A Culture Of Cruelty

Atul Gawande’s long article on prisons and solitary makes for disturbing reading:

Prison violence, it turns out, is not simply an issue of a few belligerents. In the past thirty years, the United States has quadrupled its incarceration rate but not its prison space. Work and education programs have been cancelled, out of a belief that the pursuit of rehabilitation is pointless. The result has been unprecedented overcrowding, along with unprecedented idleness—a nice formula for violence. Remove a few prisoners to solitary confinement, and the violence doesn’t change. So you remove some more, and still nothing happens. Before long, you find yourself in the position we are in today. The United States now has five per cent of the world’s population, twenty-five per cent of its prisoners, and probably the vast majority of prisoners who are in long-term solitary confinement.

It wasn’t always like this. The wide-scale use of isolation is, almost exclusively, a phenomenon of the past twenty years. In 1890, the United States Supreme Court came close to declaring the punishment to be unconstitutional.

Prison reform is a serious sleeper issue in this country and it’s a cause I’m glad to join Glenn Reynolds in supporting. We have become unbalanced between necessary punishment and casual cruelty. And no fight against torture of terror suspects can ignore the culture which allowed it to seem almost unexceptional. Ross takes a few shots at fellow conservatives:

…as you might expect, a policy turn undertaken during a period of emergency will eventually produce diminishing returns – as Steven Levitt puts it, "the two-millionth criminal imprisoned is likely to impose a much smaller crime burden on society than the first prisoner" – even as it imposes substantial moral costs. And precisely because the tough-on-crime approach was largely vindicated by events, it’s extremely difficult for elected officials to walk back from some of the dubious practices that have grown up around it – like, say, the possibly cruel-and-unusual use of long-term solitary confinement.