Mar 192011
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Ask An Anarchist

Ask An Anarchist

Welcome back to Ask An Anarchist. The ongoing series where I respond to questions about anarchist philosophy.

Q) So some small town somewhere started to fine all of their prisoners to pay for the prisons instead of taxes. Say you make 8 dollars an hour at your job then you get put in jail and pay 16 to 20 dollars a day every day you are in jail.
I think this is good because the “criminal” pays for the jails instead of everyone paying for it.
It’s a bad idea for a lot of reasons though. For one, people can’t pay if they can’t work. Also it gives police a reason to put you in jail for 30 days instead of just a ticket. What do you think?

A) This is not nearly as unusual as you might think, and you quickly recognized the largest problems with it yourself.

The problem of incarceration is, IMO, one of the most difficult facing those trying to build or model a truly free society.  Luckily for those trying to spread the message of freedom, and unfortunately for those trying to create such a society, it is one seldom asked.

I think the best way to problem solve in a situation such as this is to look to history to see what has been done in the past.  Prisons themselves are a (relatively) recent phenomenon in human history.  The first were debtors prisons which were populated by those unable or unwilling to pay their debts (hence the phrase “paying your debt to society”).  These prisons went out of style for the very reasons you pointed out: how do you pay your debts if you’re stuck in prison.  The most common solution to the concept of a debtors prison (or the ‘pay your own prison fees’ model) is forced labor.  the prisoners work at some job or another, but instead of the earnings going to them personally, the wages are distributed to their jailers and then the person(s) they have wronged.  This, of course, leads to the second problem you pointed out: it serves the prison more to keep people in then to get the prisoner’s debts paid.

Prior to prisons people were punished for crimes in various ways, with restitution was the most common (and rational, IMO).  Those convicted of a crime would need to make the victims of their crimes “whole” in some way that was either agreed upon between criminal and victim or adjudicated by some authority recognized by both parties.  When the matter of crime in a free society is discussed this is the most common answer given.

However, the restitution model doesn’t address the issues of repeat offenders, those unwilling (or unable) to make restitution, or those who (seem) unable to control their criminal actions.  It also opens the door to the enormously wealthy to essentially harm whomever they like as they will be able to “buy” their way out of any consequences.  This leads us to ostracization and/or public humiliation.  Rapists, murderers and thieves would, in the past be put in the stocks, humiliated in the town square, or have their images posted for all to see.  Shopkeepers would refuse to do business with them and they’d frequently be forced to leave the area in which they committed their crimes.  Of course, that just moves the “problem” into someone else’s back yard.  Although it can also lead to things like the founding of Australia 😉

While I certainly can’t predict exactly how a free society will function I foresee something along the lines of “charity prisons”.  These would look much like the prisons of today, but would be funded through voluntary means.  If someone killed or raped your loved one and whatever justice system was in place decided they should be removed from society wouldn’t you be willing to pony up some cash to incarcerate them?  What if it was a friend that was victimized?  A neighbor?  Member of your church or school?  Combine this with some system of prison labor and I think a workable solution can be found.

I realize this answer seems a bit “weaselly”, but it’s the best I can do right now.  Got any better ideas or know of an article about this very issue?  Let me (and all my readers) know by leaving a comment below!

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  31 Responses to “Should Prisoners Pay For Their Own Incarceration?”

  1. We aspire to a world community without enemy, without war. Man is not enemy of man except through lies of the State and State of the lie. Once violence is chosen as method, falsehood becomes principle. Our direct eyewitness experience. Thanks.

  2. Dear Ask an Anarchist,

    In a job I worked about 3 years ago, I was assigned to spend my work time with a man of about 50 years of age. As a youth, he had been locked in a cupboard for days on end without food, water, or bathroom, and had been repeatedly beaten. Some of these beatings led to severe brain injury, his effective IQ at this point is in the neighborhood of 60.

    He had extreme violent tendencies, and in the two years prior to my coming to work with him, he had gotten a hold of a chainsaw, and gone after a staff support person, hit one in the head with a log, one in the face with a shovel, had gotten a hold of kitchen knives and attacked staff, and would perpetually pace and threaten anyone he could.

    This man had found his way to the facility I worked in not because of his violent tendencies, but because of his sexual issues, he had about a decade ago gotten a hold of a 2 year old girl, and locked himself in the bathroom with her; when the door was broken down, he had his penis out, and a finger in the toddler.

    Currently, under our admittedly dysfunctional system, the cost to care for this man is about $1 million per year, as he is disabled, and has a right to work and earn income, and essentially needs one to one staffing 100% of the time to maintain community safety.

    Working with him is one of the most miserable things you could imagine, I was chosen because I am a 6’7″ 300+lb x-us army urban combat instructor with training in 8 different martial arts, and a very calm quiet demeanor. An average day consisted of trying to diffuse his attempts to start a fight or get worked up to the point of violence ALL DAY LONG. It was torture, and despite my famously slow and mellow temper, at one point I found myself losing control and yelling at him, threatening and swearing.

    My question is this, obviously, our system is flawed, and this situation is ridiculously expensive, and provides to the community as a whole only an illusion of safety. As this man was disabled, we could alarm the door to the outside, but can not lock him in or in any way incarcerate him. Not that incarceration is the right solution either.

    In an anarchist system, where, unless I mistake your intent, no group or individual has the right to inflict violence (castration, death, incarceration) upon a mentally disabled man. How do situations like this get dealt with?

    Obviously, the doctrine of self-responsibility needs to be bent in a case like this, but reasonable solutions for me can only come through socially enforced means.

    Thanks for your time and consideration in response,

  3. They should pay the bulk of the expense. There are endless possibilities on how to make this feasible. Certainly, society suffers their crimes, why should we suffer the living expenses?

  4. I’m interested to hear your take on the ongoing ‘rehabilitation vs. punishment’ debate in correctional circles, i.e. whether the goal of prisons should be to punish or reform prisoners, and whether reform is even possible. How about an article along these lines? Cheers, great blog!

  5. Have a debt system where once the offended earns over a certain amount of money the payments come into effect. Like some of the systems for paying for higher education, loan now and pay when you graduate and get a job.

  6. I think it is a great idea to make prisoners work while in prison and then their wages can be applied to the cost of keeping them there.

  7. Wouldn’t be a bad idea imo.

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