Monday, November 19, 2007

The Energy Vortex

A recent report recommends overhauling the "costly and harmful failure" that is our prison system. Not exactly new news. As can be common with this kind of report, which is based on research by experts at universities across the country, the findings are at odds with the public consensus regarding punishing crimes, and the legislative consensus regarding the war on drugs. As best I can tell, that attitude is that drug using criminals are dangerous to society -- their threat should be incapacitated and the individuals themselves receive their just desert.

About two weeks ago the 1L criminal law classes visited California penitentiaries. I was one of the few students who had been inside a prison before (no, never as an inmate), so I was more prepared than some of my peers, whose reactions ranged from disturbed shock (appropriate) to jocular insensitivity (disturbingly shocking).

What I saw was less the system of justice or threat-mitigation our legislators seem to envision than a colossal waste of resources. The lights run 24 hours per day. So do the heaters, the fans, the guards, the gates, the cameras.... It was like a gigantic, gated energy vortex, where the intellectual power of the state stood gridlocked against the creative genius of the inmates. Every camera, procedure and lock seemed to have its foil. A basement room displayed a wall of hand-fashioned weaponry ranging from the rather predictable 11 inch knife smuggled from the kitchen to the startlingly lethal looking daggers made from Styrofoam cups, to hand-made syringes, to a can-opener device an escapee used to cut his way through the roof of the laundry truck on the interstate. There was a cruel, clever genius of both sides of the fence: the guards seemed to take some pleasure in the tightest "rubber glove security measures" and the deviously clever inmates seemed able to find a way around them, all with no resolution in sight. Meanwhile, you and I bankroll the whole process.

I don't have many answers, and I don't have much to offer except my discomfort with the waste. But it seems like there must be something better we could do with all that energy.

As a fellow student said: If the world was going to end and I had to pick three people to take to a new planet with me, I sure wouldn't choose any of you law students -- I'd take a San Quentin prisoner.

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UPDATE:

Thought I would also share this interesting perspective on the Supreme Court.

8 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I left with the same impression. But what other options are there? We need a brilliant young Boaltie (or Richard Epstein) to calculate the dollar cost of American prisons and balance it against the dollar cost of reduced sentencing. It might just be a wash.

11/19/2007 9:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Three people to populate a new planet? I'll take Swift's son, and leave the other two behind.

11/19/2007 9:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'd hardly say there is a public and legislative consensus that the war on drugs is just. Plenty of inmates deserve to be incapacitated, but our sentencing schemes are out of control.

If you're interested on California's 3 Strikes law and why there have literally been thousands of legislative bills in the last 15 years ratcheting sentences upward, pick up Joe Domanick's book, Cruel Justice: http://www.ucpress.edu/books/pages/9684.html
It's a quick read (written by a journalist) and gives stories like the guy who got caught shoplifting a children's DVD and was sentenced to 25 years (it was his third strike).

11/19/2007 4:16 PM  
Blogger tj said...

Not to hijack a co-blogger's post, but I was going to post today following the NY Times article regarding the deterrent effect of capital punishment. Click here for the link.

Given the closely related topic, is there anyone that wants to comment upon the issue?

11/19/2007 4:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Speaking of prison, can we get Cafe Zeb to turn off the annoying and cheesy Christmas music? At the very least wait until AFTER Thanksgiving.

11/19/2007 5:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Listen, Ebenezer. Some of us like the Christmas music and thinks it makes a crappy day at law school a little better.

11/19/2007 5:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So download some nice Christia... I mean, Christmas music, 5:26PM, and plug in your earbuds. But I don't want to listen to McCartney's "Wonderful Christmas Time" every time I walk into Zeb. I mean, I love the Beatles and all, but that song is horrendous.

11/19/2007 6:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

6:41's stocking is going to be full of coal!

11/19/2007 8:18 PM  

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