The situation with US prison system is…inefficient to say the least. We have the highest incarceration rates in the Western world, the death penalty is ultimately more expensive than life imprisonment, and recidivism rates are far too high for anyone to think that our current path is working.
High incarceration rates are not a function of the prison system, but that of the legal system and law enforcement. This will not be discussed in this post.
The high cost of the death penalty is a function of the appeals system, and I’m not convinced that we really want to “streamline” that portion, and I don’t want to get into a discussion about whether we should or should not have a death penalty. Personally, I’m against the death penalty as it’s difficult to completely avoid false convictions, but moreso because (heartless as it may sound) it’s substantially less expensive to keep someone alive in a general prison than on death row through decades of appeals. Suffice it to say the combination of these two factors is more than enough to put me heavily in the “no death penalty” camp.
That leaves reducing recidivism as the topic of this blog post. Interestingly enough, finding good data on if recidivism is something we can reduce is tough. Some studies will correlate a prisoner’s job detail in prison with recidivism rates, showing that the more desirable jobs in prison correlate to reduced recidivism. But it’s also that the longer an inmate has exhibited good behavior in prison, the higher the likelihood he’ll get the desirable jobs. They’re used as incentives. It’s pretty easy to make the case that the individuals who are predisposed against recidivism are those who are awarded the desirable jobs. Without randomly assigning prisoner’s all jobs, the case for correlation, not causation, is pretty strong here.
Other studies try to correlate the crime of the initial conviction with recidivism rates. There seems to be a bit more merit to these studies, but they are by no means definitive. The type of crime committed, and indeed whether one returns to their crime, are often based on economic factors. If the individual comes from a background of poverty with little in the way of legal income alternatives, crime is often turned to. After being released from prison, one usually has substantially less viable employment options (many business owners are quite wary of hiring former convicts).
So, I take the stance that at least a significant portion of recidivism (and indeed the initial crimes) are income related. I believe that most former convicts would choose a legal income over an illegal income, especially after their release, where they can further understand the consequences of being convicted.
But with very few employers willing to give ex-cons a second chance, how can we give these individuals legal income alternatives? Entrepreneurship may be the answer. Currently, prisoners have very little choice in the jobs they work in prison, and they often receive very little compensation for their work. I don’t really have a problem with the low wages (they help offset the costs of running a prison), but it does very little to incentivize prisoners. Often, a prison will have one or two industries they use prison labor for to make money for the prison, such as running a wood shop and selling, for instance, hand-crafted chairs. Profits are pumped back into the prison, and these jobs often offer the most “freedom” for a prisoner and are the most desirable jobs.
But if we know anything in comparing capitalism to other economic systems, we know that centrally planning which industries to be in and which products to produce is inefficient. What if the prisoners got to be entrepreneurs? A prisoner could come up with a proposal for new jobs/industries in the prison and recruit other prisoners to potentially work the new industry. After the proposal is vetted for many factors (safety, escape potential, profitability, etc.), the prison could run on the “shop” on a trial basis. Say, 80% of net profits go directly into the prison system, and the remaining 20% is split among the prisoners working the shop.
This does a lot of things more efficiently. First, more profitable ventures will eventually be discovered and the prison will have increased revenues over time. Second, prisoners’ specific skills could be better utilized. If you have a set of well-behaved prisoners who are adept at precision woodworking for example, employing them in the laundry room is inefficient. Let them form a proposal for creating intricate wood crafts (jewelry boxes, for example), run the business with lots of prison oversight, and utilize their inherent abilities much better. This would also get more money for the prison itself.
Second, prisoners are given the opportunity to take part in the pride of ownership of a business. If your business is successful, that’s something to be proud of. Further, the more successful your business is, the more money you get to buy cheetos or radios or whatever they let prisoners buy in prison.
Third, and the point of this post, is that it increases prisoners’ chances of finding legal sources of income once they leave the prison system. Many will have learned how to start and run a business. Others on how to manage or even just learned a particular skill. But if I’m an employer on the fence about hiring a prisoner, learning that this prisoner was part of a successful startup within the prison system puts more confidence in the individual. He’s learned about business, costs, skills, competition, management, motivation, etc. Plus, his checkered past means I should be able to pick up a qualified individual at a substantial discount. Hard-working, experienced, AND cheap? In any cut-throat industry where margins are slim, that’s an awfully attractive combination.
It’s possible that letting prisoners create and run “shops” in the prison would allow for certain groups to control more power in the prison population, given they may be the gatekeepers to the best (and most profitable) jobs. But I’d argue this would really just be a shift in power. Perhaps less power away from gangs based on race (or whatever gangs are actually based on in prison), and more power to the local titans of industry. But if I’m one of said titans, I have substantially more to lose by abusing any internal power in this scenario. If bad behavior means I no longer can participate in the good jobs and make the decent wages, I’ve got a lot to lose. If I’m leader of a prison gang who makes income from running drugs in prison, even if I get caught and go to solitary, my gang is still making money.
I’m sure there are plenty of holes in this system, but there are plenty of holes in the current one as well. Thoughts?