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View all articles by Robert Vroman.
Hard Cash Beats Hard Time: Anarchist Prisons

Being an ashamed resident of the nation distinguished amongst its peers as the worldís most prolific incarcerator, it is important that I present my opinions on the American prison system now, before I end up having to smuggle them past the wardenís censors.

Letís look at the system as it stands: Criminal hurts someone, criminal is sentenced to prison, victims and everyone else are taxed heavily to feed and house him, criminal sits and does nothing, victims recover as best they can on their own, criminal is abused and raped, judges and lawyers get nice houses and smoke cigars, criminal either dies ignominiously in his hellhole or is executed in a fantastically expensive process, or is released as a humiliated and bitter man, in which case return to step one. Lots of wasted time, lives and money. Now hereís my pitch.

Presumably an anarcho-capitalist society will bring peace and prosperity to all, but realistically there will always be the hardcore burnouts and psychopaths who get in the way. There have been numerous proposals as to how such a society would deal with problem people. I will assume that simply shooting every bread thief is not palatable to the majority of us, and thus some less than lethal punishment may need to be exacted and some institution developed to handle that. The traditional answer is prison, and I think that a modified version of that could work surprisingly well in anarchy. So assuming that we accept prison as the end result of however an-cap justice is carried out, here is my proposal of how they could work.

Once our black box anarchistic legal system has run its course and we have our guilty-beyond-a-shadow-of-a-doubt felon, the question remains what to do with him. There are several things we need to take into consideration. As I see it, there are 5 motivations for punishment, which are:

  1. Revenge
  2. Deterrence
  3. Rehabilitation
  4. Incapacitation
  5. Restitution

The first is your old school eye for an eye business. As emotionally satisfying as it may be to see your daughterís rapist dangle at the end of a rope, if it costs me tax bucks to buy the noose, you had better come up with a better answer. Once we establish our Anarchist Court of Revolutionary Justice, it sure would make for some quality home videos to hunt down the old Clinton administration and repaint a basement wall somewhere via a .45 to their foreheads. However, as a clever economist, I realize that the man is out of power and is no longer a threat to freedom, and thus it would be a misuse of time and manpower to punish him retroactively. So if I can fight down the urge, so can you. Revenge as an end in itself is irrational. Moving on.

Deterrence is the Ďmessageí we send when our shameless rulers lock up thousands of their fellow substance abusers, so as to keep the remainder in the shadows. Without executing the occasional Russian soldier for miniscule offenses, everyone else might start showing up late for latrine duty or to sing the International, disorder would spread fractally, and the glorious Red Army would fall into shambles. Is that what you want? We must punish individuals disproportionately to keep the collective in line. Actually, deterrence is an irrevocably flawed strategy, because of the psychology of the target audience the supposedly deterring punitive display is intended for. You and I, pillars of morality, will watch chilling documentaries like Penitentiary III (1987, Jamaa Fanaka writer/director) and firmly resolve to avoid prison at all costs. Deterrence works! Well, assume for a moment you and I were completely ignorant of prison and punishment. Would this make us any more likely to up and ignore our core principles and perpetrate mayhem? No? Now assume that you and I are socio-economically disadvantaged products of broken homes and enjoy a good hit of mescaline for breakfast. Lets see, I live in a miserable place I canít escape, where Iím frequently assaulted and can get drugs at will, and if I kill you, disrespectful muthafucka, I could be sent to a hellish place I canít escape, where Iím assaulted frequently and can get drugs easily? I see. Hold still a minute, my aim is pretty shitty before lunch. In summary: those who are deterred, donít need to be, those who need to be deterred, arenít. Therefore deterrence is not a worthwhile motivation for punishment.

Rehabilitation is a pipe dream. The TV-movie-inspiring success stories of prison ministry nuns molding model citizens out of psychotic scum, are statistically insignificant. The recidivism rate is above 90%. According to many in the field, it is actually near 100%, but 10% of prisoners are smart enough to pick up tricks of the trade during their stay and avoid capture in their future crimes. I certainly will not stand in the way of frail Catholics doing the Lordís work or whatever, and if they tame some homicidal barbarian into a marginally productive barbarian every once in a while, cheers. However, if my wealth must be redistributed, Iíd prefer it be spent on something remotely practical like a hydro-electric dam, rather than teaching small engine repair to some gigantic thug, only to find that he can now expertly hack people with a lawnmower blade. Rehabilitation is not cost effective, and can only be pursued in systems lacking fiscal accountability.

Incapacitation is an argument that holds a little more weight with me. At the very least we know prison provides the benefit of keeping the miscreant out of commission for the duration of his sentence. If all else fails, this is what the pro-prison crowd should fall back on. However if incapacitation were the only thing going for prisons, we ought to go back to the guillotine/oubliette routine and just automatically dispose of everyone who comes through the system. After all, if they are irreformable, and donít help anyone during their stay, thereís no point in undoing our incapacitation, ever. There must be some other element to justify the whole concept of extended imprisonment.

The last thing on the list is the one most neglected under the current system. The victim is the one who has been wronged, and should be the focus of the whole proceeding, not just a name in the case file. The entire punishment model should be oriented so as to assist the victim as much as possible, to the exclusion of all other parties, the courts, the prisoner, etc. And thus we come at last to the details of my proposal for a new prison system. Very simply, we alter the units of a sentence from time to dollars. Once found guilty, a prisoner will be ordered to pay a bill of restitution to the victim commiserate with his crimes. He will then go to a privately operated work camp until his bill is paid in full. The court gets some flat rate operating funds out of the deal, but only a bare minimum, not enough to inspire favor trading or corruption, though this may be unavoidable even with anarchist judges. The victim gets the rest of it in installments as they are earned. For example, letís say I murdered some poor widowís husband. At the most basic level he provided her with a $60k/year income. Thus, assuming interest rates are steady around 6%, I owe her $1million that she could put in savings and live off the interest at a comparable standard. On top of that, we can do some fuzzy math to pay her for all the emotional trauma and whatnot. Do I hear someone telling me I canít put a price on human life? Well guess what, under the current system the price of human life is apparently $0, because thatís exactly what the next of kin gets for their suffering. Therefore, as in most cases surprisingly enough, the cold calculation ends up being more generous. So how do I, hypothetical bastard killer, come up with the money? Well maybe Iím a professional basketball player on the side, and Iíve got more money than I can count. Can I just write her a check and go back to practice? Here is our first twist. The victim gets to decide how much of the defendantís personal assets can be used to pay the fine. In the case of our millionaire killer, the victim could decide she needs the money now, and let him pay on his way out the door, or instead, deny herself instant gratification in exchange for some good old Revenge. Or the best of both worlds, she takes $500K now, and makes him sweat for the other half.

Once the size of the remaining debt to be worked is settled, the prisoner is shipped off to work camp. But wait, another objection. Wonít our poor prisoner be paid a pittance in order to be kept in bondage longer, and flogged in the meantime, and be more or less reduced to inescapable slavery for the benefit of fat capitalists? Yes that would suck, and would not ultimately help the victim as we have indicated is the end goal. These private prisons would be in the market to make money, they would have free reign to employ their prisoners at any task they decide will be most profitable, at whatever wage, in whatever conditions they want. They can employ a mix of prison and civilian labor. They can use prisoners to manufacture goods that can be sold in open competition with normal factories, or anything else the operators decide is a good way to make money. However, there is a catch. Every prison must honestly provide accurate information concerning its operations, and each prisoner then gets to decide in which prison he will choose to work off his sentence. Furthermore, a prisoner can elect to change prisons if he becomes dissatisfied with his choice (perhaps costing a small transportation fee). Anyone who wants to start a prison just digs a hole or whatever, and sends their brochure to the an-cap equivalent of courtrooms and hope to attract prison labor. Thus prisons that starve and beat their workforce, will soon lack a workforce due to emigration away to competitors. There is a limited supply of prison labor, but an infinite number of possible prison firms with labor demand, thus competition will ensure that an efficient standard is derived.

Prison managers must also decide how much security to provide, because, another twist, if the prisoner escapes or dies from mistreatment while in their custody, the prison itself gets stuck with the prisonerís restitution bill. This last item is important, because seeing as many of the bills will be in the millions range, taking a hit like that could be devastating to a prison corporation. Consequently they will want insurance, and the insurance company will naturally be cautious and perform inspections of their potential clients. They are not going to provide service to the risky hole in the ground operations. The victim may also want to be assured that the prison the prisoner goes to is not, say, a gang front that will let the prisoner Ďescapeí, then claim bankruptcy and disappear, leaving the victim with no money and her original aggressor on the loose. So the insurer could offer to take a cut of the restitution in order to ensure the prison is legit, and cover her losses if the prisoner then does escape, despite their security check.

The first complication is criminals who manage to rack up insurmountably huge restitution bills. Like imagine for instance that America would ever capture its golden scapegoat Sammy bin Laden and put him through this system. His fine would most likely be orders of magnitude beyond what a 60yr old man could possibly achieve on an assembly line, and have any expectation of seeing the light of day again. Thus, there is no motivation for our dethroned chief terrorist to work, beyond getting a plate of prison rations for bare sustenance. It may be that the WTC victims are worse off than if ObL were sentenced lightly, which will never happen. Are we back to mere incapacitation then, if the prisoner has no reason to work for his victimís benefit? Well, it does not help the prisonís bottom line to have a demoralized worker, and they have the most control over his activities, so it will be up to them to provide internal incentives for recalcitrant laborers. Perhaps better food, more time in Ďthe yardí, access to a Koran stocked library, etc. This may not work in all cases, but eventually the sheer boredom of prison existence gets to most inmates, according to experts, and they will do anything to stay active.

The next complication is the uncontrollable psychopath who would be cost prohibitive in a work environment. Although a prisoner may choose a certain prison, it is certainly the prisonís right to deny his application. If a prisoner represents a threat to their other valuable laborers, and cannot be trusted to perform a task without expensive supervision, and carries a high chance of escaping and hanging the prison with his bill, then it is entirely reasonable for the prison to refuse him. Or the reason for refusal may be that all their jobs are filled and they have yet to expand their operations. If there is no prison that will take him, then the prisoner is simply destroyed. He is of no benefit to the victim, the primary focus; he is of no economic benefit to the industries served by the prisons; he clearly cannot be released back into the populace if he is too dangerous even for institutions specifically designed for his kind; and he cannot be just stored, since that costs money and no one is paying taxes in this model; so there is no choice but to put him down. I envision this to be a rare scenario however, because there will be enough diversity in the market that someone will specialize in the head cases and structure their operations to accommodate severely doped down laborers, or do whatever it takes to turn these resources into something useful. And if youíre that bad, you take what you can get.

A pleasant side effect of this system is that the prisoners will be happier too, though that is obviously not a high priority. A prisoner knows that if he works his ass off and pulls double shifts and whatnot, he is actively making progress towards shortening his sentence. On the other hand, if he sits around shooting up smuggled smack (unless a heroin stocked commissary is one of the prisonís advertised features!), heís only dragging it out. Thereís some rehabilitation for you. Furthermore, if he gets on some prison gangís shit list, he can apply to move cross country if need be. And the prisons themselves know that getting anally raped is not conducive to a productive worker, and thus will take steps to eliminate prisoner assaults, something that government prisons never have any reason to do.

The other major upside is that the system requires there be a victim to receive restitution, thereby automatically ruling out all victimless crimes as imprisonable offenses.

So time for another objection. Didnít we already try this in the 19th century and it was regarded as an inhumane disaster? No, the industrial prisons of the 1800s had a number of key differences that make them totally different from what I am proposing. First, neither the victim nor privatization was involved. The prisoners worked for the state, and the state kept everything. Second, sentences were in years not a certain amount of money, thus prisoners had no incentive to work, besides physical punishment. Third, because the prisons, the state, and the profiteers were all the same group, they were not beholden to anyone to produce a profit, and thus had free reign to abuse prisoners. All of these problems are corrected and then some in my model. So I will conclude with a list of all the features of my idea. First, what most directly benefits the average citizen is that all the taxes previously going to keep the prison system alive will remain in our pockets. Second, the most deserving and most ignored party in the criminal justice system, the victim, is now the center of attention, and will receive a chunk of cash that they previously would never have seen. Third, prisoners who before just had an opportunity to waste large portions of their lives or study a core curriculum at Criminal U, are now valuable economic tools. Fourth, victimless crimes do not exist. Fifth, prisoners are no longer treated like dog shit packed 3 to a cell, but are given an immediate incentive to work, perhaps providing a more realistic chance of a larger handful actually turning their lives around.

February 13, 2001  

Robert Vroman is a economics student at St. Louis University, a committeeman of the St. Louis Libertarian Party, and an organizer of the Free State Project. His personal site is

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