U.S. Prisons, Punishment and Poverty

The majority of people in prison are poor. Why is that? Most perpetrate crimes while young. Youth hadn’t the time to become established and save money in comparison to older people. Sometimes they choose crimes for profit. Civil law, common law and customary and Islamic legal systems; there are several forms through which socieities seek justice. Africa alone has 3000 tribes, 1000 languages and a mix of legal systems. The U.S.A. has a common law and adversarial legal system rather than a civil systems loosely derived from Rome whereby a magistrate is judge and prosecutor. The U.S. system of an adversarial prosecutor covers fewer than 20% of the people of the world, yet it has evolved to a reasonably conservative compassionate status compared to what went before yet it has a long way to go to increase its efficiency at finding the golden means of justice for all.

Youth may lack good avenues for non-criminal progress living in poor social environments. Poor social environments may have higher crime rates and illegal drug use as aspects of their street economics that are lacking from affluent neighborhoods without criminal gangs.

At Rikers Island N.Y. 80% of the incarcerated are awaiting trial. That is, they haven’t been convicted of anything. Half of the incarcerated couldn’t afford a bail of $1000 or less. 

The poor may have no comparable ability with the prosperous to afford competent legal representation. Court fines and cost may be trivial to the prosperous and debilitating to the poor. Far too many vulnerable and even socially incompetent people perpetrating misdemeanors may be incarcerated to the cost of society and themselves. Plainly a separate system of corrective remedies for the lowest classes of misdemeanors that do not require incarceration should replace more harsh and ineffective corrections structures. Public service instead of fines and detoxification instead of jail are two obvious courses to pursue that would perhaps save public expense.

Incarcerated prisoners experience some of the depersonalization of military inductees with their private life and identity removed to a certain extent by rude and impersonal treatment. Having one’s freedom taken away is a drastic response by society to crimes against other people. That wasn’t too well noted by the empaneled round table. They have no right in that traditional criterion to expect any family life at all as if they were checking into a hotel. I am sure a better system could and should be designed, yet that it still the underlying premise. They have no more rights than when the sovereign throws a prisoner under a trap door in a dungeon crawl space in the darkness (as at Warwick castle). I am sure the courts have enumerated the rights of prisoners as citizens yet I just don’t know what those are really. I guess they might be limited to things like guards cannot commit crimes on prisoners.

Plainly society has allowed prisons to exist that allow prisoners (and some guards) to commit crimes on other prisoners. I would think that the state could be sued for making prisoners subject to crimes by other prisoners in a reasonable criterion, yet since they obviously haven’t the prisoners must have so little rights as citizens that they cannot expect to be free from violent crimes enabled by the state in that has every reasonable expectation that any given prisoners has a very good chance of being made a victim of crime even with grievous bodily harm.

Prisoners may be transferred as guards or administrators deem without notice or consent of the prisoners. Perhaps that is not only to destroy any sense of personal security by to prevent possibility for designing an escape plan.

Compulsory naked inspections by guards would tend to damage an inmate’s psychological sense of security in person-hood. That could affect behavior of prisoners upon parole as they may have been conditioned to treat other people with a similar degree of disrespect, or perhaps a higher degree of disrespect than those that weren’t incarcerated. It does at any rate seem a somewhat sado-masochistic perversion that should be avoided if possible with some sort of evolution to a security system that does not require human contact (indirect electronic and camera viewing for authority audiences to assure that there are no weapons or dope under the nutsack.

In reading the Gulag Archipelago of Solzhenitsyn I found the conditions were far more harsh than that of U.S. prisons generally-especially the initial arrest and interrogation at the Lubyanka. In the Kolyma District prisoners were stacked outside the transit hut like cord wood after freezing to death. Crowded into a space without room to sit down and with the temperature about -45 f and wearing like clothes without coats and half starved the prisoners were offered cold salt herring to eat. Those that ate the fish became thirsty and drank ice water, and that temperature lowered their marginal body core temperature and they died of hypothermia and were piled outside.

One needs to value the comparative better state of U.S. prisons to many of those around the world. Later I will quote from a book about African prisons.

Psychological torture at the Lubyanka included the routine practices of cold concrete floor and no furniture, being doused with ice water, being forbidden to sleep and things as trivial as not being allowed to put hands under ones blanket if given a bunk and blanket. Lights might never go off, and if they did be turned back on if one fell asleep. Of course beatings were given to encourage confessions. There are innumerable methods for psychological torture in and out of prison by both legal and illegal authorities I suspect.

Incarceration is a dumbing down environment as well as a sobering up (for some). The court costs for pre-trial time were hidden for me and seem absurd; the arrested did not choose to be incarcerated and should not be responsible for that even if found guilty later. The debt presumption seems consistent with a free market system however that system presumes a free rather than a duressed contractual relationship.

The incarcerated suffer high social opportunity costs (an economics concept) rather than correction in some cases. I think it worth reminding that not all of the arrested are the same socially or behaviorally. It is true that many may be poor, yet poverty is a condition of the young rather than the old generally, at least at the start of adult life, so the arrested who happen to be under 35 and delinquent from work and stable environment may be young and poor logically.

The prison system can’t fix a badly designed economic system that permits poverty to exist, yet neither should one blame poverty for the choices people make to use drugs, alcohol and commit crimes. Marijuana and meth each cause brain damage to some extent. Laws to prevent that and encourage people to benefit society rather than to be degenerate and contribute to social decline are worth keeping. Some of the young don’t realize that life is not just partying. It is necessary for the poor to eschew drugs and alcohol entirely, keep one’s wits about and get a job. When they don’t they may steal to pay for addictions that those already prosperous have no trouble affording.

A society that does not encourage employers to hire those out of work longest with tax credits cannot be serious about reducing poverty . Pre-trial incarceration, money bail and plea bargaining were the three biggest challenges that one public defender mentioned as problem, and they are related to the poverty of those incarcerated. To some it is evident the poor aren’t able to afford adequate and equal legal rights of defense as those not poor.

I was reading about prison conditions in Africa in order to be able to make some comparison with those of the United States. Africa like South America generally has a higher murder rate than the U.S.A. yet with a lower incarceration rate. Probably they lack the will or financial capacity to expand prisons some of which, like those of Portuguese Angola were built long ago during the colonial era, from 1570 and likely need to be replaced.

Following is a description from the book Crime and Punishment around the World, Volume 1: Africa and the Middle East; of prison conditions in Angola (in 1995)- (quote from page 6 on Angola)- “Most of these facilities are overcrowded with substandard conditions. Though prison conditions vary widely, some of these conditions include poor diet, sanitation, and medical facilities; prolonged interrogation, beatings, torture, and inhumane treatment; curtailment of visits by family and friends arbitrarily; and holding inmates incommunicado or moving them from one prison to another without notifying the family.”


People certainly do not want criminals running amok, yet one neither wants injustice to prevail such that poor people are locked up so people can have jobs in a system that requires that a pool of people be input and held like cattle for profit. Neither should parole conditions be unrealistic such as expecting that those released into a sub-zero city without possibility of work should be required to remain in that area instead of someplace with moderate temperatures.

Finally,if one wants to keep the poor from being drafted into the prison system there must be better odds for staying out of it through quality employment with good-paying jobs and affordable places to live that don’t require a lifetime to afford.

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