text "prisons are for burning" with a lit match under a guard tower

TALK: “Why We Should Abolish Prisons”

Transcript of talk originally given Feb. 24, 2019

Hi. So, the name of my talk is “Why We Should Abolish Prisons”. I am going to—I didn’t put warning on the announcement, and I should have. There’s going to be some discussion of sexual assault and violence. So, hopefully it’s not gratuitous, but it is kind of necessary to what we’re talking about.

So, as I started doing the research for this, I actually discovered new information—things coming up in the news—and I ended up changing what this subject was going to be about. With your indulgence, I’m actually going to talk about something completely different, which is that, in the People’s Republic of China, they have the largest prison population in the world, and out of every 100,000 adults and children there, about 650 of them are going to be held in some sort of coercive custody. Currently, about double that are going to be monitored by various organs of the nation’s state security apparatus.

While this is something that affects all groups, to some extent, among ethnic Uighurs— among the Muslim Turkic ethnic minority—this is something where they’re going to be about six times more likely to be in a mass re-education camp than, say, a Mandarin, the dominant group. There is about a one-in-three chance that a Uighur man will be seized, confined in a cage, and monitored, sometimes for years. Especially when they’re between the ages of 18 and 29, which is pretty terrible.

Although there are no official sources that keep track of this, private human rights organizations determined that about 465,000 of those that are being forcibly held in the People’s Republic of China have not even had a show trial to justify why their freedom was being restricted. About 350,000 of those that are being held without a trial are not even accused of any violent, antisocial behavior. Primarily, this consists of those who are too poor to bribe a judge with a contribution to an immediate province or locality.

And although this is a pretty massive police state, among OECD nations, only Mexico, Turkey, and Estonia have a higher violent crime rate than the People’s Republic of China, and this is despite the PRC not counting any of the violence that routinely happens within their mass re-education camps. Any statistics, particularly sexual assault, it’s just—it doesn’t exist.

That’s why I think it’s very important for China to reform its mass re-education camps. It needs to do a better job of making sure that they are a little nicer when they seize ethnic Turkic minorities from their homes, and just make it so it’s a little more pleasant for people when they’re forced to be held there, particularly women and children.

Hopefully, all that sounded ridiculous to you; that was the point.

All of those statistics that I just gave were for the United States.

If you map it over, instead of Turkic ethnic minorities, you get Black Americans. Instead of the dominant Mandarins, it’s the whites. It should sound ridiculous to say that “we are going to reform mass re-education camps in China,” but that’s what we often say about prison in the United States. Yet we don’t really think about it that way.

It is my contention that saying “we need to reform prison in the United States” is like saying, “we need to reform the Soviet gulag system”. It’s like saying “we need to reform the Japanese internment camps during WW2”.

Because to be sure, there are, really, some Muslim terrorists that have been caught up in the Chinese re-education camps. There is about 1.5 million people — I think China actually does have a problem with this, right? But, that’s not really an argument. It’s not an argument that the Soviet gulags really did get some capitalists who were counter-revolutionary, when you have millions of other people there as well.

I’m sure Order 9066, that Franklin Roosevelt did, it actually did get some Japanese agents, right? But it also grabbed hundreds of thousands of other people, and this is inherent to the system. So when we say, “What we really need to do in the United States is only grab the people who deserve it, and throw them in prison, and let everybody else out,” there’s not really a way to do that. So you can’t reform a system that is this fundamentally wrong. And this system does not actually help reform any of the people that go into it – I say “any”; it does not reform “most”.

The US Sentencing Commission reports that the recidivism rate of people who go into prisons are about 77 percent. It does not lower crime. That’s because we don’t… this is I guess a bigger leap for most people, because we tend not to think of people in prisons as still being people, right? But the crime that happens to them and the assaults and things should be counted. But it also doesn’t lower crime outside of prisons. It doesn’t deter crime. And it also doesn’t create wealth; it destroys wealth. 

And while we kind of understand that if we target communities overseas, if we go into a place like Iraq or Afghanistan, and we destroy homes and we restrict freedom, and we subject them to violence, it doesn’t make people like us more. It doesn’t actually, in the name of fighting terrorism, lower the chances that someone will agree that you should oppose this state or this occupying force. And in the same way, when our own domestic state violence is seizing people from their homes to be caged in places of brutality, deprivation, and exploitation, it doesn’t make those who are abducted or those who are left behind less likely to engage in antisocial behavior that we then regard as criminal. 

One of the great examples is Louisiana. Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the United States. It is up above 800 people per 100,000 in 2014. That same year, it had the highest violent crime rate in the United States. It’s about 2.5 times more than Washington

Which kind of makes sense, because criminal prisons do not do anything to lower crime any more than debtors prisons do anything to lower debt, right? While it is definitely true that people generally try to avoid debtors prisons because they’re not nice places to be—you know, you’re being forced to be held away from your family in a not-nice place—most people got into debt either because of circumstances entirely beyond their control, or unintentionally. And I would say that’s a better way to view crime, right: crime is a thing that is not usually a result of individual moral failings; it is something that’s more structural and social. 

And at this point, there’s kind of a split, because prison abolition has both a moral dimension that I think could not be clearer, but also an economic one that is fully amoral and still is able to make an effective point. I’m gonna first pursue the economic one.

This comes from Peter N. Salib’s “Why Prison? An Economic Critique”, and in this he says, “The standard law-and-economics view endorses prison as a means of imposing private costs on bad actors, thereby optimally deterring bad acts.” So you’re trying to make people who are committing crime not want to do it, by having some sort of punishment. And what he says is that “prison is suboptimal as a punishment. This is primarily because prison fundamentally replaces private costs imposed via wealth transfers with private costs imposed via wealth destruction.” 

And some of this is intuitive, some of it’s not. If you look at the prison system, what it does is it diverts people first from productive occupations. They could be doing things that make the world a better place ensuring welfare for everybody. Instead, they are put into managing and administrating this inherently destructive system of locking people in cages. And to be sure there are some corporations individually that do profit very well off making inmate uniforms, or providing food services, or the like prison… private prisons themselves. They do make some money. 

But what this is doing is transferring public wealth to a relatively small number of private actors including like prison guards themselves and that number is about $80 billion a year. So we’re spending $80 billion a year on something that is not lowering crime, that is not making us actually safer, and it could be spent on something else. That was from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. 

The Prison Policy Institute puts that number about $100 billion higher per year because it’s also gonna include bail bond companies. It’s also going to include the families that have to pay fees just to interact with their loved ones. It’s about $1.66 a minute to talk to someone who is in certain prisons. And this also leaves out all the wealth that is destroyed by people who have been removed from their own communities and are unable to support their families by working. 

It’s kinda hard to imagine what would be a good estimate of what they would be making, but let’s say, only half the people in prison were making twenty—were employed, once they got out—they made $20,000 a year, that would be $20 billion they would actually be contributing back to the economy to their own communities. And they could also be using that money to repay their victims, or the public. Prisons are destroying their future wealth because convicted felons find it particularly difficult to get work once they get out, even when they’re extremely qualified for it. 

In the really famous version of this, the one that’s like very clear, it’s California firefighters. If you fight fires as a prisoner in California, you risk your life, you get paid, I think it was like, $1.50 a day or whatever it was. Once you get out, you’re not legally allowed to be a firefighter. And that is a barrier that exists in lots of job forms where you have to answer, “Have you ever been convicted of a crime?” And you totally qualify for a job, but now you can’t get it. 

It’s interrupting somebody’s career, someone that might be beneficial to society, and then putting them in a place with lots of professional criminals in a context where your willingness to commit violence is much more valuable than more supposedly appropriate behavior like delayed gratification, communication, and restraint. And it’s worth thinking again about how radical and fast this has been because although our homicide rate right now is about what it was in the 1960s, back then it was about 200,000 people. Now it’s 2.3 million people in prisons. In 1980 when the homicide rate was 10 per 100,000, the number in prison was 329,000. And since then, it’s just gone up and up and up even though the crime rate went down. 

Any choice we have is gonna have a cost involved, but a much more effective allocation of money to reduce crime would be investing in the Environmental Protection Agency. And this sounds like flippant or silly, I know, but around the world, industrialized nations saw a rise in crime from 1960s through the 1990s and then—regardless of what their response was—it halted and went down. And it’s, it seems to be the case that ensuring that we’re not poisoning children with lead, in order to lower their IQ, in order to reduce their dexterity, in order to allow them to have more self-restraint reduces crime. If you have other jobs you can do, if you have other, like, trades or sports, and if you can restrain your ability to want to hurt somebody, that helps you to not like have crime. 

Another thing that has been very effective it seems, is widespread access to reproductive healthcare. Particularly long-acting reversible contraceptives and aboriton access that reduce the number of unplanned pregnancies carried to term. That also reduces the number of children whose parent or parents were not prepared to actually care for them. 

Investing in public education and jobs guarantees, particularly for young men 16 to 30, helps keep them from professional criminality because selling drugs in an open air market is not an actually very good job. I used to be a canvasser, and when you stand outside in the elements and everything, it’s really not fun. Once you get to be a certain age, your back hurts for no reason, you don’t wanna be out there. You get a toothache that just doesn’t go away. And you look around at the Crips and the Mexican Mafia are not known for their comprehensive dental plan, right? You would like to do something else if that was there. 

And then finally public housing, mental health care—these are the things we spend money on the back end by throwing people in prison for public urination or for behaving in a way that’s considered erratic. If we took care of people in a way that allowed them to be treated humanely, safely, and contribute to society, we would probably save money. But again they deserve that care anyway. 

And so there are lots of investors we could make that would increase our public wealth that would make us safer and be more humane. But this all assumes that the prison system has the goal right now of reducing crime or making society a wealthier place in some way, and I would argue that the history of the American prison system is such that a reasonable person cannot come to that conclusion.

This is going to crib a lot from like the Netflix documentary Thirteenth or the Angela Davis book Are Prisons Obsolete? or “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander, but the clause in the thirteenth amendment, “except as punishment for a crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted” has allowed slavery to come in through the back door and be reimposed. 

And you see this a lot in the South: there were prisons, but they were overwhelmingly white up until the American Civil War. And the reason for that was that they talked about how it didn’t really make sense to take an enslaved person and put them in prison because there’s no difference, right? But once you needed to have a labor force and a social hierarchy that was the same, you could start arresting Black men for vagrancy or loitering – mainly in the Spring, and then you’d sentence them all the way through the Fall, and that way your cotton crop could still be raised and exported. Because if they were allowed to work on their own they might make food for themselves and their families, and that couldn’t actually be exported. 

Angela Davis goes into this with the Alabama prison system, and Michelle Alexander covers how in the years following the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act, the end of legal public segregation necessitated new forms of racism to control the same population. And Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy is well known for this: he brought the Republican party—or brought the South into the Republican party, that is—by using dog whistle lines like “forced busing” but also “law and order”. And so prison is really excellent at keeping the fundamental status quo of racial hierarchies and subjugation intact and it’s even better because it’s malleable enough to expand and contract as needed so it can bring in Latinos, and Native Americans, and Muslim Americans, and people with mental health problems. And it can shrink to avoid some people when it needs to. 

And we have people that we can now say “deserve whatever bad thing happens to them” and we just sort of accept this, and we don’t really think of them as fully human or fully deserving rights. Back in, I guess, September of last year [2018], there was a sort of big thing that came out because we left them in the path in North Carolina of a hurricane. And we were okay with them being trapped in cages with flooding waters, not being able to drink or eat, and be in danger because “they’re probably bad people, they probably deserve it”. 

We force people to not get quality healthcare when they’re in prison, or quality dental care, even though they could, because it costs too much money. And they can put up with it, and “they probably deserve it”. 

We force people who menstruate to buy their own pads which cost the equivalent of about a week’s worth of work at 75 cents a day, or to use notebook papers as substitute, or to wear clothes they have stained that they will then be punished for or shamed. And if we have to send somebody to a real hospital—even if it’s because they’re having a baby because a guard sexually assaulted them—they’re going to be handcuffed because we don’t trust them as really being people. 

This is something that we can do because we’ve taken people we don’t like, we’ve made them as vulnerable as we can, and we put them out of sight. We don’t have to think about it, we don’t have to think about them as people, or having real pain, or capacity for suffering. And I can in fact, in some cases, cheer their tortue and abuse. 

Joe Arapaio, who was the Maricopa County sheriff in Arizona, he would brag, and got re-elected several times, about how he would humiliate people by making them wear pink underwear or torture them by having them be out in the desert in the heat without air conditioning, and he was talking about how he was arresting people with racial profiling. With charges that would just be dropped. And we kept cheering him on, because he was being “tough on crime”. 

And we somehow managed to hold in our head the simultaneous idea that prisons are the place that we send the worst people, the most violent, the most awful members of our society to make it safer, and also that these are the most uniquely moral people possible because we can trust them. That if we send somebody we especially don’t like, like someone who is a rapist, someone who abused children, we say, “They know how to take care of those sorts of people in prison, right, they’re gonna take care of it.” And we trust that all of the really awful violent abuse that prisoners are doing to each other, the brutality, is only happening to people who deserve it, and we can trust these people who we cannot trust to get a coffee with or go to work next to. And if we don’t see it, we can imagine it in the most violent and lurid way possible to give us the most satisfaction.

We say, unironically, “I’m so glad that the murderers and the robbers keep the rapists in line,” so we ignore the habitual sexual assault of the incarcerated by each other, but also by their captors. 

When as a matter of course people are—coercively at first, and then ultimately they are forced to be digitally penetrated by a guard to check them for smuggling in some sort of contraband, we say that’s okay. In any other context, you’d call that sexual assault. But in the prison system, we say, “That’s safety, that’s security. We have to keep contraband out.” 

And I think this is all really awful. But what I haven’t gotten to is the objection that I’m sure people have had in their head. 

“So what do you want to do with all the murderers and the rapists and the thieves? You wanna just let ‘em run around free?” 

My answer is that, in our society, because people who are imprisoned are people, we will have significantly less murder, rape, and theft once we get rid of a system where people are locked in cages and then killed because they’re left in the path of a hurricane, letting them drown in Katrina—we’re not sure if 500 people escaped the prison or they died; we just don’t know. 

I think that about 100,000 women and 100,000 children will be significantly safer from sexual assault anywhere else but prison. 

And I think that the people who have to pay all kinds of fees just to do basic human things like hygiene, I think they would have less stolen from them.

But, if that doesn’t sound convincing to you, I also wanna add that we already live in a country where those things are happening. Especially for certain people: certain people can do certain crimes, and certain people who have crimes committed on them cannot expect to have any sort of justice while about 63 percent of white victims of homicide see—well, will have someone arrested for their killing, that’s only 47 percent of Black Americans. So if you’re Black and American and you’re killed in the United States, you have a less than coin-flip chance that anyone will even be arrested for that killing. 

This does not even include the about a thousand to 1,100 extrajudicial law enforcement killings that happen in the United States. We’re not sure about how many happen, nobody keeps track of it. But it seems to be the case that about 2 percent of all law enforcement killings result in an arrest — not a conviction: an arrest. So like, in 10 years, there have been about 3 people who have been actually convicted. 10,000 killings. A handful of arrests. 

And as for sexual assault, the Rape Abuse Incest National Network, it estimates that that out of every 100 sexual assaults that happen, there’s gonna be about 30 that are reported to police, there’s gonna be about 6 that result in arrest of some kind, and then 0.6 percent out of every 100 sexual assaults actually result in someone going to prison, right now. So if we got rid of prison, we’d be giving up the extra 0.6 percent because the other 99.4 already are running around. 

Finally, for things like theft, as a society, we have become accustomed to and we’re okay with WalMart and Wells Fargo and AT&T habitually stealing people’s wages, for tens of billions of dollars. And we find them, and we say that’s nothing. If I stole my boss’s wallet, that would be a crime. But if I shorted on my paycheck, that’s just business. 

So I think we should abolish prison. I think it is fundamentally bad. I think it is actively harmful and it hurts people.

 If you still are not convinced by that and you say, “What do you wanna do instead?” Uh, anything. Anything would be fine. 

If you wanted to go back to the stockades, sure I’m for that. If you wanna ride them out on a rail, I’m okay with that. If you wanna ostracize people. I think honestly that if you’ve been hurt by somebody, being able to see them in a stockade, say, every weekend for a year, and throw rotten fruit at them is kinda nice. I can’t speak for everybody, but if you have been made to feel powerless or hurt, that might be good. I don’t know. 

But it is my argument that prison is so bad that it makes society so worse, we could do anything else. 

That’s why we should abolish prison.

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