Believe it or not, prisons have not been with us since forever. For the longest time, there were no prisons. Why? Well, if the offense was bad enough, you would just get publicly executed. That’s the end of the story. For example, if you stole somebody’s goat and the person accusing you of the theft found a witness and the local judge or the local collection of elders believed their story, that was the end for you. Can you imagine that, trading your life for that of a goat? That’s how harsh traditional or primitive justice systems used to be.
Believe it or not, the old idea of an eye for an eye was actually judicial reform. It’s supposed to be a good thing because it was compared to the old system where your life is worth the life of a sheep. According to the doctrine of eye for an eye, your life, if somebody murders warrants the death through execution of your murderer. That is some form of reform, as harsh as it may seem to modern sensibilities, because you have to look at it in context.
You have to look at that reform based on what preceded it. What preceded it was a very imbalanced legal framework because somebody may have lost a sheep and you stole that sheep.
As a result, you lost your life. Obviously, your life is not equal to the life of a sheep, but that’s precisely what was the acceptable punishment prior to Hammurabi’s Code of lex talionis.
Fast forward several hundreds of years and we have really come up with an amazing legal system where the idea of variable sentencing has been pioneered. Back in the day, it was okay to just kill people or make them pay a fine. There was really no other way except slave labor, but that was fairly rare.
Fast forward to the Industrial Age and there is now the hybrid concept of warehousing people so they are incapacitated from harming the vast majority. This is modern criminology and modern penology. The whole idea here is a prophylactic system that would shield these “infected” people from the rest of society.
If this sounds familiar, it should because this is precisely the same logic behind mental health. For the longest time, we’ve had mental health institutions or mental hospitals where people are warehoused because they have mental issues. This was the case for a long time until very recently when we noticed that these places were really put in place for political reasons.
In the 1960s, there was a reform in the United States that really cracked down on prisons. You really had to have a good reason to throw somebody in prison.
Well, that has been reversed since the early 1970s because of a perceived crime wave. Objectively, there was an explosion in murder rates in big cities like New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco and all major cities in between, but that is due more to demographics than to any increased level in the propensity to cause crime. This statistical oversight was conveniently overlooked by legislatures as they passed harsher and harsher laws.
Starting in the 1980s, there was a perceived drugs epidemic in the United States, and this was when U.S. prisons started filling up. In fact, the United States imprisons more people than some of the most hated dictatorships on the planet. That’s how bad the prison system has become, and unless people start rethinking the utility and historical significance of the prison, the problem is probably going to get worse before it gets better.