Budding Abolitionist

By Mike Powers

I was recently rereading an article I'd received from C.U.R.E. (Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants). The author advocated for the repeal of the 13th Amendment, not because he endorsed the next round of slavery, but because it specifically allows slavery as a form of penal correction.

Friends, I am a life-long conservative, and I usually end up so far to the right that telling the difference between a Libertarian and myself is hard labor. I've talked about my "lock-'em-up-and-throw-away-the-key" pre-prison perspective, and I can assure you that I never, in my wildest imaginations, thought I might entertain the arguments of a prison abolitionist. That said, reflecting on the article - which I still find is pretty full of foolishness - I came up with some observations that you might ponder. Before you do anything else, I ask you to discard, for the moment, any preconceptions or prejudices you might have against the idea based on your previous experience with liberals or leftist thinking. I say that, because sometimes, we might have a knee-jerk reaction against a good idea simply because we don't like the person it came from. Believe or not, there was a time in the history of our nation when people would listen to one another and compromise wasn't out of the question. So, don't think of the following thoughts as unacceptable drivel of a tree-hugger. Please think of them, rather, as a sincere proposal to make our nation, to make Texas, a better place to live for everyone. Also, I'm pretty sure the idea isn't near perfect. In many counselors, there is wisdom. Perhaps this idea, with your modifications, could change the world. Now THAT'S radical.

Believe me when I say this, that I don't do it happily. I can't think of one single person, in all of my almost fifteen years of incarceration, who got out and said, "Boy, I sure am glad for prison. It really reformed me." At least, nobody says that in the spirit of meaning that prison was a positive, life-changing experience in their lives. Sure, I meet guys in here every day that will say something like, "Prison saved my life." But what they mean is, "Man, I was on a real bender. My addiction was out of control, and if they hadn't incarcerated me, I'd be dead right now." What they don't mean is, "Prison is where I found the new skill set that I needed to successfully live and thrive in our society."

Worse than that, it seems to my experience that the longer a person stays in prison, the less likely they are to be adequately reformed and adjusted to the experience of life beyond bars. Instead, the longer they stay, the more "institutionalized" they become, and eventually, no one expects they'll be able to survive on the outside. That's depressing.   

Now, if what society as a whole, and you, individually as a tax-payer, really want is to just get rid of the law-breakers once and for all, prison is a terribly inefficient way of doing things. (Although Texas has certainly strived for success.) You might as well bring back the gallows and 01's, Sparky and get on with it. However, what makes many people so uncomfortable with that solution is, a) at the glaring fact we’ve found so many prisoners, even on death row, were, actually innocent of their crimes and punished unfairly, and b) most people feel we've come to a place in the development of our civilization where we can do better than just kill the undesirables. Agree or not, you must admit that both of these arguments are substantial.

Having contemplated the abolition argument thus far, I'm asking you to boldly consider the next step. What would we do if prison was no longer an option? I'm not talking about getting rid of prisons because they're inhumane, either, although it's worth considering this. I'm talking about getting rid of them because they simply don't work. How long would American tax-payers continue to pay for jets that wouldn't fly? Tanks that wouldn't fire? Progressive social justice programs that don't do anything to alleviate poverty but enrich liberal "community builders"? Oh, wait, strike that last example. That's a work in progress. But seriously, why must we keep paying for something that just doesn't work?

Is there less crime? Is prison working so well that the population is shrinking? Is it cost effective? Are there at least a substantial number of success stories we can point to and say, "Well, we should have it for this reason?" Friends, the answer to all these questions is, "No." When you pay taxes for prisons, you're paying for a car that doesn't run, a house with a leaky roof, a canoe that sinks to the bottom of the river. You wouldn't put up with thisin any other area of your work or home life. Why are you putting up with this in an area of your public life that has such grave consequences?

What do you think happens to unrehabilitated inmates when they get out of here? Do you think for one second they go out and get a job and start paying their fair share? Do you think they raise honorable sons and daughters that you'd be proud to have associating with your kids? Do you think they educate themselves on the issues of the day and vote in the best interests of the American society as a whole? Of course, you know the answer. These people go right back out and commit the same kinds of crimes that landed them here in the first place. They hurt the same people. They steal the same money. They break into the same houses. Then, Uncle Sam says, "Hey, I need some more of your money to keep this clown in prison another ten years. Thanks, buddy."

If the thought of that pisses you off, good. It surely ought to. So, I ask you again, what would a United States with no prisons look like. Well, to be perfectly honest, it's hard to imagine. But maybe, just maybe, it might look like rehab, rehab, rehab.

In these writings, I've talked about restitution and the fact it is woefully underused in the modern court system. What if, every time someone stole something, it actually cost them money instead of made them money? Right now, if I steal a car and go to prison, some poor Joe out there is paying for me to have three hots and a cot every day. It sucks for me, and it sucks for him. But, what-if, after being convicted of stealing Joe's car, I was ordered to go to work for the same company he works for with half of my paycheck going into Joe's account until the full value of the car was paid for. There are so many benefits here, they can't all be fully described, but briefly, the criminal sees how hard Joe works for his money, he learns how much it hurts when that money disappears at the end of the week because of another's stupidity, and, to top it all off, Joe has a chance to invest in the life of this guy that once took his car, but might someday be his friend.

I think about exile and how it might be used. The gangster whose repeated use and possession of firearms makes him a liability in our culture might be highly welcomed in a more militaristic society. Let him become a freedom fighter in a third world country. Crazy? Come on, friend. We've been pouring billions of dollars a year down the prison drain. THAT'S crazy.

What if drug and sex addicts got placed in programs proven to be effective over time and reforming antisocial behaviors? Oh, but that costs money, you say. True, but at least its money well spent instead of good money thrown after bad. Contrary to the fanatical rhetoric of politicians trying to get reelected by ever more draconian crime legislation, sex offenders are not "incurable" or "unreformable". Over 75% of offenders who successfully completed a sex offender treatment program had no new offense in the following decade after they were released. That's better than drug dealers or users. That's better than any type of assault prisoners. That's better than even drunk drivers. The ONLY category with a better rehabilitation record was murder committed as a crime of passion, and that category has historically been the lowest to repeat offend.

I also think upon, with mixed feelings, societies of the past that had no prison structure. Native Americans had no jails in their camps, and try as might, I don't recall that they employed capital punishment. It might be worth taking a look at how their society dealt with crime. What of their, more ancient civilizations that didn't have a tax structure that could support mass incarceration? Did they just kill all their criminals, or was there other justice meeted out that could be sustainable in a modern, more empathetic world? Perhaps we could take the useful and weed out the rest.

Whatever is decided, it is time for action. The prison system, especially as practiced in Texas, is broken beyond repair. With so many other battles to fight, we can no longer afford mass incarceration as an answer to crime, and imprisonment doesn't work anyway. All it is doing is creating repeat offenders out of those incarcerated while ushering in a whole new generations of future criminals - kids who grew up with no father while Mom was working all hours of the day and night to support her family. This is a recipe for disaster, and we can't keep it up. Even if we completely dispense with every other argument for prison abolition, even the most ardent, arch-conservative would have to confess that he or she hates paying for government anything that doesn't work. The prison system in America is an insanely-expensive toilet seat for a jet that won't even get off the tarmac. It's not as if there's nothing else to try. There are all kinds of programs and alternate punishments out there that we can explore.

I hear someone say, "Well, can we afford to try this? What if it doesn't work?" Are you serious? That's like saying about your car on the side of the road with a dead battery, Should I use jumper cables? What if the battery blows up?" Yeah, friend, there's a risk, but like grandpa always said, "If it's broke, don't be afraid to break it open and fix it. After all, broke is broke." I'm trying to say that it doesn't matter if the prison system is broke because something is a little off or something is way off. (And it's WAY off, brother. Trust me on this.) It's still broken, and it needs to be fixed. Not having prisons is not a "new" solution. In fact, the penitentiary is a rather new development in culture. For most of the time there has been man, there haven't been prisons. Also, as a believer- in Christ, it's interesting to note that while we are instructed to visit those in prison, we are never told to put someone in them.

Still, probably like you, I think, could this ever really work? What about those really bad guys out there? Don't they need to go away forever? Well, aren't those people doing those things because they're not normal - because they need mental help? Someone that murders and eats people needs more help than anyone else we've talked about so far, and there's no prison official qualified to give that kind of help. That person needs a mental hospital, not a prison bed. Now, if your goal is to rid society of that person forever, then quit hiding behind the humanitarian argument, and fry him in the chair, psychosis and all, but if the goal is genuinely to try and cope with the problems that created the criminal and treat them, prison is the farthest thing from the right answer. It's time to consider prison abolition as a legitimate, feasible answer to this problem. Yeah, I never thought I'd say it either.

The Attorneys
  • Francisco Hernandez
  • Daniel Hernandez
  • Phillip Hall
  • Rocio Martinez