The problem — mostly due to longer and mandatory sentences combined with an idiotic war on drugs — is so abysmal that the Supreme Court recently ordered 33,000 prisoners in California to be housed elsewhere or released. If California could simply return to its 1970 level of incarceration, the savings from its $9 billion prison budget would cut the state’s budget deficit in half. But doing so would require the release of 125,000 inmates, and not even the most progressive reformer has a plan to reduce the prison population by 85 percent.
I do: Bring back the lash. Give convicts the choice of flogging in lieu of incarceration.
Ironically, when the penitentiary was invented in post-revolutionary Philadelphia, it was designed to replace the very punishment I propose. Corporal punishment, said one early advocate of prisons, was a relic of “barbarous” British imperialism ill-suited to “a new country, simple manners, and a popular form of government.” State by state, starting with Pennsylvania in 1790 and ending with Delaware in 1972 (20 years after the last flogging), corporal punishment was struck from the criminal code.
The idea was that penitentiaries would heal the criminally ill just as hospitals cured the physically sick. It didn’t work. Yet despite — or perhaps because of — the failures of the first prisons, states authorized more and larger prisons. With flogging banned and crime not cured, there was simply no alternative. We tried rehabilitation and ended up with supermax. We tried to be humane and ended up with more prisoners than Stalin had at the height of the Soviet Gulag. Somewhere in the process, we lost the concept of justice and punishment in a free society.
Today, the prison-industrial complex has become little more than a massive government-run make-work program that profits from human bondage. To oversimplify — just a bit — we pay poor, unemployed rural whites to guard poor, unemployed urban blacks.