On War and Prisons


November 20, 2016

The following is from my files, originally written in 2006, updated in 2016:

Wars have historically accounted for the largest overhead and subsequent debt in this nation’s history.  Each war renders us less free, and the taxation that results is like a whip across the backs of already burdened taxpayers.

Long, protracted wars that look more and more like witch hunts, drain the economy, individual initiative, and forward momentum.  From 2001 to 2010, combined wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan cost taxpayers $4.4 trillion. (Source:  Congressional Research Service, from filipspagnoli.wordpress.com blog site.)

Economists are busy predicting the future they want, but they can’t hide the reality of street-wise individuals whose disposable income is their bottom line.  The bite of excise taxes on the basics–like certain foods, energy, telephone, gasoline–is disproportionately higher on those whose incomes are lowest, so they are first to feel the pinch.  This is the population that becomes desperate enough to deal drugs, work under the table, break into homes, and take other crisis-mode measures to survive.  Drug laws make the black market profitable, without the bother of background checks, drug screens, employer references, and other rules that limit legitimate employment options.  While there may be exceptions, those who now crowd our prisons consist largely of people whose lives are chronically dysfunctional rather than evil.

Society has let them down by not equipping them for survival in a civilized context.  Beginning with elementary school, they are not encouraged to try.  They are allowed to slide by on substandard work until they fall farther and farther behind.  As the distance grows, the child gravitates more towards others like him, those who have no appropriate role models at home or at school.

They often become the casualties of another war, the “War on Drugs.”  The International Centre for Prison Studies (also on filipspagnoli.wordpress.com) blames the War on Drugs and the “Three strikes you’re out” federal policies for the fact that incarcerations have quintupled in the US since the early 1970s.  The United States, with 0.07 percent of its population in jail or prisons, incarcerates more citizens than the top 35 European countries combined.  Forty percent of inmates are black, and 25% are non-violent drug offenders.

Once in prison, these kids, now adolescents and adults, still get no basic skills training.  Nothing is expected of them in prison, either.  Any meaningful activity, education, or work is withheld from them, except in the most token format, so there is no opportunity in prison to re-tool their lives to live differently on release.

Society does itself a disservice by allowing this to happen.  The oversight costs much more than money.  From the prisoner’s perspective, housing and food—two of his biggest expenses on the outside—are covered by his confinement, so theoretically, he might be able to focus on education or training . . . perhaps for the first time in his life.  If society made basic skills, useful work (within reason), or other productivity a part of prison life, it would make more effective use of its taxpayer dollar both in terms of paying current incarceration costs and preventing crime on the streets.

The push to build more prisons is based on this lose-lose scenario that prioritizes punishment over rehabilitation.  That’s why crime escalates to fill the available space, but recidivism accounts for a significant percentage of the prison population.

Our jails and prisons have become substitute housing for the homeless.  As “blighted neighborhoods” are replaced by “revitalized areas,” more displaced indigents will find their way to prison, down one path or another, because they have nowhere else to go.

4 thoughts on “On War and Prisons

  1. Mark Miles

    Totally agree with your analysis. There’s no appreciable purpose to the prison system beyond punishing the poor for being poor and ensuring they stay at the bottom of the heap. Additionally the growth of an entire industry around the prison system has created yet another group of entrenched elites who have a vested interest in doing nothing more than ensuring their own salaries by rationalizing a fundamentally irrational system. And that’s the real purpose of prison: making money for people who already have more than enough.

    1. katharineotto Post author

      I worked in a maximum security men’s prison for three months, on an independent contractor contract. That’s where I was introduced to Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning.” Whatever god we believe in reaches into prisons, too, and Frankyl’s book at the top of my list for “must reads.”
      I used to walk across the prison grounds, which were barren, but for Canada geese, thinking about what a waste of human potential that whole set-up was. These guys could be growing food with all that goose guano, or whatever. Maybe we have so many ADHD kids because they no longer have much PE, shop, or “home economics,” otherwise known as “practical economics.” Gardening, especially growing food, keeps me sane (although some might dispute my self-diagnosis).

  2. Doug's BoomerRants

    Beyond the laws that toss people into prisons, there’s the age-old social question that is never solved, are prisons there to punish or rehabilitate? If both, then where do you draw the line?
    One of the biggest deterrents to prison (for guys, anyway) is likely not the threat of loosing your freedoms or the possibility of a death sentence. It’s about being passed around as some veteran inmate’s bitch or being gang-banged in the shower. In other words.. the deterrent is about being de-humanized.. both physically and mentally. This is not planned by society’s laws or administered by the warden as some behavioral program.. this is the social makeup of prison life. Yeah, the liberals come in and make sure the physical environment is neat and tidy, the inmates get three balanced meals a day, they get time in the sun, yada, yada, but absolutely no one addresses the de-humanization.. which will have far reaching behavioral effects over time. It’s a damn tough problem. I certainly don’t have any answers.

    1. katharineotto Post author

      Agreed. I’m of the rehabilitate persuasion myself. Punishment does no one any good, and those prisoners are someone’s relatives and friends.

      Humiliation does seem to be the name of the game, but that does no one any good, either.


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