Fix the Prisons?


Senator Jim Webb has been an outspoken critic of America’s prison system for some time now.  He is not alone; nor is he the first to point out how horrible this system is. 


His recent piece in Parade (“Why we must fix our prisons” -, which was distributed throughout the state of Nevada via a mass e-mail recently, does not shed any

new light on the issue.  Most of us are keenly aware that this country stands head and shoulders above the rest of the world when it comes to locking people up.  We are also aware of the obvious connection between the drug war and the

huge growth in imprisonment during the past three decades.  Most are aware of the fact that the illegal drug trade nets billions of dollars every year and the dead bodies that keep piling up in the wake of this trade.  We are also aware of

the costs of imprisonment (California alone now tops $10 billion per year). I would like to offer a different perspective and pose the following question: Do we really need to “fix” or “reform” the prison?


I ask this question for many different reasons, not the least of which is the obvious fact that despite the overwhelming evidence that prisons have not been a big factor in reducing crime (note that not only does the US have the highest

incarceration rate, but it also has the highest crime rate, especially violence), they continue to exist despite repeated attempts to “reform” them. 


I have added quotation marks to the terms “fix” and “reform” for a reason.  The reason is two-fold.  First, the mere fact that the prison system endures means that someone, somewhere is benefiting from its existence.  In other words,

prisons are “functional” for some segments of the population.  More on that shortly.


Secondly, calling for this system to be “fixed” or “reformed” is kind of like asking that we “fix” or “reform” the prison at Guantanamo Bay, rather than eliminating it altogether.  A more extreme analogy would be to call for a “reform” of or to

“fix” what’s wrong with Auschwitz.  In both cases, we attempt to make the system more “humane” or eliminate the most extreme cases of outright nastiness, such as making these institutions more “efficiently run.”  (Believe it or not, some

“reformers” of 19th century penal systems in Europe advocated a “whipping machine” in order to make the act of whipping prisoners more “efficient” and consistent (each blow exactly like the one before it).


Senator Webb spend a lot of space in his article on the drug war, which helps “feed” the prison system with the “nutrients” (human bodies) it needs to survive.  This indirectly suggests a solution (neither a “fix” nor a “reform” mind you), to

which I shall return.


I stated above that the prison system is “functional” in that it benefits some segments of the population.  One obvious segment it benefits is all of those who work inside.  Indeed, with $68 billion in annual expenditures on the American

prison system plus strong unions in many states (especially in California) you have a very strong vested interest in keeping the prison a going concern (the “reforms” would serve mostly to make working conditions and pay and benefits much

better).  Then too we have all of the private vendors that profit from prisons (not to mention local jails).  Elsewhere I have written extensively about the “prison industrial complex” (see the archives section of this web site for examples) so

I do not need to elaborate except to say that hundreds of companies make a lot of money with things like linen, toiletries, food, phone service, health care, security devices, furniture, etc.  Clearly maintaining a prison reaps billions of dollars

in revenue to corporations.  Also, prisons function to sort of “manage the underclass” or the “rabble” (as stated so well by John Irwin and Jim Austin, among others).  Those who find themselves behind bars are typically from the most

disadvantaged segments of society (disproportionately minorities). Since there is no room for them in the present economic system (this was so even before the current crisis), prisons provide a place for them.  This obviously has nothing to

do with the seriousness of their crimes.  Witness the horrible consequences of people like Bernie Madoff!!


As to the drug war, what more can I say other than to echo what many others are saying (including an organization called Law Enforcement Against Prohibition – LEAP), namely, that overcrowded prisons are a natural consequence of

prohibiting something that is in great demand.  Legalize these drugs (with a lot of government regulation of course) and you take the profits away.  You also take away the scandals that have rocked the criminal justice system over and

over again.  In fact, police corruption has always been related to one thing: prohibition.  That is, prohibition of alcohol, drugs, prostitution and gambling.  You no longer have corruption related to alcohol and gambling since these are now

legal.  (Read the story of Frank Serpico and you will see how closely related corruption within the NYPD was related to gambling.)


So shall we “fix” or “reform” the prison or engage in the kinds of changes that would make the prison largely unnecessary?  Do we extend the benefits of the American capitalist system to those that have been historically left out so

that they would not have the need to engage in the kinds of crimes (especially drug use) that lead them to prison?  Do we eliminate drug laws and hence their enforcement? 


In other words, instead of “fixing” or “reforming” the prison, let’s fix the social conditions that make the prison a functional institution.



 © 2009, Randall G. Shelden. All rights reserved. No part of this may be reproduced without permission from the author.