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: