Mar 17, 2023

My most extreme political position

My most extreme political position
Photo by Tom Blackout / Unsplash

I think we should be drastically reducing our prison population as soon as possible.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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My most extreme political view is that I am staunchly anti-prison.

This view has been characterized many different ways on the "political spectrum" over the course of American history, though today most associate it with far-left progressivism. I don't really care where it lands on the political spectrum, or who it associates me with, because it is one specific view I have about one specific issue that I think I've come to honestly. I just happen to feel very strongly about it, and I recognize that it is a view not shared by many other Americans.

It is not a view I've always had, but one borne out of seeing the impact of prison on people I know or have met, talking to people who have experienced prison, and closely examining the impacts of prison on both individuals and on society as a whole.

Over the last three and a half years of writing Tangle, I've occasionally referenced this as my most extreme political position, and I have been inundated with requests from readers (mostly those who disagree with me) to elaborate on my position and explain how we could function in society without prisons. I have also gotten a lot of emails from people who agree with me, mostly non-Americans, far-left liberals or staunch Libertarian and anti-government types, asking me to make my case because they believe it is important.

Today I'm going to try to do that.

Before I jump in, I also want to preface everything I'm about to say with a few important distinctions. This is not going to be a newsletter about policing, which is an extremely important topic (one I've written about several times before) that is obviously interconnected with prisons. This is not going to be a newsletter about the criminal justice system, or more specifically, the ways in which that system succeeds and fails in doling out justice. This is also not going to be a newsletter which focuses on race or poverty, which are deeply tied to policing and our criminal justice system. Both our policing and criminal justice systems have long and well documented histories of being used to systematically oppress people of color and low-income Americans (we can have good-faith arguments about whether they are today, or to what degree, but the historical record is indisputable).

Of course, this edition will touch on and reference all these themes. But fundamentally this discussion is going to be about incarceration. That is, the practice of putting human beings in barred cages for the purpose of punishing and rehabilitating them, and for the purposes of reducing their criminal activity and making our communities safer.

I'm going to make three main points: 1) Incarceration is immoral. 2) The evidence that incarceration reduces crime, rehabilitates criminals, or keeps us safe is slim. 3) There are better alternatives.

Those three arguments will be the focus of this piece. I'd also like to note that, definitionally, there is a difference between jails (typically local facilities used to detain people temporarily who are awaiting trial or sentencing) and prisons (often state or federally operated facilities which house people convicted of crimes for the duration of their sentences). To reference both, I will be talking about "incarceration," and will otherwise be specific in my use of these terms.

If you enjoy this piece, or it challenges you, or it changes your mind, I hope you’ll consider forwarding it to friends or sharing it on Twitter.

As I always say when I walk out on a limb and share my perspective like this, I am not here to change your mind, you don't have to agree with me, and I am happy to hear your feedback. My only goal here is to make my argument as best as I can, as honestly as I can, and see what happens.

Incarceration is immoral

Imagine for a moment you have been caught doing something bad. Let's say, hypothetically, you were buying an illegal drug from someone on the street.

I'm going to give you five options for your punishment. You get to pick yours:

  • Option 1: For the next year, you have to live in your bedroom, with a single hour-long break every day to go outside.
  • Option 2: For the next year, you have to eat the cafeteria school lunches you had as a kid for every meal, with no exceptions.
  • Option 3: You have to quit your job immediately, and you cannot work or make any outside income for the next year, but you will be given a job I pick for you that pays roughly $1 per hour.
  • Option 4: For the next year, you can only communicate to your friends, family or loved ones only via letter or weekly telephone calls, and you will be charged for every communication.
  • Option 5: For the next year, you will have to share a room with a stranger, and this person will be randomly selected from a group of other criminals and placed with you.

As you likely know, you wouldn’t get to choose, but instead would get all five. Welcome to prison.

Most of us intuitively know the concept of incarceration is immoral. I have seen friends get a new puppy and feel bad about putting their dog in its crate as a form of punishment for chewing up a piece of furniture. There are animal activists who dedicate their lives to protesting the intensive farming of pigs and chickens, who are often raised in tight quarters and cages where they can barely move and can't run free. Children who are grounded, confined to the modern comforts of their personal rooms, will object and scream and cry and object that “it isn’t fair.” When most Americans look abroad to a country like China, and hear of thousands of Uyghurs being put into "re-education" camps on charges of being terroristic threats, we understand their mass detention as a grave injustice.

Today, in America, the Prison Policy Initiative estimates there are nearly 2 million human beings living in human-sized cages, with limited contact with the outside world, no work prospects, poor diet, housed alongside other criminals, and spread across 1,566 state prisons, 98 federal prisons, 3,116 local jails, 1,323 juvenile correctional facilities, 181 immigration detention facilities, and 80 Indian country jails, as well as in military prisons, civil commitment centers, state psychiatric hospitals, and prisons in the U.S. territories.

In most years for the last several decades, we’ve imprisoned more people than any country on earth. China, occasionally, surpasses us — though its population of 1.4 billion is over four times ours. Depending on the dataset you use, some 565 to 716 residents per 100,000 in the U.S. are incarcerated — consistently more than every country on earth. In recent memory, including today, countries like Rwanda, El Salvador and Cuba have briefly surpassed us on a per capita rate. But in the last 40 years, our prison population has exploded, growing by nearly 500%.

Shockingly, these numbers are just a slice of the overall population that interacts with incarceration. For instance, while 421,000 people entered prison in 2021, the total number of individual jail stays was 7 million. Pew estimated that in 2010, 1 in 31 Americans were in some way in the penal system — that is, they were either in prison, jail, or under criminal supervision (i.e. parole).

You might be thinking, "Okay, sure, well how is it immoral when these people have all committed crimes?" Which would expose your misunderstanding of who is in the penal system.

Many of those people have not been found guilty of any crime.

About one in three incarcerated people are in jails, not prisons. That's roughly 619,000 people. Of those, roughly 427,000 are awaiting trial. That's because the median bail in our country is $10,000, and the typical person who needs to make bail is impoverished. That $10,000 represents roughly 8 months of income for a typical person who ends up in jail.

Worse yet, even the "guilty" people held in jail or prison are often not guilty. Roughly 95% of criminal cases are resolved today through plea bargaining — the process of prosecutors offering defendants more lenient punishment for an admittance of guilt, regardless of whether the facts support such an admission, or if the person committed a crime.

Now, imagine my initial hypothetical again, except this time, you didn't buy the drugs but you're not 100% confident you can prove that. As the prosecutor, I tell you that you can either A) eat cafeteria food every day for six months if you accept my offer, or B) leave it up to a jury, but if they find you guilty, you'll have to do all five punishments for the next five years. Which would you choose?

Most people, for obvious reasons, pick option A. The overwhelming majority of the people living in prisons today are there because they took a plea bargain. And an unknowable number of them are innocent of the crimes they admitted to.

Of course, on some level, guilt and innocence are almost beside the point. Fundamentally, the question is whether prison is a just form of punishment, even when someone committed a crime, and even when the crime they committed is heinous.

Here are some of the things we know about prisons and jails: Prisons are exceptionally violent. Studies show roughly 35% of men in prison experience physical victimization behind bars, while 24% of women do. 10% of men experience sexual victimization behind bars while 25% of women do. These same studies have shown that people who experience prison, whether they personally experience violence or simply witness it, experience the same kinds of PTSD we see in military veterans. Given that many prisoners already have forms of PTSD or have been victims of abuse before they were incarcerated, these experiences can be debilitating and extraordinarily damaging.

In a 2020 report conducted by the U.S. Justice Department, an examination of 13 prisons in Alabama found that "frequent" use of excessive force was committed against inmates in 12 of the 13 prisons, a violation of their eighth amendment rights. A combination of understaffing, overcrowding, and complete disregard for those constitutional rights creates an environment of perpetual violence — one where the prisoners are violent with each other, experience violence from their corrections officers, and often return that violence in kind.

This note from the report is fairly representational: “In one incident, a prisoner stuck his tongue out at a sergeant. The sergeant responded by punching the handcuffed prisoner in the face. The report also found that Alabama’s correctional officers frequently use chemical spray on prisoners while they remained in locked cells.”

And it's not just Alabama: “A group of formerly incarcerated women from New Jersey recently testified they were sexually assaulted and harassed by corrections officers who came into their cells at night while security cameras were pointed at ceilings. In 2018, the Intercept published data uncovering that 1,224 instances of sexual assault were reported in ICE detention centers and only 43 complaints were investigated.”

Of course, while the concept of incarceration may be abhorrent and the data on violence in prison is terrifying, these only represent a small slice of the stories that make it to the outside. In 2019, inmates inside a Brooklyn prison who were freezing to death had to resort to synchronized banging on the walls, windows, and bars of the jail to alert the public outside. The prisoners were on lockdown, with no connection to the outside world, virtually without electricity and largely without heat for over a week. In 2019. They resorted to making noise until the public on the outside noticed, which they did, and which brought attention to the horrific conditions they were experiencing.

All this, naturally, is to say nothing of the working conditions and unconscionably low pay of prison labor, the lack of medical care, the isolation, the lack of resources, the stigma, the removal job prospects, and the general impact on someone's mental health of being portrayed day in and day out as evil or corrupted people who are unfit to participate in society.

The result? Suicide is the leading cause of death among the incarcerated; in local jails, where people are usually housed only for short periods of time, suicide rates are still three times higher than in the general U.S. population.

Even in biblical terms — with its archaic, barbaric ideas of justice — there's a case that exposing people to these conditions is immoral. Consider an armed robbery. Imagine for a moment that a criminal comes up to a person on the street, points a gun at them, and tells them to hand over their valuables. Consider the victim: Loses their phone and wallet, traumatized by the event, and likely spends years (or perhaps a lifetime) fearful of dark, unlit streets.

A biblical punishment, an eye for eye, might call for taking something back from the criminal. "Stealing" from them by removing their possessions in the form of a fine or government repossession of equal value. Mimicking the trauma a victim of an armed robbery experienced is, of course, a bit harder. But let's go back to the original prompt: Would you rather be the victim of an armed robbery like the one I just described — experiencing 30 seconds of fear and losing your phone and wallet — or be confined in a room for six months?

In Pennsylvania, where I live, the sentence for a first offense of armed robbery is seven to 14 years. Depending on how the robbery is committed, a first offense could land someone in jail for 30 years.

Would you rather be the victim of an armed robbery, or go to prison for seven years? My bet is everyone reading this would pick the armed robbery. Again: Even in a world where we embrace an idea as archaic as an "eye for an eye," the way we punish people — when you really think about it — is both excessive and unreasonable. This is doubly so when you consider that even the victims of crime want shorter sentences for their victimizers.

Which typically evokes this argument: "Well, sure. But that's because the point of a prison sentence is to deter crime — it's to scare people from committing a crime with a harsh sentence."

To put it differently: It's okay that we've created a system where our punishments are immoral, extreme, and beyond the pale, because this keeps the larger community safe by preventing crime. Which would be an argument worth having — if it were true.

Incarceration doesn't work

Generally speaking, there are three reasons we incarcerate people: To deter crime, to punish criminals, and to rehabilitate them. I've already made my case that, as a punishment, prisons are immoral. So it’s worth focusing on the other two reasons: Deterring and reducing crime, and rehabilitating someone.

Unfortunately, the impacts of prison on crime prevention and rehabilitation are not particularly well studied subjects. Still, I believe we have enough data and common sense to understand that incarceration both fails to rehabilitate and fails to prevent crime.

The easiest case of these to make is that our prison system does not rehabilitate criminals. At least 1 in 4 people who go to jail will be arrested again within a year. Within three years, two out of three former prisoners are rearrested and more than 50% are incarcerated again. In a sign of just how poorly studied this area is, recent papers have contended that our recidivism rates are lower than we think — but by the most commonly accepted measures, our prisons are failing to rehabilitate people who are committing crimes.

In fact, we have a lot of reason to believe prisons increase crime. Understanding this does not require a degree in criminal justice or sociology: Prisons tend to exacerbate mental health problems, increase aggression and violence in inmates, erode trust in the legal system, isolate inmates from their families and community, make it harder to get a job, and instead connect prisoners with other criminals. Long-term prison sentences also desensitize people to the future threat of prison, which lowers deterrence. For various reasons, some prisoners express a desire to return to prison after being released from a long sentence.

Using a nationally representative dataset, one examination of the 5 million formerly incarcerated people in the U.S. found that 27% were unemployed — higher than the U.S. unemployment rate at any time in our history, including the Great Depression. Formerly incarcerated people are also 10 times more likely to be homeless than the general public.

For obvious reasons, we all understand why this would make an individual more susceptible to committing future crimes.

David J. Harding, a sociology professor at U.C. Berkeley who has studied prison reentry and reintegration, believes prison has no impact on whether a violent criminal will reoffend. Harding studied violent criminals in Michigan and compared those who were sentenced to prison and those who were sentenced to probation.

"The study found that sentencing someone to prison had no effect on their chances of being convicted of a violent crime within five years of being released from prison," Harding wrote. "This means that prison has no preventative effect on violence in the long term among people who might have been sentenced to probation. It also found a preventative 'incapacitation' effect in the short term, during the time when prisoners were still in prison, but this effect is smaller than we typically assume. Preventing one person who was previously convicted of a violent crime from committing a new violent crime within five years of their sentence requires imprisoning 16 such individuals."

Interestingly, recidivism rates actually don't support the belief that people who commit violent crimes should be locked away for decades, either. Violent criminal and sex offenders are actually among the least likely to be rearrested. Those who had been previously convicted of sexual assault or rape are arrested at 20% lower rates than are all other criminals combined, in part because age is one of the main predictors of that kind of violence (violence peaks in early adulthood and adolescence), and many offenders serve sentences long past the time they age out of a tendency toward violent behavior.

It's also worth pointing out that imprisoning one person does not simply impact that person's life prospects. The impact is cyclical.

Current estimates on the number of children who have a parent in prison vary, but it’s generally accepted that about 1.7 million to 2.7 million kids have experienced parental incarceration. Other numbers suggest it might be even higher: 50 to 75 percent of incarcerated individuals report having a minor child, and African-American and Hispanic children were 7.5 times and 2.5 times more likely than white children, respectively, to have an incarcerated parent. This is to say nothing of the financial impact on families — parents, siblings, spouses — who were relying on the incarcerated for income.

In effect, these whole families are punished — and who is helped? Don Stemen, from the Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology at Loyola University Chicago, has published a fascinating paper on what we know about the results.

In total, the relationship between an area’s incarceration and crime rates is very weak. The limited studies we have differ, but none make a strong case that more incarceration causes lower crime. Between 1980 and 2000, every 10% increase in incarceration was associated with a 2% to 4% lower crime rate. That's about as good as it gets. Depending on the study, between 6% and 25% of the total reduction in crime rates in the 1990s was attributed to more incarceration. Some studies suggest that cities and neighborhoods with higher incarceration rates consequently see higher rates of crime, likely because of the familial and societal breakdown of losing people to prison.

Since 2000, increased incarceration accounted for nearly zero percent of the overall reduction in crime — meaning somewhere between 75% and 100% of the reduction in crime since the 1990s is attributable to other factors. Stemen points to an aging population, improved employment, higher graduation rates, more law enforcement, and changes in policing strategies that account for most of our crime reduction since then.

In my view, one of the best reasons for putting someone in jail is to force them into sobriety or separate them from "bad influences" in their outside community. Interestingly, I found this one upside in my perspective on prisons to also be challenged in my research. As it turns out, while two-thirds of people in local jails have substance abuse disorders, only a fraction of jails provide the kind of medicated addiction treatment that is now the gold standard. Oftentimes, jails are interrupting drug treatment rather than stopping someone's abuse problem. Between 2000 and 2018, the number of people who died of intoxication in jail skyrocketed by 400%, and most died within a day of admission.

It wasn't always this way. Until the mid-1970s, our prison and jails were far more focused on rehabilitation than punishment. But in 1974, the sociologist Robert Martinson published one of the most impactful papers on incarceration in U.S. history, laying out the "Nothing Works'' doctrine. The idea was that these rehabilitation programs were a waste of time and money, and his specious evidence for this was embraced gleefully by the media and politicians. When this philosophy was paired with the War on Drugs, the crackdown began: Our incarceration rates started to climb, and our commitment to rehabilitating those in prison plummeted.

Subsequent studies and the real-life results of this attitude have made it self-evident that Martinson was wrong, but the damage has been done.

"By 2000, the incarceration rate was 270 percent higher than in 1975, but the violent crime rate was nearly identical to the rate in 1975 and the property crime rate was nearly 20 percent lower than in 1975," Stemen said. "Put another way, the United States was spending roughly $33 billion on incarceration in 2000 for essentially the same level of public safety it achieved in 1975 for $7.4 billion—nearly a quarter of the cost."

Today, incarceration rates are higher than they were in 2000, but something interesting has been happening, too: We’ve started a movement of decarceration.

Since 2009, we have been decarcerating 2.3% annually, when the prison population was at its peak. Although national crime rates have risen since the pandemic, they are still lower than they were in 2009, despite the reduction in incarceration.

"Some states, like Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York, reduced their prison populations by around 60 percent since their respective peaks, with no corresponding rise in violent and property crime," reports Emma Varvaloucas from The Progress Network. "Others, like Arkansas, reduced their populations only slightly, but are dealing with violent crime rates that have been increasing since 2002 and are akin to late 90s nationwide levels."

If this decarceration rate continues while we simultaneously see crime rates remain level or drop, we’ll have even more evidence that increasing incarceration is not a meaningful strategy for reducing crime.

There are better alternatives

Obviously, the most difficult question here is what we should do with criminals if we aren't going to put them in jail. In no way do I want to convey that an answer to that question is simple or easy. Of course, talk is cheap: It's easy to make the case for why someone convicted of a violent or sexual crime won't be helped by prison, but it'd be much harder to, say, accept that person as a neighbor, colleague or member of my community.

Still, I think there are a few obvious places to start. There are a disproportionate number of people with mental illness and substance abuse problems in prisons and jails. The rate of serious mental illness is two to six times higher among the incarcerated than the general population, yet 66% of prisoners report not having any form of mental health care during the full length of their incarceration.

We also know that education and job training are key to reducing crime. For each dollar spent on correctional education, $5 is saved in three year re-incarceration costs. A 2018 analysis found that individuals enrolled in postsecondary education programs are 48% less likely to reoffend than peers who don't. While the vast majority of state and federal prisons have some kind of education program, those programs are underfunded and under-utilized. In Maryland, the state spends about $12,000 per pre-K through 12th grade public school student, and about $37,000 per incarcerated person per year. The vast majority of that funding is spent on housing prisoners, when we could instead spend it on educating them.

Avenues for Justice is an organization that provides alternatives to incarceration for youth offenders across the country (aged 13 to 24). They advocate for youth in court, provide workforce training, education and mentoring. On average, 94% of AFJ's court-involved participants are not reconvicted of a new crime within three years of starting the program. In order to do this, they spend about $6,300 per person. In New York City, it can cost $447,336 to incarcerate one person for a full year. Why are we choosing a solution that is less effective and far more expensive?

“That figure is just a reflection of how invested we as a society are in the punishment and incarceration of certain people, versus doing something such as getting these individuals some sort of help,” Brian Stanley, a court advocate for Avenues for Justice, told Forbes. “People feel like, ‘I don't want to fund the help you're going to receive in any way, so I'm willing to pay a hundred times that amount to punish you.’”

It's not easy to compare recidivism rates across countries, but we do have examples of other places outperforming us. Norway has one of the lowest recidivism rates of any country, at around 20% within two years. In the 90s, it was closer to 70%. What changed?

For starters, they have committed to a system with much smaller prisons that are highly localized, keeping the incarcerated closer to their families and allowing more visits from the outside. They have also reformed their prisons away from punishment and toward rehabilitation. The First Step Alliance notes the major differences: “Norwegian prisoners have the right to vote, attend school, learn new skills, exercise, see their families, and even participate in extracurricular activities. In fact, in many prisons, the security officers participate in activities like fitness and yoga right alongside the prisoners.”

In other words: They treat their prisoners like people worthy of rehabilitation, and many of the prisoners end up being rehabilitated.

Of course, one key to Norway's system is societal belief in it. Norway's population generally views prisons as a means to rehabilitate and help someone, and that attitude helps facilitate the success of the prisoners and the prisoners once they are released. In a society where the population wants prisons to be a place for punishment, it's less clear how successful this approach would be.

And Norway isn't alone. Most prisons in northern Europe aim to treat their prisoners with dignity, and as a result see lower rates of recidivism and violence.

For the vast majority of people convicted of crimes, prison sentences are probably unnecessary and even counter-productive. With today's technological advances, we could move toward a system that relied more heavily on monitoring convicted criminals outside of prison — like we do now with house arrest or probation — rather than keeping them in jail. Given what we know not just about prisons but about preventing crime, namely that the belief in getting caught is the most effective deterrent, moving toward mass parole, home arrest and monitoring is likely to be far more effective than incarceration.

Shifting heavily to this approach would do a few important things: It would punish criminals without removing them from their families and communities. It would allow them to work and go to school, which we know are critical for reducing future crime. It would allow those that need mental health or substance abuse treatment to receive it, given what we know about the rates that care is offered to people in prison. And we'd avoid subjecting them to an environment that we know causes trauma, increases violence, and can lead them to reoffend. There would be broader societal effects, too, like recouping the $78 to $87 billion of GDP loss we’re estimated to incur by incarcerating two million people.

As for the worst of the worst — the murderers, the rapists, the terrorists, the criminals we view as the most dangerous people: We can still send them to prison. But all the evidence we have suggests we should submit them to shorter prison sentences, allow them more time to be monitored on the outside, and provide them with far more resources to rehabilitate themselves. Again: This is not just about compassion. It is about public safety, too. These prisoners are the least likely to reoffend, and studies show they are no more likely to reoffend when on probation than after serving a prison sentence.

In many cases, we understand the causes behind why someone commits physical or sexual violence — and it’s frequently because they were victims first. We have vast resources to address those causes if we are willing to, but it requires rethinking what we want our prisons to do and to what degree we are willing to forgive. Some nonprofits, like Common Justice, have begun embracing radical community-based programs to this effect, where people who have committed violent offenses engage in conversations with the victims they have harmed and then both parties have a say in what consequences are appropriate.

These are big, difficult questions, but very few of them are answered by putting someone in a cage for a few decades then dropping them back into society without any support.


I can recognize that I'm approaching this topic from a very specific perspective. As I've confessed in the past, I'm someone who got away with selling pot in college in a state where I could have gone to prison for that crime for several years. That experience has given me more empathy for people who have committed similar crimes and gratitude for the ways in I simply lucked out.

I've also been fortunate. I've had my car broken into and I've been the "victim" of a minimally violent assault. Once, I caught someone breaking into my house and they ran off. These experiences scared me and changed me in small ways, but I've never been traumatized by an awful, heinous crime. I know that experiencing something like that could change my perspective.

Fundamentally, though, I still think most of us understand that locking a human being in a cage is immoral. We can all hear that voice in our heads, imagine what it'd be like for us, and come to the conclusion that such a punishment should only be reserved for the most dangerous among us. Common sense is all you need to understand why such a punishment doesn't "help" someone or society.

Our issue, more than anything else, is fear. We are afraid of what happens if we show criminals – especially the violent ones — compassion. If we treat them with dignity, like whole people worth saving. We fear that being "soft" on crime will lead to more crime, and we'll end up living in some dystopian country overrun with violence. But for those sentenced to a life in the penal system, they’re already living in one.

The truth is we are not helping ourselves.

Our country is violent, with more crime than we should have, and much of our approach to addressing this fact ends up working against us. A select few have profited handsomely off of our prison system, but it has incurred a massive cost — financial, emotional, and with the very real threat of more crime — on the rest of us.

Alternatives to incarceration can give us more options for punishing crime, strengthen communities, save taxpayer money, improve the economy, keep families together, and reduce future crime. Not only that, but we have evidence these alternatives already enjoy widespread support in certain scenarios. Close to eight in 10 adults believe that alternatives like probation or community service are the most appropriate sentences for nonviolent and less serious crimes, and all we have to do is help people understand these are also effective alternatives for the vast majority of criminals.

Incarceration is immoral. It is ineffective at reducing crime, terrible at rehabilitating criminals, does not make us safer, and is extraordinarily expensive and totally unimaginative. But the good news is that it’s not our only option. The biggest obstacle is us — the people on the outside — coming to understand and believe in the alternatives.

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