According to common wisdom prisons serve several functions. The most important one is to punish people who break the law. The purpose of punishment is not just to seek revenge for people acting badly but also to discourage lawbreakers. The expectation is that someone who is tempted to break the law will think twice for fear of getting caught and being sent to prison for a long time.
Prisons are often called “correctional” institutions. We expect that, during their time in prison, inmates will learn not to break the law again. We expect them to learn to be better persons, better citizens, to learn to control their antisocial impulses, to learn to get along with their friends and neighbors and people at work. Prisons are supposed to “rehabilitate” prisoners.
Prisons are expected to mete out punishment and thereby deter potential lawbreakers and to really train and improve actual lawbreakers. There seems to be no doubt that prisons are important and valuable institutions in our society, well worth the cost of building, and maintaining, and running them.
In recent years, historians and social scientists have looked more closely at the history and functioning of prisons. They have found that the common wisdom about prisons is not as self-evident as we have thought. Prisons have served and still serve quite different functions. It is not as obvious, as it often seems, that prisons are valuable social institutions.
First, let’s look at the past. At the end of the Civil War we passed the 13th Amendment which outlawed slavery. Slavery and involuntary servitude were abolished “except as punishment for crime, where all the parties shall have been duly convicted.” The condition of slavery was no longer legal except in the case of convicted criminals. Former slave owners made elaborate use of this clause in the 13th Amendment. Many southern states passed so-called “Black Codes” – laws for which only black people could be convicted. Thus former slaves, just recently freed from having to work without pay, could now once again be subjected to penal servitude. Black codes made vagrancy illegal. Anyone could be declared a vagrant who was “guilty of theft, had run away from a job, was drunk, was wanton in conduct or speech, had neglected job or family, handled money carelessly of was in other ways, an idle and disorderly person.” Almost any black person could be arrested and sent off to prison. Once in prison, convicts were leased out to private parties. Convict labor, not at all or barely remunerated, produced the bricks that paved the streets of Atlanta, Georgia. Convicts were leased out to cotton farms to do the work they had done as slaves. Convicts worked in mines, built railroads, and worked in steel mills.
In some respects, the condition of convicted laborers was worse than that of slaves. The owner had invested a certain sum of money buying the slave; they were not interested in working the slave to death. The mine owner who leased a convict had no investment in that person and did not hesitate to push them beyond human limits.
The prisons after the Civil War populated primarily by black men did not serve to punish or rehabilitate. They served to produce a new class of quasi-slaves. Their purpose was to provide the cheapest labor possible in order to enrich the capitalist owners of steel mills, coal mines, and other profit-making enterprises. These prisons were difficult to justify. They were racist, unjust institutions in which the state made common cause with large capitalists to exploit the labor of black Americans. There was no possible justification for maintaining those kinds of prisons.
Convict leasing is still being practiced albeit not in quite as brutal form as previously. But inmates of American prisons are producing all kinds of products – license plates are the best-known but not the only ones. For this work inmates may earn two cents an hour or some other ridiculous pay. The purpose of prisons remains the same: to provide free labor to industry and commerce.
In our day, prisons have acquired a new function which has little to do with punishment or rehabilitation. Prisons have become private enterprises designed to make as much money as possible. The more inmates a prison has, the more profitable it is. Private prison companies are therefore lobbying state legislatures to pass new criminal laws, or to increase the punishments mandated for any given crime. The prison companies manage to have more inmates and to keep them for a longer time and the only purpose of those changes is to increase the profit of the prison company. The well-being of inmates, their re-education are of no interest. Profit for private corporations is the only goal.
The common sense understanding of prisons is clearly defective and wildly incomplete. Responding to these facts, a movement for “prison abolition” has become powerful. But the meaning of that term – prison abolition – remains unclear.
The best way of thinking about prisons is to ask ourselves what the purpose of different prisons are. Some of them are clearly illegitimate. Prisons designed to make money for private companies should be abolished. Prisons that provide more or less free labor to capitalist enterprises should be abolished. If prisoners work in prison, they should be paid a decent minimum wage.
Prisons are populated through the so-called “school – to – prison – pipeline.” Students, primarily students of color, are expelled from school for being difficult, they are arrested by police in the schools, and before we know it they are locked up in juvenile detention centers and from there in adult prisons. Prison abolition means, in practice, that this school to prison pipeline must be closed.
Prisons are today used to warehouse patients with mental illness. That is a practice that should be condemned and ended. Prisons are often used to lockup patients with addiction problems. Rich people can go to addiction clinics that charge more than $1000 a day. Poor addicts are incarcerated. Clearly that is an unjust and destructive practice. We need treatment facilities for all addicts who want them.
There is much more to think about. What shall we do with women who have children? When their mothers are imprisoned there is no one to look after them. What does it take to rehabilitate someone?
The role of prisons in our society is very problematic and extremely complicated. Common sense accounts are lazy ways of avoiding this problem.