Archive for prison


Posted in Books with tags , , , , , , , , on May 4, 2019 by xi'an

A very interesting piece about prison abolition in the NYT. Centering on Ruth Wilson Gilmore an US advocate for the abolition of prison sentences and a geographer at Berkeley. Interesting because the very notion of abolition sounds anathema to many and I rarely meet people sharing the conviction that prison sentences are counter-productive, often in a major way. And not only at a philosophical (à la Foucault) or utopian (à la Thomas More) level, quite the opposite in that Gilmore also fight all the myths attached to incarcerated populations in the US, from the inmates being most non-violent drug traffickers to them being relatively innocent, to them being mostly black, to them providing cheap labour… The article also draw a convincing parallel between the sharp rise in incarceration and desindustrialisation in the 1970’s. (And also the rise in the incarceration rhetoric as a political campaign cheap argument.) And the way Gilmore (along with Angela Davis) involves the local communities against the building of new jails based on local needs rather than philosophical or ethical arguments… She clearly has an impact at this local level, but it is harder to see whether the society as a whole is moving towards different and more efficient and more productive ways of handling crime and violence.

prison non-sense

Posted in Books, Kids with tags , , , , on September 20, 2015 by xi'an

“The Alabama Supreme Court ruled in 2014 that the state’s chemical endangerment statute, which was written in part to stop people from bringing children to places like methamphetamine labs, applies to foetuses.”

A few weeks ago I read in the New York Times the case of a woman who was sent to jail for taking drugs while pregnant and then almost barred from her parental rights when she tried to undergo an abortion. And I found this story quite shocking at many levels. First, while I see very little rationale in sending people to prison, this is certainly one of the most absurd jail sentences I heard of (if I understand correctly the story). There is no real debate to have about the fact that exposing a foetus to drugs (incl. alcohol) is running a terrible risk about the health and prospects of the future baby, however once this exposure had occurred, I see no point in a jail punishment, from both mother and future child perspectives. The prison deterrent was clearly not strong enough to prevent the woman from taking drugs during pregnancy.

“…a legal clash had seen the woman go to federal court to assert her right to an abortion, and the county’s district attorney go to an Alabama court to strip the woman of her parental rights over the foetus to block the abortion.”

The second shocking feature in this sad story is the attempt by both jail authorities and the local justice to bar the woman from having an abortion, which would seem to me like the most reasonable course of action given the terrible odds on the physical and mental prospects of the future baby. Which means that those people were taking over this woman’s body and claiming authority over a not-yet-born baby. Given the immense regression in abortion rights across America, this is not highly surprising, alas, but it remains a shock in seeing the denial of this woman’s rights over her body so clearly stated. The third shocking fact in this case is that it did not go to court as “the woman said she had changed her mind and would carry the child.” It is of course her right to change her mind, but I also find it hard to believe she had reached this decision on her own, with no pressure from the prison authorities. And equally shocking the absence of concern throughout about the future of this prospective baby…

revenge, death penalty, prisons, &tc.

Posted in Books, Kids, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 17, 2014 by xi'an

divide1In the latest Sunday Review of the New York Times, the Norwegian novelist Jo Nesbo has a tribune on revenge against misdeeds and law as institutionalized revenge. Somewhat hidden in the current justifications of the legal system(s). (As an aside, he mentions the example of the Icelandic Alþingi where justice was dispensed once a year, resulting in beheadings, stake burnings, and drowning in the pond depicted above…) This came a few days after another tribune on a similar topic by Charles Blow, following the “botched Oklahoma execution of Clayton Lockett”, entitled “Eye-for-eye incivility” (an understatement if any!), and arguing  about the economic inefficiency of the death penalty. Besides the basic moral quandaries of taking someone else’s life, perfectly summarised by Franquin in the following dark strip:

Franquin's piece on death penalty, part of the Idées Noires album...This sequence of tribunes links to one of my pet theories, which is that imprisonment is the most inadequate way of addressing crime and law breaking in (modern?) societies.  Setting fully aside the moral notions of revenge and punishment, which aim more at the victim or victim’s relatives than at the perpetrator, and of redemption and remorse, which are at best hypothetical and inspired by religious considerations,  I do wonder why economists have not tried to come up with more rational and game-theoretic ways of dealing with law-breakers than locking them up all together and expecting them to behave forever after the end of their term. More globally, I find it quite surprising that no one ever seems to question the very notion of sending people to jail. Indeed, it does bring any clear benefit to society as a whole. One of the usual arguments I receive in those occasions is that imprisonment keeps dangerous people away. But that seems a fairly weak notion: (i) most violent offenders are not dangerous in an absolute berserker sense but only because local circumstances made them violent at a given occurrence in space and time, (ii) those offenders are only put away for a while (in most civilised countries), (iii) they are not getting any less dangerous while in prison, and (iv) it does not apply to the vast majority of people jailed. Furthermore, from a pure offer-versus-demand perspective, this may be counterproductive: e.g., putting some thieves away in jail for a while simply gives an opportunity to other thieves to take advantage of the “thieving market”.

The Freakonomics blog has some entries on the topic—somewhat supportive of my notion that most criminals act in an overall rational way for which incentives and decentives could be considered—, but still fails to address the larger picture… I showed this post to Andrew who pointed me (of course!) to his blog, as several entries therein also consider the issue, like this one on the puzzles of criminal justice. Or prison terms for financial fraud? But I would push the argument further and call for an ultimate abolishment of the carceral system, seeking efficient and generalised alternatives to imprisonment. As detailed in this U.N. report I just came across. As I think a time will come when imprisonment will be seen as irrational as witch-burning is considered today.