brown brick wall

A Worthy Death

I am unashamed of my extremism. I firmly believe that the institutions of “criminal justice” in our country are medieval holdovers unworthy of continuation. If I were king of everything, the first thing I’d do is begin the work toward eliminating prisons and police in every county and jurisdiction. The reason is simple: whatever it is we think we are doing with these unwieldy tools can be done better with specialists who won’t dehumanize people. 

How many people have been convicted and imprisoned for theft? If these people had access to UBI, health care, and education in the first place, how many of them would have needed to steal? How many people are in prison for violent crimes? If they had access to mental health care, supportive community housing, and opportunities to work, would they have committed their crimes in the first place? 

If we can admit that the vast majority of prisoners are victims of economic inequality, racist social policies, and generational trauma and understand that what they need is help before things get so bad that they need to steal or kill, then it follows that most of the people in jail today, if given appropriate social and community support that allowed them to heal and rebuild their lives, could be constructive members of society. 

We spend a lot of money to warehouse people. It turns out that it’s actually a lot cheaper and better for the overall economy if housing, health care, and education for everyone is already a given. Inasmuch as investments in welfare and education are preventative of a host of social ills at a fraction of the cost of dealing with the problems, we are being “penny wise and pound foolish” by paying a fortune to put people in prison for problems we caused by being too cheap on the front end.

So many of these people end up working as slaves for private companies that profit, tax free, from their labor. This is a fundamental reason why so many states in the South have such a large prisoner population, as it benefits their local economies to have both the guard jobs and the slave labor. We are throwing away some of our best resources so that a handful of well-connected companies can get away with using slave labor.

There are those whose crimes were so heinous, or whose continued behavior so foul, that we would not dare release them into the world. For such individuals, I’m strongly in favor of a death penalty option. Warehousing someone with no hope of release is cruel for however long they live, but execution puts an end to the cruelty quickly. I think it would take a radical resocialization to cause such people to reform, and this might be helpful in countries that have less concern about the moral implications of radical resocialization, in ours, we are left with the choices of warehousing or killing them.

In our existing system, people who commit terrible crimes are put into a population with other equally deplorable folks, with the admitted expectation of violence being committed upon all of the prisoners by guards and other prisoners. The Canadian pig farming serial killer died in prison this week from injuries in a fight with another prisoner. This guy’s story is exceptionally awful, and he was never going to leave prison outside of a bodybag. 

Was this a worthy death?

Quite a number of US citizens would feel that this death was justified as an extrajudicial punishment meted out by virtue of putting them in prison. There is so little expectation by Americans of actual reform from anyone who goes to prison that this is considered a positive result. We can feel happy that our problem has been taken care of inside the context of social expectations, without getting our hands dirty, and the instrument of our retribution was a throwaway person anyway. Mission accomplished!

But you see – this is wrong. You do see how this is wrong, don’t you? Mr Pig Farmer there was until recently a living human being, deserving of some rights. The court named his punishment as a lifetime of incarceration, not capital punishment. The fact that he was killed in prison by another prisoner means that the state abdicated its responsibility for the life of that citizen at the moment they were committed to prison. We shouldn’t allow this, no matter how awful the person was. Either the state commits to killing their prisoners outright, or actively works toward their healing and reformation. To put them in a cage for their lifetime is cruel. 

A recent court case ended in the 34-count conviction of a man both famous and reviled. Should he end up in jail? Besides the host of legal issues involved, and questions about Secret Service would handle his security in prison (would there be an agent in the cell, or stuck in the hallway in a prison?), there’s the simple issue that sending someone to jail is typically viewed as a punitive retribution instead of a corrective action. This is part of what makes sex assult and death in prison acceptable, even as the punchline of a joke. Do we send an 77-year-old man to the same confinement we use for rapists and killers, and if so, how do we rationalize any harm that would come to him?

Perhaps one may argue that the object of prison is rehabilitation. If that is the case, then why is it we assign different prison lengths to different crimes? Do murderers stay longer than thieves because it takes longer to teach remedial liberal arts to murderers? Or perhaps they get a special class in how not to kill people? Or is it because prison isn’t rehabilitation, but retribution, and some crimes are worthy of more retribution than others?

black and brown pigs on grassfield during daytime
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And if anyone objects to putting this small-handed man in jail because of the violent retribution it often renders, what makes it ok for anyone to have to suffer this? If this old man dies due to jail violence, would it be a worthy death?

If retribution is your goal, let me stop you right there. It’s not helpful. It doesn’t return lost funds or bring back the dead. It doesn’t “send a message” or “pay a price” or “act as a deterrent”. As a response, retribution isn’t moral but selfish. It’s an emotional reaction to a feeling of personal injury. While this is understandable, it’s not what we should have institutionalized. 

People who don’t get needed help through social mechanisms will work outside of social boundaries to get what they need. The idea that people would politely stand aside and starve to death rather than ignore a few laws can only be held in bad faith. We should expect that people will do anything they can to survive. Thus putting someone in prison for not wanting to starve is cruel. Why are we not holding elected officials responsible for underfunding social services and not providing a more generous welfare net? These changes would keep a lot of people out of jail, and isn’t that what you should want?

I realize that living in a country that allows private individuals to profit off of the slave labor of prisoners means that there are people who are strongly incentivized to oppose any efforts to reduce the use of prisons or police. I realize that living in a country that allows both privatized jails and loan shark bail bondsmen means that there are, in fact, a lot of people who want the jails to be more full. They don’t see prisoners as people, but as profit. For folks such as these, they’re not really interested in reformation or improving the situation for people caught up in the criminal justice system, as they profit off it handsomely now. 

Being in prison is traumatic. Being systematically abused is traumatic. Being victimized is traumatic. Having your privacy violated is traumatic. Prison is designed to reinforce these traumas on an hourly basis. Prisons traumatize the families of prisoners who have to carry the burden of shame that their father/brother/son was in prison while they suffer the loss of income to the family budget and the loss of physical interaction that helps children grow without the trauma of separation. Prisons traumatize whole communities that find themselves without husbands, fathers, and sons. Trauma like this can be carried from generation to generation. 

We know now that extreme physical and mental degradation comes from trauma. We have literally caused dysfunction and reduced the lifespan of every person we have sent to prison in our burning thirst for retribution. Should we imagine that our goal in putting someone in prison was rehabilitation, we should now have to first heal them from trauma in a place that doesn’t further traumatize them before we can talk about dealing with whatever the original issue was. We would have to start by taking them out of prison so they can heal from the trauma of being in prison.

We need to avoid sending people to prison and come up with new ways to come to terms with the results of violence and loss that doesn’t simply traumatize more people. We need to stop depending on police to do things they are untrained for and incapable of managing, like social services, and instead fund programs that help people get the resources they need. We need UBI, single-payer health care, and universal college education and workman training so that people don’t have to be born into panic, wake up in panic, go to sleep in panic, and die in a panic. That is not a worthy death, and we can do a lot better than that. 


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