Last week, Barack Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit federal prison. It's a shame it took so long, because so many Americans are prisoners, and because so many former presidents probably belonged in there themselves.
Obama's first words on prison reform last week were absolutely right: "We should not be tolerating overcrowding in prison. We should not be tolerating gang activity in prison. We should not be tolerating rape in prison — and we shouldn't be making jokes about it in our popular culture. That's no joke. These things are unacceptable."
Much of the commentariat blames our prison system's woes on the politics of "law and order" from the 1970s through the early part of the new millennium. But what Obama is asking for is "law and order" for our prisoners and prisons. He deserves bipartisan support in this.
On a philosophical level, people who think about prison conditions and sentencing issues tend to divide themselves between retributivists and rehabilitators. Backers of retributive justice believe sentences should be punishing. Rehabilitators believe the criminal justice system should aim to restore criminals to society. I agree with both of them, and think they should agree with each other. I doubt that a convict can be properly rehabilitated unless he is also punished. To punish someone for a crime is to take his moral agency seriously. Taking that agency seriously is a sign of respect not just for the victims of crime, but the perpetrators.
America's prisons cannot possibly qualify as either punitive or rehabilitative. Instead, they are vindictive, chaotic, and degrading. A prison sentence should be the punishment in and of itself. But today, prisoners are expected to cope with unimagined and uncountable horrors. They are incentivized to join gangs. They are encouraged to commit more violence in order to avoid violence. Rape is pervasive and the threat of rape encourages prisoners to submit themselves to other violent men. There is no instance in which being plunged into barely controlled danger, or being raped, can be a just punishment.
The message a prison sentence should send to the convict is that his crime was a grave violation of a just law, and that his punishment may be unpleasant but it will habituate him to a life of simple order. At the end of paying his debt, he'll be restored to full freedom.
Instead, our prison system makes a mockery of the justice system. It says that our laws are a joke since we certainly don't intend to prevent them from being broken even in institutions so closely monitored by the state itself. It tells prisoners that they are human garbage, unworthy of even the most basic respect or safety. The pervasiveness of our jokes about prison rape suggest that we believe that there are some deserving victims of violent sexual assault. There are none. My colleague Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry said it well in a column denouncing prison:
Can there be anything more abject than a society whose police-procedural TV shows include prison rape jokes — and nobody is outraged? Everyone knows that it goes on. Everybody knows that it's endemic... And we joke about it. On those grounds alone, the entire [prison] system deserves to be scrapped.
President Obama has done well to help humanize prisoners. He has emphasized that some receive unduly long or harsh punishments just for being "teenagers doing stupid things" in the absence of real help from functioning families and social institutions. His statement of empathy, that he could have ended up in prison himself, will be used cynically by his haters. It may well reek of sentimentalism even to some of his supporters. But it is a more vivid way of repeating John Bradford's statement upon seeing a group of men led to execution: "There but for the grace of God, go I."
There are all sorts of social, scientific, and even fiscal reasons to justify prison reform and sentencing reform. But the key to gaining momentum in this effort is to remind the public that America's imprisoned are human beings. They may deserve punishment for their crimes, but they do not deserve to become victims of yet more crime.