Prison Risk

As sites of governmental authority, prisons destabilize Weber’s definition
of the state as the monopolist of violence. In prisons, the monopoly is
suspended: anybody is free to commit rape and be reasonably assured that no
state official will notice or care...

There's a fascinating piece in the latest n+1 about the offset risk of the US' exploding prison population. It parallels the tactics of moral hazard unwittingly adopted by the financial services with the increased concentration of crime inside the 'hyperhell' of incarceration. Beginning by highlighting the significantly lower crime levels that former hotspots now experience it quickly explains that the zero-tolerance policies adopted by many states result in relatively minor criminals being locked up with sociopaths and murderers in 'a system of state-sponsored suffering as vicious and widespread as any in human history.' This very specific legal space, at once above and below the law and beyond the cares of greater society, tucks away from the eyes of the public 216,000 victims of rape, out of control suicides and a population that has quadrupled since 1980 to become the fourth largest concentration of individuals in the US.

Much of the article concentrates on the rape statistics of the prisons - arguably the largest rate of rape per capita and potentially the only social structure where the vast majority of victims are male. Shocking though this is, the article is most poignant when Glazek talks about the contributing factors of this concentration of violence: How it began after the Vietnam War with the rise of crack and the political and public fear the media whipped up for it, the growth of suburbanisation and the concentration of disparate and desperate minorities in urban centers with law makers and enforcers too prejudiced and careless to develop real solutions beyond hiding culprits from the wealthy, white commuter classes.

But as the US' romance with maximum security incarceration grows, so too does the risk of institutional violence. Studies show that as freedom is restricted, violence and anti-social behaviour increases making the prisons the focal points of brutality and violence that was once equally spread across America's streets.

On the other hand, maximum security prisons are also distinguished by their willingness to put inmates into solitary confinement for extended periods of
time, sometimes decades. Many psychologists now believe that such a long period
in solitary inevitably leads to insanity. On the plus side, those prisoners will
not get raped, or at least not by inmates.

Essentially, the author argues, the US has created a sanctioned siphon for society's ills. For example, something as simple as a graffiti charge might result in a long sentence, victimisation at the hands of inmates and upon release, societal expulsion - a loss of education and employment prospects and so a return to potentially more severe crime. The prison system is seemingly built not to encourage reform, progression and change but to concentrate society's ills on the shoulders of a measurable and forgotten part of the population.

By 2008, the finance sector had managed to offset the hazards of unmanageable liability and leverage onto the shoulders of the indebted suburban classes that the prison system was designed to protect. Correcting the imbalance cost jobs, lives and a much-publicised $500bn bailout package. Simultaneously, the cost of maintaining the illusion of crime free streets costs the US taxpayer $200bn a year. The money in the prison system funds the feedback loop of crime that drives the population of the incarcerated to the levels now causing concern to government planners.

An ever-increasing share of domestic discretionary spending, it would seem, is devoted to building and staffing earthly hells filled with able-bodied young men who have been removed from the labor force. If we added up all the money federal, state, and local governments invest in the poorest zip codes through credits and transfer payments—food stamps, Medicaid, teacher salaries, et cetera—and balanced that against all the value the government extracts from those zip codes through sin taxes, lotteries, and the incarceration complex, we might well conclude that the disinvestment outweighs the investment.

What of the statistical impact of this vast, hidden populace? The Three-Fifths Compromise of 1787 allowed slave owners to treat each slave as three-fifths of a person for legislative and tax purposes. Today, each of the nation's 4.3 million prisoners counts as an individual. Most prisons are in rural areas, and the forced relocation of vast numbers of right-less, voice-less populations to these previously politically weak areas has led to an influx of public money and power simply because of the spending power each inmate theoretically and statistically represents.

Towards the end of the article, Glazek posits solutions to this crisis. He says that the US as a whole should shoulder and spread the risk. Statistically, it's the low-priority offenders that are worst victimised by the current system and forced into the cycle of violence it breeds. For instance, most death-row inmates are there on murder charges, but homicide is one of the least repeatable crimes in that, for example, you can only murder your wife in a fit of passion once. Gun control, drug control and the death penalty are all popularly discussed but difficult and politically charged areas and so the crux is in the simplicity of the idea he presents: Release the prisoners.

Without the 'ping-pong' cycle of violence and court hearings, public money for education and health care would rise and with it the standard of living. Children in urban poor areas would grow up with fathers, and as long as the free population was willing to shoulder the pain of the risk associated with the less intrusive legal structure a balance would quickly settle and crime rates would naturally self-correct.

Glazek proposes that what the US is experiencing now is a feedback crisis, the concentration and level of violence will only continue to escalate in line with current policy to even greater unbalanced and unsustainable levels. Much like in 2008 before Lehmen imploded, we can see warning signs of a critical collapse; numerous legal cases of inhumane treatment, growing media attention and the panic of lawmakers at over-crowding.

In 2011, the state of California was forced to release 45,000 prisoners, due to over-crowding. It achieved little press but caused a quiet revolution in legal circles. Statistically, within three years two thirds of the 45,000 will be back in prison, but if they aren't it will mark a sea-changing experiment in the way the US thinks about crime and punishment.

Abolishing prisons and releasing all the prisoners would amount to a deregulation of criminal punishment. It would mean letting the private sector determine how best to prevent ourselves from getting robbed. In high finance, the laissez-faire approach has proved to be a disaster; for petty crime, it would be a boon.