The Case For Sending Everyone To Prison

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Via Jesse Ball for The LA Times

To a nation of jailers:

A notable demand that is made upon the citizens of the United States of America is that of jury duty. Although many despise, hate and avoid it, there is a general sense that the task is necessary. We believe a society is only just if everyone shares in the apportionment of guilt.

To this demand of jury duty, I would like to add another, and in the same spirit. I propose that all citizens of the United States of America should serve a brief sentence of incarceration in our maximum-security penitentiaries. This service, which would occur for each person once in a decade, would help ensure that the quality of life within our prisons is sufficient for the keeping of human beings.

The new population of inmates would not be separated from the general population. They would be like any others, and treated like any others. The length of incarceration would be randomly determined, anywhere from three to 90 days. Crucially, you would not be told in advance how long you would have to be there.

And of course, while you are in prison serving your incarceration duty, your behavior will have to be perfect. If you were to fight with another inmate or rebuke a guard, your time might be extended, and that would go for everyone: peons, aristocrats, elected officials. All elected and appointed officials, judges, federal, state servants, members of the military, would participate in incarceration duty. There would be no putting it off.

Just think, if everyone in the United States were to become, within a 10-year period, familiar with what it is like to be incarcerated, is there any question that the quality of our prisons would improve? It also follows that the skill and understanding of our juries might grow apace, as they would now know to what they were condemning those they condemn.

I understand that people have lives to live, and pressing things that must be done. You consider my proposal and you think to yourself that however nice this sounds, however right it is, you just don’t have the time. But it is my humble belief that our jails and prisons are already full of people who have lives to live, people who have things that must be done. We must homogenize and justify our culture, and everyone must be availed of the opportunities that now only a subsection of our society enjoys. By that I mean: a visit to prison, and a set of coveralls.

I wonder, once all you citizens of the United States are passing in and out of prison on a regular basis, will the conditions there not seem singularly urgent? Just picture congressmen, priests, stock traders, truck drivers, people of every faith, color, description, all for once sharing in something.

Shall we not bring this unspeakably filthy laundry out into the open air?

Jesse Ball is a fellow of the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation. In 2017, he was named one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists.

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7 thoughts on “The Case For Sending Everyone To Prison

  1. Did you just get out of jail or something? That is beyond ridiculous that we should have to ‘serve time’ to analyze conditions. My “service” ends at the jury box and I have served that required disruptive encumbrance.

    There are already layers of people who know the condition of jails and the problems in them. There are also layers of people who work to improve prisoner conditions. If all those people are not doing their job well, then their supervisors should intervene and demand performance or replace them. Plenty of people need a job. Overcrowding is also an issue – maybe too many criminals or maybe too easy to convict or not enough jails. Seems like most of these problems are somewhat connected. Maybe you should consult with the people directly involved in that “industry” if you want to effect improvements. But to suggest that law-abiding citizens put themselves in jails to better understand, that’s asking too much. My job ends at the jury box.

    – Murphy

  2. In part, he writes this:

    “Once all you citizens of the United States are passing in and out of prison on a regular basis, will the conditions there not seem singularly urgent?

    “Just picture congressmen, priests, stock traders, truck drivers, people of every faith, color, description, all for once sharing in something.”

    “Shall we not bring this unspeakably filthy laundry out into the open air?”

    If those citizens, having no experience with “real prisons,” gave it such serious thought, let alone a simple visit to a state prison, or to a maximum security prison, or to take two minutes to look at a solitary cell block, those amongst them who clamor for minimum mandatory sentences as they speak out of their unspeakable orifice, like Jeff Sessions, might hold their tongue forever on the subject. Perhaps the unskilled, like Sessions, who speak regularly about these things, having no personal experience with it, ought not be so reckless as to shove these sentences down Americans’ collective throats, for the impact of the policy effects us all. The fact that he was a prosecutor doesn’t mean he knows anything about it. It only means that in a crude and callous manner he has and continues to contribute to the disaster known as the American Prison System. A system of prisons, buildings, employees, that overflows with corruption, the wrongfully convicted, and which have little concern for the humans held within their walls.

  3. Counterpoint: Don’t send everyone to prison. Prison is for people who have done something wrong. A very small percentage of people who go to prison should never get out. What you need to do is keep people out of prison in the first place through rehabilitation and behavioral therapy. When rehabilitation and therapeutic avenues fail, then send them off to the poke to do a turnaround, or a few years. Once you institutionalize someone for five or more years, the odds of successful re-entry drop.

    Contrary to popular belief, prison doesn’t fix anyone or teach them a lesson. If a person is angry going in, they’re generally angry coming out. Anyone that has ever been around a dog that’s been beat can tell you that. Keep people out of prison, show them humanity (even if you don’t think they deserve it) and prioritize community safety, then re-integration. We should have a prison population one-tenth the size of the one we have, but people parrot dumb-ass ideas like ‘Play stupid games, win stupid prizes’ and whatever Wilson is talking about.

    I know a large number of felons and ex-felons. They all paid taxes, unless they were so poor that they never had to. More than a handful served in the military, and quite a few of those guys have untreated (or self medicated) PTSD. It’s bad form to make a flippant remark about paying taxes and then scuttle off to hide under the bed.

  4. Ok, here’s a real current event that is a great example of all the failures. So read the article and come back for the rest of my comment!
    https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/05/nyregion/ex-prisoner-alexander-bonds-officer-miosotis-familia.html

    First, based on the quotes of Bond speaking, he received a embarrassingly horrible education and until or unless he could clean up the Ebonics he had less than a good chance of getting a job to keep him off the streets and away from gangland behavior. Secondly, two prison sentences described and the guards and other inmates continued to add to his woeful life. Certainly not mentioned in this article if there was any training, education, or psychological intervention that may have helped him get a hand up to perhaps a better future once out of jail.

    At some point in his life it was recognized he was bipolar – I understood that was before any of his prison time. It also indicates a family history of mental illness and a disjointed family unit and he was eventually put on meds for his bipolar issues. Clearly he did not adhere to the prescription requirements (no surprise) and long story ended up in jail twice for crimes and admitted very violent behavior.

    Time served and he is released. The article will tell you little other than he got a grip on life, had a girlfriend, had a job, had an aunt, had a medical relapse and back into a hospital for treatment; had been out of the hospital a week and was clearly not well, walked up to a female police officer sitting in her vehicle and shot and killed her. Police then shot and killed him after a pursuit.

    So, tell me please, at what point in this man’s life was he salvageable? Someone was too busy to do a better job when his family was torn apart, when he fell into a little gang of bad teenagers, one of the two times he went to prison, the prison attendants and system, any of the medical attendants dealing with his mental disorder? Even more important – the life of the female cop, mother of 3, would still be alive.

    No, a citizen checking into a prison cell to experience the problem……. just plain stupid.

    – Murphy

  5. The United States has 5% of the population of the world, but it has 25% of the prisoners in the world. The rate of imprisonment in the US is much higher than in Canada or in any western European country. It is even higher than in repressive countries such as Russia.

    The rate of imprisonment in the US seems to be increasing. If this trend continues, perhaps most or all US citizens will eventually get a chance to be in prison.

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