Within the briefest of respites from more formal academic matters, I started reading, as promised, Why Marx Was Right. I haven’t taken this break from reading to write about the book, however, but rather to reflect on an anecdote that Terry Eagleton offers on pages 75-76. Reacting to his own statement that “Some leftists will be disappointed to hear that not having to work does not necessarily mean lounging around the place all day smoking dope,” he writes:
Take, as an analogy, the behavior of people in prison. It is fairly easy to say what prisoners get up to throughout the day because their activities are strictly regulated. The warders can predict with some certainty where they will be at five o’clock on a Wednesday, and if they cannot do so they might find themselves up before the Governor. Once convicts are released back into society, however, it is much harder to keep tabs on them, unless the tabs are of an electronic kind. They have moved, so to speak, from the “prehistory” of their incarceration to history proper, meaning they are now at liberty to determine their own existence, rather than to have it determined for them by external forces.
I take Eagleton’s point and offer some insight. It is, in fact, not always “easy to say what prisoners get up to throughout the day” because, at least in my own professional experience, prisoners have a great quantity of free time. Anecdotally speaking, because I have no empirical data to support it, it appears to me from direct observation that most of that free time is spent in unproductive activity — unproductive, at least, from the normative view. Many inmates do have jobs, but the disposable income those jobs give them access to is usually spent buying items from the canteen vendor in order to gamble, pay off gambling debts, buy favors, or obtain whatever contraband they can get their hands on.
The point is that there are no incentives for productivity in prison. So long as inmates, by and large, obey the rules (or avoid getting caught), which consist of things like not fighting, not being in possession of contraband, not gambling, etc., they’re pretty much left alone. That doesn’t mean they don’t have choices. They can go to the gym. They can go to chapel. They can participate in certain behavioral modification programs supplied by certain vendors provided by grant money that, in all honesty, are of questionable efficacy. But there are few incentives to be productive in any meaningful sense of the term.
Prison, it turns out, is much like Eagleton’s leftist characterization of not working by lounging around all day smoking dope — sometimes literally. So when these people are released, what are they most likely going to do with their now unstructured free time? Of course, they’re most likely going to engage in the same kinds of activities as when they had “structured” free time. They’re going to earn enough money, whether legally or illicitly, to gamble, pay off gambling debts, buy favors, and obtain whatever contraband they can get their hands on. And if they can do it by mostly lounging around all day and smoking dope, well, that’s exactly what they’re going to do.
And just as in prison, these people are going to avoid the appearance of rule-breaking as long as they can. Until they get caught and wind up back in prison, doing the same things they did the last time they were in prison, which is also largely the same things they do outside prison.
Is it any wonder the nationwide recidivism rate in the United States stands at 76% within five years of release?
These aren’t the only factors, of course. But they are some brief observations that few are either willing or able to make about our correctional methodology. This isn’t an attempt to offer any answers — although I could think of a few — but an attempt to ask questions.
As a small-L libertarian, I often contemplate the possibility of a coherent libertarian theory of penology. Eagleton’s anecdote has me thinking about some possibilities. And they start with incentives that encourage people released from prison to, in Eagleton’s terms, keep tabs on themselves rather than putting the state in a position to keep tabs for them.
I’m suspicious of any government-sponsored force unless it’s justified. We justify forcing people into incarceration for their failure to live according to social and legal norms. But during incarceration, our methods only reinforce the behaviors that justified the force in the first place. We should see a problem with that, regardless of political ideology.
It’s not just a waste of time and money, but it’s a waste of human lives.