decriminalized—prostitution, drunkenness, homosexuality, gambling, drug use or trade. If any of these acts lead to further acts of violent assault, that violence can be prosecuted. But decriminalizing the victimless crimes in se is both desirable on moral grounds and for its practical effect on crime prevention. Our court loads would be lightened. Our police manpower could be redirected to tasks of citizen protection. A good deal of our “law enforcement” efforts go to the imposition of moral preferences, not to the insurance of public safety—and the size of the crime problem no longer permits that set of priorities.

2) Those with any hope of rehabilitation—or, more likely, nonrepetition of a crime—should be obliged to some practical form of redress for their crime, either in community work (in hospitals, or the military, or among the disabled), or in work that will recompense the victims of their crime. (Prisons give victims an empty “satisfaction” of revenge, but not the repairing of personal loss or damage.)

3) Deterrence would take the form of more cops on the street to guard against muggers, better patrolling of homes and shops against theft, more police cars to deter murderous driving—activities of established deterrent effect. Money and manpower would not be wasted on prisons, which demonstrably do not deter.

Our prison system began as a reform, and has ever since been continually reformed—each. “liberal” measure making it even less effective. (It is odd that so-called conservatives cling to this typical product of the Enlightenment.) The only reform that will work is abolition. An established interest makes this difficult—all bureaucracies are tenacious of the harms they do.

Sentencing to the kind of sequestration that preceded our current prison scheme would have to be reserved for the hard exception—and so should release from that detention. The current system not only imprisons too soon and indiscriminately; it also releases on insufficient grounds, sometimes too early. The difference is that we jail the wrong people by the thousands, and release the wrong ones by the dozens. The whole thing is crazy; but one must never underestimate man’s vested interest in craziness.

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