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The American prison system
Massimo Pigliucci   May 22, 2013   Rationally Speaking  

One of the things that has always struck me as different — and not in a good way — in the United States compared to other Western countries is the way Americans think (and act) about crime, particularly their prison system. Recently, my colleagues Ken Taylor (Stanford) and John Perry (University of California-Riverside) have tackled the issue on their wonderful podcast, Philosophy Talk (which comes with an associated blog, the tagline of which is cogito, ergo blog), causing me to ponder some more disturbing thoughts about it.

There are two issues that Taylor and Perry address, and which I wish to briefly discuss in turn: the basic statistics about the American prison system when compared to other countries (and what that implies), and the more fundamental question of what, exactly, we wish to accomplish by imprisoning people — a question you would think would be at the forefront of public discussions, but that instead appears to be nowhere in sight, probably because everyone (wrongly) assumes that the answer is obvious, one of those things that only philosophers and similarly misguided intellectual eggheads bother with.
So, the stats: at last count cited by Taylor and Perry (2008), 2.5 million Americans were in prison, a number to be compared with 1.5 million in China, particularly once we account for the fact that the Chinese population is four times as large as that of the US! In the Europe Union, a more proper comparison with the United States because of its Western style democracies, the total number of inmates is only 600,000, and yet the 27 nations of the European Union count 200 million more inhabitants than the US. Taylor and Perry continue: between 1987 and 2007 the cost of incarceration for American States has increased by 127% (adjusted for inflation), to a whopping $50 billion (in 2007). And then, of course, there are the ethnicity-specific statistics, according to which African Americans account for 47% of the inmate population, against only 12% of the total population, with Latinos trailing a bit behind (20% of inmates, 13% of the population). The implication, of course, being that whites are less represented than one would expect from their frequency in the general population.
If these numbers don’t disturb you, you might want to pay a visit to your family doctor. To begin with, why exactly are so many more people incarcerated in the US than in all the European Union countries combined? Well, one of the answers could be that those pinko Europeans are soft on crime, which not only is silly on the face of it, but also raises the question of why there are so many violent criminals in the US. Except of course for the additional fact that a large number of US inmates are there for non-violent crimes (500,000 just for drug use, about the same as the total European population of inmates). Either American society is far more violent than its European counterpart, or American politicians are far too happy to lock people away to look tough with their constituencies (which implies that Americans are far too inclined to imprison their fellow citizens). Or both, obviously.
The ethnic stats are more complex, and far more controversial. The straightforward liberal reading, of course, is that here are numbers that directly quantify the amount of racism in our society. The equivalently simplistic ultra-conservative reading is that, see, the stats confirm that all those differently colored people really are dangerous. The reality is likely to be somewhere in the complex middle. It seems obvious that Latinos and African Americans are indeed more likely to commit crimes than their simple proportional representation in the general population would predict. The question is why. Since I don’t subscribe to the (truly racist and scientifically unfounded) idea that different ethnicities carry different genes for violent behavior (or even for factors predisposing them to crime in general), then the conclusion would have to be that minorities in the United States still suffer from a number of disadvantages that the rest of us insist in not addressing, such as poverty, lower quality of education, lower quality of healthcare, less availability of jobs, and inferior housing. All of which are very good predictors of crime rates.

Then there is the second — more philosophical — issue raised by Taylor and Perry: what are prisons for? They quickly run through five reasons why we may want to incarcerate people: retribution, crime deterrence, rehabilitation, restitution to the victims, or social denunciation. In the first case, we should set up the system so that criminal are justly punished for what they did, though of course that raises the exceedingly thorny question of what, exactly, constitutes just punishment. In the second case, however, we are concerned with affecting the criminal’s cost-benefit analysis, so to decrease the chances that he (most criminals, particularly of the violent type, are men) will not in fact engage in the crime to begin with. In the case of rehabilitation, as Taylor and Perry point out, one cannot even properly talk of punishment, but rather of an attempt to change the ways of the individual and turn him into a productive member of society. Restitution to the victims is yet another concept possibly informing how and why we imprison people, where the goal is to set up conditions that make it possible for the criminal to compensate (according to whatever parameters) the victim or the victim's family. And finally, the social denunciation approach says that we imprison people because we wish to send the message that certain kinds of behavior are unacceptable in our society.
Naturally, we may wish to achieve more than one of these goals, but the point is that we ought to be clear on which ones, on how to prioritize them (is retribution more important than deterrence?), and especially on how to go about maximizing the likelihood of the intended outcome(s). But we don’t. The public and politicians don’t seem to make these (not so subtle) distinctions most of the time, let alone engage in serious reflection about what they mean and how they can be pursued. This is bizarre, considering that the prison system is dramatically affecting the lives of literally millions of people, many of whom arguably shouldn’t be there in the first place, as well as costing the rest of us an increasingly large bundle of money, at a time when cries of cutting the budget are all the rage. And they say philosophy is useless.
Massimo Pigliucci has a Doctorate in Genetics from the University of Ferrara (Italy), a PhD in Evolutionary Biology from the University of Connecticut, and a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Tennessee. He has done post-doctoral research in evolutionary ecology at Brown University and is currently Chair of the Philosophy Department at Lehman College and Professor of Philosophy at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His research interests include the philosophy of biology, in particular the structure and foundations of evolutionary theory, the relationship between science and philosophy, the relationship between science and religion, and the nature of pseudoscience.


Was going to write the bulk of the following in reply to Pete Wicks re ‘Should Transhumanists Abandon the Corporatist Capitalist Model?’, but this piece is more appropriate. First a European ought to grasp how N. America is not Europe, America is no social democracy. I read the Federalist Papers, the Constitution, etc. in school yet it had no direct meaning back then; it appeared as remote as 1776. When matters just as where does. In America the hard-edged reality of Madison and the other Framers is predominant.. they were not democratic socialists, libertarians, Buddhists. When you think about it, it does make sense that America is less humane than many nations in Europe. After WWII, for starters, N. Europe became more humane perhaps largely due to the war, however who knows what Europe would have been like in 2013 if the war had not happened. At any rate the war did occur, and now for instance Breivik only receives 21 yrs in a humane prison after he kills 75+ in Norway. A Breivik, a McVeigh is executed in America.
This is all to write when we request America to be humane we are asking the US to be a Norway. America’s inhumane prisons, and financially predatory court system are intrinsic—not superficial. Therefore America itself has to change or else, naturally, we will have to tolerate the status quo; something the majority of Americans do. I wrote last year:

“... Before reading ‘The Autobiography of Malcolm X’, my impression of prison had been something out of ‘Jailhouse Rock’: handsome inmates dancing to well-modulated Rock ‘n’ Roll numbers. But by the late ‘60s, it was obvious from both reading Malcolm’s book and watching the news that prison inmates were All Shook Up for a reason other than love, they were living in a Heartbreak Hotel of a very real sort… there’s always been a sense if one complains, authorities will take something away from you—even something intangible—or perhaps eventually you will be in some kind of a Heartbreak Hotel yourself and better someone else live there than you. All the same, the dire situation in prisons gradually led to the realisation America wasn’t necessarily the greatest country in the world as we had always been told; US agriculture was and possibly still is the best in all of history—but not the prisons… Thus how could, how can the allegedly greatest country in the world possess a dire, un-great prison system? a system not being dedicated to corrections but rather to the penal, to capriciously punishing its inmates? Someone once mentioned how the prisons in Denmark were so good the inmates did not want to leave. To be fair, the US is similar to China and Russia in being a behemoth of a nation, we cannot expect a truly decent prison system in a large overheated country, nevertheless it strongly appears little attempt has been made to change the situation albeit some improvement could surely be realized. Unfortunately those responsible are pretty calloused, what happens is they start out idealistic and then give up when they realise the enormity in attempting to fight against the tide of inertia and the urge to punish, the desire to scapegoat (even for minor offenses) that prisons represent. A prison employee once told me, ‘we are here to keep them [inmates] alive, give them three hots [meals] and a cot, and that’s it!’ Especially, it seems, when it comes to African-American inmates…”

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