Prison Is Cruel

Bankers who take bad risks (provided those risks are legal) simply do not end up with bad outcomes in any absolute sense. … We’re not going to bring back torture, trial by ordeal or debtors’ prisons, nor should we. (Tyler)

During Europe’s Middle Ages, debtors … were locked up … until their families paid their debt. … Some debt prisoners were released to become serfs or indentured servants (debt bondage) until they paid off their debt in labor. … While Hong kong has long imprisoned debtors, the first mainland [China] prison sentence for unpaid debts was handed down in 2008. (more)

Peonage is a system where laborers are bound in servitude until their debts are paid in full. … Such systems have existed in many places at many times throughout history. … Such a system was often used in the southern United States after the American Civil War … Debt bondage has been defined by the United Nations as a form of “modern day slavery” and is prohibited by international law. … The number of debt bondage slaves [worldwide was] 18.1 million at the end of 2006. (more)

When a debtor is tricked or trapped into working for very little or no pay, or when the value of their work is significantly greater than the original sum of money borrowed, some consider the arrangement to be a form of unfree labour or debt slavery. (more)

I like to make my students consider odd policy proposals, ones far from the status quo, but with simple supporting economic arguments. Students usually show a pretty strong status quo “bias” – they are sure our status quo is best, even if don’t know why. So I take notice when most of my students find a non-status quo proposal plausible.

Crimes can be punished via fines, stigma, prison, torture, exile, death, etc. Most of these types of punishment can be scaled, to allow for very small or very large punishments. I asked my students to design a system of punishment – a court sentences each convict to some punishment level, and you decide how to implement that level. Most students suggested some form of debt bondage/prison system – punish convicts via fines, and those who can’t pay must work to pay off the debt. And most of those opted for a competitive system, letting convicts choose to any “prison” willing to pay the fine.

Students noted that fines could depend on convict income/wealth, and that such a system wastes far fewer resources than regular prisons, while keeping convicts confined and letting them learn new skills. And it seems clear to me that no punishment system with a wide enough range of punishment levels is more “cruel” than any other, at least from the convict’s point of view. It is the level of punishment that a convict finds cruel, not the method of implementing it. A prison system is just as cruel as a torture system; it is large punishments, e.g., long prison sentences or severe torture acts, that are cruel, not prison or torture itself.

Commentary on the history of debt bondage is full of accusations of “exploitation” – saying debtor laborers were not fairly credited for their work. No doubt this did happen, but such a problem seems easily solved via competition, making sure a debtor can always to switch to any lender willing to pay their remaining debt. Yet even with such a fix, random walks of wealth in systems allowing debt bondage should accumulate a low tail of folks with the least allowed wealth. And the more wealth is inherited between generations, the thicker that low tail will be.

Clearly the existence of low wealth tails offends many.  (At least within a nation – low wealth elsewhere in the world offends much less.)  And such offense has motivated “anti-slavery” bans of debt bondage. But convicts with long prison sentences are in fact “slaves” with very low wealth levels. Somehow most folks see that as ok, while the same convicts at the same low wealth levels via debt bondage would be, horrors, “slavery,” and not ok.

But if my students are any guide, that conviction is weaker than it might seem. And since debt bondage can make a lot of sense in a future world of near-subsistence whole brain emulations, we may well see a large-scale revival of debt-bondage within a century or so.

Added 9a: Sentences could specify incapacitation or detailed monitoring for some period, with strong penalties for “prisons” that failed.  I’m somewhat skeptical about inevitable political pressures to exploit convicts – that seems a slippery slope argument, and I find such arguments weak.

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  • wophugus

    The lack of incapacitation seems like a pretty big draw back. People like criminals off the street, regardless of whether they can afford to pay a fine.

    • anon

      Make criminals take insurance against future uncompensated offences. If incapacitaton is an efficient way of preventing recidivism, then insurance companies will keep criminals inside secure facilities to prevent them from reoffending.

      • wophugus

        Why would anyone pay to avoid being a debtor-prisoner if it resulted in them being a regular old prisoner?

        If we give insurance companies the power to imprison anyone who opens a policy with them, how would we keep the insurance companies from abusing, malnourishing, etc. prisoners? You could argue that the prisoners just wouldn’t open up a contract with the bad insurance companies but, remember, this is the most politically isolated and weak constituency in society vs. the vested interest of a small number (having to run prisons = high cost of entry) of insurance firms. Regulatory capture and collusion are likely.

        Lastly, there isn’t really an “if” about it. Incapacitation is an effective, though maybe not efficient, means of preventing recidivism.

  • Robert Koslover

    Although I generally don’t favor debt bondage per se, I do believe that it is a good idea for convicted criminals to be required to work to at least partly pay back the enormous costs of their incarceration. And I think it is perfectly fine if they have to work very long, very hard, very tiring hours. Prison should always be a place to which no one should ever want to go. One thing to be careful about in such a system is that the people doing the judging and/or sentencing must never have any stake in the goods/productivity of the prisoners. Other than that, I say go for it.

    • anon

      Although I generally don’t favor debt bondage per se, I do believe that it is a good idea for convicted criminals to be required to work to at least partly pay back

      Keep in mind that debt bondage would only apply to criminals, tortfeasors and people who expressly contract as indentured servants. Limited liability/bankruptcy would still apply to ordinary debt contracts.

      In addition, most potential tortfeasors would buy liability insurance, so that few of them would actually become debt slaves.

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  • wophugus

    Well no one has a problem making prisoners work. We do that now.

    The novel part of Hanson’s scheme is that 1. You can pay to avoid this, and 2. prisons have to compete over convicts.

    Anyways, peonage is an important historical metaphor, but so is convict leasing. Convict leasing was pretty awful: the business interests using the convict labor had enough sway to make sure the state would overlook the physical abuse of prisoners. Basically you got an unholy alliance in states like Texas of the state convicting people to excessively harsh sentences so that they could sell off as much of their labor as possible. In turn, the state had a vested interest in not pushing the lessors of that labor to take very good care of the prisoners. And since the people being abused were at the margins of society (poor black people, generally), it took a while for the public to notice, decide to care, and then do something about it.

    Letting slaves pick their lessor could solve that problem, but that free competition would exist 1. to help poor prisoners, and 2. in opposition to the interests of the business community. It might not be politically viable for very long, is what I’m saying.

    • wophugus

      Replace “lessor” with “lessee” in my last post and it will be slightly less dumb.

    • Grant

      To me letting debtors (seems a better term than ‘prisoner’ or ‘criminal’ for many reasons) seems quite brilliant. Not only is it Pareto-efficient, but it follows the simple libertarian heuristic which is easy for people to understand and appreciate.

      You say its in opposition to the business community. Well so was emancipation, but that happened. If people could be convinced that criminals still had rights beyond the right not to be overtly tortured, they might see this freedom of contract as integral to a successful society as freedom of religion or the press.

      Robin, it would be very sad to see a post-singularity society replace our own before we got the chance to enact changes like this, and truly realize our current potential.

      • wophugus

        The reason debtor is a poor term is that they aren’t debtors.

        They never borrowed money or property and contracted to pay people back. They committed a crime, were assessed a fine, and upon not being able to pay it were sentenced to labor. The size of the fine and the amount of labor has no bearing on any debt they freely contracted for.

        Using “debtor” is just a way to make a very old system — fine criminals and make them work during incarceration — sound very new and exciting.

  • TGGP

    I second the point about incapacitation. Mark Kleiman (one of my favorite writers on crime) suggests that we engage in mass ankle-braceleting of probationers/parolees, immediately throwing them in jail for short spells if they screw up. A similar technique worked with drug-testing in Hawaii’s hope program. Kleiman suggests that the assurance that a person will show up on time and be sober will make them much more employable.

    This post really should link to previous ones on prisons vs torture.

  • John Weldon

    What do you think about a system of periodically ‘wiping the slate’ for long term debt, like the hebrew system of jubilee?

    Interestingly under such a system credit ratings would cycle with big loans harder and harder to qualify for the closer you got to the reset date.

    • Gil

      Since most people aren’t Jewish it’s not going to happen.

  • Stephen R. Diamond

    You would see an escalation of convictions. The laws would get tougher, the penalties more severe, and the “employers” more powerful. You can’t give a section of the population a direct interest in increasing crime (or “crime”), particularly when augmenting it program increases its power. You can’t look at economic consequences without considering the broader political repercussions, not if you want to avoid living in a reactionary dictatorship. Your outlook is amazingly blind to the political effects of economics. I anticipate the rebuttal that we already do create such incentives. For example, criminal defense lawyers benefit from increased crime. It might be interesting to delineate its nature, but there’s an obvious change when the interest becomes direct, convictions putting money in your pocket. These “employers” would be fascist monsters—can’t you imagine?

    • Grant

      Did you read his full post? Prisoners would still have freedom of contract, so they’d be able to choose who they ‘served time’ with. Competitive pressures in the prisoner labor market would serve to balance workplace conditions with costs the same way as is done in the broader labor market.

      There would still be an incentive for the correctional system to lobby to increase penalties, as you mention. As you also mention, that incentive is already in place. Presumably you assume prisoner employers would be better able to organize and lobby for increased penalties than the current correctional system can? That seems reasonable, though I would counter that by giving prisoners the rights they should have: to vote, lobby and organize as well. Giving their jailers these rights without extending them to prisoners leads to taxation without representation, in some form or another.

      I don’t want prisoners to suffer, I just want to them repay their debts. The current system of muted torture doesn’t seem to accomplish this.

      • wophugus

        “I don’t want prisoners to suffer, I just want to them repay their debts. The current system of muted torture doesn’t seem to accomplish this.”

        Prisoners can’t repay their pecuniary debt to society largely because convict labor is worthless. We are working convicts right now, but these are people that generally 1. Aren’t very skilled, 2. Aren’t very good workers, 3. Have costs other workers don’t, IE guarding them, and 4. have a social stigma around them. It is just too hard to make a profit with prison labor.

        The systems where prison labor have been profitable, like convict leasing, have been systems where prisoners could be overworked, underfed, physically abused if they didn’t work hard enough, etc. In the south convict leasing was, more-or-less, an extension of slavery.

        I’d also add that for prisoners with skills and with a low chance of escaping or getting violent — white collar prisoners — we often let them work in the community during the day, raising a good chunk of change for both the state and themselves.

        Anyways, my overall point is that the status quo eagerly takes advantage of convict labor, and does so in a manner that has historically proven to be the least abusive. It is true that no one has ever tried a system where convicts can pick who gets to use their labor, but it is also true that historically it is difficult to enforce that sort of situation. You can give an indentured servant the right to report his master for beating him, but so long as his master can beat and imprison him, he may not get the opportunity or the psychological wherewithal to enforce that right.

        Generally I think our society right now does a pretty good job with convict labor, and the solution to our horrible prison system is to thin out the number of prisoners by ending the war on drugs without lowering funding.

    • Khoth

      This sort of thing already happens – the prison industry lobbies the government for harsher sentences, and although I can’t find a link for it there’s been at least one known case of a prison owner colluding with a judge.

      • Mendel Schmiedekamp

        Here is one example.

    • mtraven

      A voice of sanity.

      I dont understand why all these economists, who think of themselves as hard-headed realists, feel free to just make shit up and ignore actual human motivations. “Prisoners would still have freedom of contract”! Why? Because you are pulling policy out of your ass. In the real world, policy gets made by the powerful and supports the interests of the powerful. There’s no incentive for the powerful to grant convicts freedom, so it would never ever happen.

      • Anonymous

        It may be unlikely, but it isn’t impossible- “inspirational power” of a sort inspired the revolutions of 1848 and similiar, after all.

  • James D. Miller

    The United States does currently put a certain class of debtors into prison: Fathers who don’t pay court-ordered child support. These dads sometimes go to jail even when they literally don’t have the capacity to pay.

    • Hopefully Anonymous

      sounds eugenic.

      • anonymous

        Except they’ve already reproduced.

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  • Hmm

    How about we go with the far simpler method of wage/tax refund/whatever garnishment? Already in use for certain things, and far less likely to meet with political resistance.

  • Prakash

    Why so brutal? What’s wrong with the unincorporated man solution, i.e. equity and dividend shares instead of debt?

    Steve Waldman had a recent article in which he highlighted debt as the stickiest price that prevented free market adjustment.

    Instead of adding on to this, isn’t is simpler to stipulate that beyond a certain amount determined by the debtor’s previous earning history, all debts should actually be equity? It incentivises the creditors also to choose carefully to whom to loan the money.

    • anon

      We’re talking about debt because we’re assuming that the laborers have incurred civil or criminal liability which they now need to pay off.

      As for converting debt to equity: it happens all the time, but usually we call it “going bankrupt”. Bankruptcy is fine when it’s part of a voluntary debt contract, but tortfeasors and especially criminals may need stricter standards.

  • Don Marti

    Make the private prisons offer a “warranty” for their inmates. If a released inmate offends again and returns to the same prison or a different one, the original prison has to cover a percentage of the cost, based on how long the prisoner was in. This gives the prisons an incentive to offer rehabilitation and training.

  • Gil

    Presumably this discussion is about non-violent, financial crimes, e.g. Bernie Madoff and not violent crimes per se. After all, a family whose member has been murdered can’t be repaid. I personally piss on a Libertarian notion of “blood money” in which a wealthy person may buy freedom by writing a cheque to the victim’s family.

  • daedalus2u

    Look at the California prison system for an example of what lobbying by the prison industry can do. The PAC of the prison employees is the largest and most powerful PAC in California.

    They lobbied for the “three strikes” laws. They are a large part of why drug offenses are punished so harshly, why there are so many people in California prisons and why there is no money for prison health care.

    I am not sure where the author and readers of this keep themselves informed of current events. There is currently ~10% unemployment. There is not a “shortage” of workers such that employers would consider setting up special prisons/manufacturing facilities and then bidding for prisoners to staff them to produce products there currently is no demand for. They would only do this if prison labor was cheaper than the labor of non-prisoners, cheaper than minimum wage and didn’t have the additional costs of housing, guards, higher levels of supervision. Cheaper than wages in places like China.

    I suppose you could get a subsidy from the state, it costs more to house a prisoner than they could possibly earn in a minimum wage job. But then the value of the subsidy is more than the value of the labor, and is in cash. Any business model of using prison labor will maximize profit by maximizing subsidy which means maximizing n times time, the number of prisoners and duration of prisoner incarceration.

    If you compel prisons to warranty the prisoners they release, they will never release any, they will continue to collect the subsidy the state is paying them, so long as the subsidy is less than the cost of maintaining the prisoner. When the cost exceeds the subsidy, they will let the prisoner die from lack of medical care.

    • TGGP

      Your basic point is alright, but it seems to be we should evaluate Hanson’s proposal based on what we expect the labor market to be like rather than how high unemployment happens to be at the moment.

      Mark Kleiman claims that prisoners would be profitably employed if their employers could be assured they showed up sober everyday. I don’t remember what support he offered for that claim. Here’s hoping he happens to read this and elaborates on his blog.

      To the anonymous responding to Hopefully Anonymous: I suppose the threat of jail is supposed to deter some men from fathering children and incapacitate current deadbeat dads to prevent them from fathering even more children. I’d like to hear someone propose sterilization in exchange for reduced sentencing or access to welfare payments. This private charity is already doing yeoman’s work.

      • Hopefully Anonymous

        I’m interested in the efficiency and overall effect on our persistence odds with a kind of reverse jubilee, where we all have to buy out the right for us and the people we enjoy or profit from to exist.

        Part of the design would be the # of people we determine we want to remain existing after the reverse jubilee, the overall amount of funds we want to see raised, and/or the how high we want the bids necessary to remain persisting to be.

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  • TGGP

    I also often find slippery slope arguments unpersuasive. Eugene Volokh attempts to put them on more solid intellectual foundations here.

    • Silas Barta

      Something just occurred to me: slippery-slope arguments sound like a species of updateless / timeless / subjunctively reciprocal decision theory (the last one is that advocated by Drescher in Good and Real.

      Slippery-slope arguments can be rephrased (with a bit of improvement) as: There exists a symmetry between our situation now, and the situation after we implement a given policy. If our situation now suffices to convince us to implement the policy, the situation thereafter will be parallel and will suffice to convince us to implement the “horrible” policy.

      The critical parallels could include our reasoning that “we dont consider the status quo bad, so we shouldn’t consider this slight deviation from the status quo”, which runs into problems when the new policy *becomes* the status quo, and justifies further deviation. It’s similar in kind to those who are expoited by being convinced to have “just one more drink” or make “just one more bet”: whatever convinces them this time will remain next time, until it’s spiraled out of control.

      Of course, this doesn’t make a fully general argument against all policies; it just shows that you need to make sure the symmetry breaks somewhere.

      I think I’ll have to write this up for LessWrong.

  • Christoph

    Ever since I went to jail, my life has been different. I was imprisoned because of child support issues. I told them to automatically garnish my wages and they had an error in their databases and it showed on their side that it was my fault. It’s their fault because if they would have set up their computers properly (or whoever is to blame) they would have had the info that my checks were automatically being deducted because of child support.

    I only got 30 days but that was long enough to live with filthy, evil, people and I was fed the most disgusting “food” I have ever seen. I had no sleep (because the other inmates stayed up through all hours of the night playing cards and being loud) and I almost lost my sanity. I came out of prison with horrible depression that I can’t get rid of. 3 years of therapy down the drain. I hate most human life, and I hope some country blows the world up and eradicates all human life so Earth can start over again with a fresh slate. I hate humans and I have an undying seething hatred for my country and their irrational enslavement.

    Keep prisons for the murderers and rapists, stop ruining innocent lives because they broke your laws (which were mostly created because of bible mythologies).

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  • Alrenous

    If your debt contract had an opt-in tickbox for debtor’s prison, it would not only be moral, but actually a good idea.
    Perhaps debtor’s prison really is ineffective. All that would happen is nobody would tick the box. This is the real reason slavery was abolished; slaves are non-competitive with free labour. Simply put, the south would have out-built the north, otherwise. Or Hitler would have tried it, and out-built the allies. Or perhaps we’d be communists. North Korea could easily reunify the peninsula. Etcetera.

    The real reason for USG’s current prisons is that prisoners are being exploited, but at one remove so that the debtor’s prison rhetoric won’t be repeated. Prisons are privately owned, and the companies essentially get grant money for each prisoner. Regulation keeps competition down, so per-prisoner prices are high while at the same time prisoners live in often squalid conditions. Because if there wasn’t regulation, why, those evil private companies would exploit the prisoners even more, right? And trick the government-grant-lending agents, of course, with all their insider’s knowledge.

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