Escape from Dannemora

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I’m going to say something that many libertarians don’t want to hear: prisons need discipline, and plenty of it.

I’m reflecting on the big news item of the past three weeks, the escape of two convicts from the maximum-security prison in Dannemora, New York, an institution that used to be feared as “Siberia.” They escaped because they were allowed to live in an “honor” block, work with and have sex with civilians, cook their own meals, wear civilian clothes, and enjoy a level of control and discipline that permitted them to acquire power tools and use them to cut holes in their cells and escape. Power tools. Used by men sent to prison for vicious murders, including, in one instance, the dismemberment of the murder victim. Tools freely used, and undetected.

What’s that noise? Is that a guy cutting his way out of prison, or is that just a guy cutting up some other prisoner? Whatever. Have a nice night.

It is one thing to debate about whom to send to prison. It is another thing to screw around with the lives of the people we decide to send there. Because, make no mistake about it, the first victims of convicts who are not controlled are other convicts. If you want the rapes, murders, tortures, and gang aggressions that happen routinely in American prisons to continue to happen, all you need to do is let the bad guys act in whatever way they want. If that’s your “libertarian” philosophy, it will have a big impact, because just one of those bad guys in a prison unit can be enough to ensure the victimization of everybody else.

When there’s a good reason to send somebody to prison — and sometimes there is — you don’t have to give him a life sentence, but you do have to keep him safely inside.

The late Nathan Kantrowitz made this point very powerfully in his exacting study of prison life, Close Control. I followed Nathan’s lead in my own book, The Big House: Image and Reality of the American Prison. I added that, in my judgment, the sorry state of American penology is the result of a vicious convergence of modern liberal and modern conservative ideas. The conservatives want to lock people up, and do it on the cheap. And it’s true, you can get a lot of non-discipline and non-control, very cheaply indeed. The liberals believe that convicts are somehow rehabilitated by being allowed to wear their own clothes, cook their own meals, and wander about the joint, victimizing anyone who’s weaker than they are. (Unnoticed by the conservatives, the liberals also ordained that those who run the prison system would get paid enough to give them 15 degrees at Harvard. They’re unionized, after all, and they’re the biggest sinkhole in many state budgets.)

Libertarians ought to be smarter. When there’s a good reason to send somebody to prison — and sometimes there is — you don’t have to give him a life sentence, but you do have to keep him safely inside, and safe from victimizing or being victimized by other prisoners.

In the short run, whoever is running the New York prison system needs to be fired, immediately. (I’m afraid that the fix is already in, and this will never happen.) In the middle run, real investigations of penology — not ideological declarations about penology, from any vantage point — need to be conducted, so that people can learn what the few good scholars, such as Nathan Kantrowitz, have already established. In the long run, Americans should stop making savage jokes about rape in prison and start considering the steps that are necessary to keep rape and murder, and by the same token, escape, from happening in their supposedly secure institutions.

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