Let’s start this discussion with a simple axiom: the American prison system is broken. There are significant breaches of justice, atrocious mistakes, and poor conditions to be found in penitentiaries across the country. The recidivism rate is off the charts, and prisons punish more than they rehabilitate.
N.B. – this is an axiom, which means that the objective truth of the statement is assumed, and thus irrelevant to the rest of the argument.
The solution posited most frequently, from a quick survey, involves the elimination of private prisons. This argument, flawed as it is, follows the basic logic of a free market: people (and companies) respond to incentives. These private prisons are paid X dollars by the government, and they then will do their best to minimize their costs to maximize their revenue. Prisoner recidivism is a good that they require: the more prisoners they house, for longer, the more money they can get from the government.
Eliminating private prisons will address this concern. However, the solution replaces one problem for another. Exchanging the brutal efficiency of private prisons for the bureaucratic indifference of state or federal prisons doesn’t seem much better. Surely we must have learned by now that the government can rarely be trusted to do anything efficiently, cost effectively, or humanely. [See health insurance, wars, and the death penalty, respectively.]
Furthermore, the lessons of the infamous Stanford Prison experiment remain: human nature has some vile tendencies. We as a society can try to fight those tendencies through government regulation, but the question always arises: who watches the watchmen?
If, as the free market suggests, it is in human nature to work for self-interest, wouldn’t it simply be more efficient to change the nature of the incentive? Instead of trusting private prisons to be humane, or government prisons to be self-regulated, why don’t we harness the power of self-interest into something worthwhile?
Suppose: all prisons are privatized. For each prisoner who earns a degree (AA or BA or BS) from an accredited online college, the prison gets a bonus. For each prisoner who committed a crime under the influence, the prison gets a financial incentive if said prisoner completes AA or NA. For every legitimate anonymous complaint lodged by the prisoners, the prison is fined. For each prisoner who remains out of the penal system for 6 months after release, the prison gets a token bonus. That bonus is increased for 1 year, 3 years, 5 years, etc of successful life outside of the penal system. For every prisoner who completes vocational training, the prison is incentivized. And, perhaps most importantly, every prisoner who agrees to reside in a state other than the state in which he was arrested gets a personal bonus. This would splinter and break gangs, dispersing their members, influence, and mob mentality to the point of lethal strain. Vicious criminal groups of local offenders (gangs) would be effectively broken if, after a member serves time for an offense, they were sent to Kansas or Alaska or Wyoming to start over. The streets of LA and South Central would change in just a few years.
Violence begets violence. A system which incentivizes healthy living, while penalizing physical aggression and rape, will do more good than any current system. Too often, criminals go from “offender” to “hardened criminal” while they are incarcerated. It’s how they survive, and humans are survivors. What if, instead of a prison hierarchy based on toughness and the ability to survive, residents of the penal system arranged themselves into a social hierarchy based on education? Good grades for early release? Might go a long way towards fixing a system that, by almost any standard, isn’t working.