Torture Kids Instead

Juvenile detention is not intended to be punitive. Rather, juveniles held in secure custody usually receive care consistent with the doctrine of parens patriae, i.e., the state as parent.

That is wikipedia.  The US state is a horrible parent; 12% of its “detained” kids are sexually abused each year, versus 4% of adult prisoners.  0.3% of US non-prisoners report rape each year, versus a world median of ~0.05%.

12 percent of incarcerated juveniles … had been raped or sexually abused in the past year by fellow inmates or prison staff. … At 13 detention facilities, nearly one out of three juveniles said they had been victims of some type of sexual abuse. … Other federal studies … suggest that 60,500 adults are victims of rape or sexual misconduct in prisons each year. … the study reflecting that juveniles may be abused at three times the [4%] rate of adults.

More here and here:

  • 91% of youth in these facilities were male; 9% were female. …
  • 10.8% of males and 4.7% of females reported sexual activity with facility staff.
  • 9.1% of females and 2.0% of males reported unwanted sexual activity with other youth.

The US leads the world in its fraction in jail or prison; it has 0.7% vs a world median of ~0.1%.

US folk often express pride that their nation tortures and executes criminals less than other “medieval” nations.  But, honestly, torture and execution look pretty good to me when compared with our actual prisons; I might rather be branded with an iron, or hang in a stockade for a few days, than suffer at large chance of rape.  Branding or stockades seem less cruel than rape in pretty much any book.

Compared to prison, punishments like torture, exile, and execution are not only much cheaper (the US spends $68B/yr on prisons), but they can also be monitored more easily, letting citizens better see just how much punishment is actually being imposed.  And alas, I suspect that is the real problem.  With prison, citizens can more easily pretend that they have the prisons they wished for, rather than the prisons they actually have.

Added 6:30p: This also seems a sad example of empire bias.  We assume prison rape is the sort of thing a large organization should be able to control, so we presume modest “reform” is sufficient.  It’s not.

Added 9Jan: Stunning stat:

95 percent of the youth making such [sex abuse] allegations said they were victimized by female staff.

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  • Anonymous

    Shouldn’t there be some kind of affirmative action program to put more females in prison? With 90% to 10%, It seems like they are being unfairly discriminated against…

    (No, I am not serious)

  • Rob

    More here, too.

  • When I bring up these issues in my law and economics class my students tell me that torture is more objectionable than prison rape because the rape is being done by other prisoners rather than coming about as a result of deliberate government action.

    Prison rape is an unwanted consequence of our prison system, thus even though we know it is commonplace we can pretend we are absolutely opposed to it, but are powerless to stop it. In contrast, if we deliberately tortured prisoners we would be associating ourselves with torture.

    Most of my law and economics students eventually come to believe that in many instances torture is a “better” punishment than incarceration.

    What amazes me is that conditions in U.S. juvenile detention facilities are much worse than at Gitmo, and yet while many are morally outraged about the conditions under which suspected terrorists are incapacitated, almost no one is upset by how imprisoned juveniles are treated.

  • lemmy caution

    One issue with torture is that it is cheaper. They probably won’t close down too many prisons so adding torture to the mix will just increase the amount of total punishment. I doubt torture is very effective in reducing recidivism either.

    I agree that we need to get serious about sexual abuse in prisons though.

  • Torture might indeed be preferable from the prisoner’s perspective. But as I remarked in the previous thread, it doesn’t provide the incapacitation that incarceration does. Dealing with juvenile offenders is a major part of Mark Kleiman‘s “When Brute Force Fails”. He proposes locking them in a motel room without tv for a day or weekend and then giving them an ankle-bracelet and curfew. Taking on torture like a man might give you some street cred, sitting around in a motel room with nothing but Gideon’s to occupy your mind and then going home early when your friends are having fun does not.

    James D. Miller, do you follow up with your students by bringing up “collateral damage” from air-strikes/targetted killings in war? Also, I don’t think it’s necessarily the “conditions” at Gitmo that got people upset, but the idea that the President could declare someone (most notably Jose Padilla) an enemy combatant and lock them up indefinitely without trial or access to a lawyer. That might just be my impression from reading Greenwald, who was a civil rights lawyer before taking up blogging.

    • TGGP, I don’t bring up these collateral damage issues in my class.

      If people are not upset by the conditions at Gitmo, why is there so much political desire to close it and send its prisoners elsewhere?

      Also, lots of U.S. citizens get locked up without trial including people who are awaiting trial but can’t afford bail. Men who can’t afford to pay their court mandated child support are often sent to prison on a judge’s orders and have no right to trial or (I think) lawyer. But of course almost no one cares about these beta males, and the circumstances and conditions of their incapacitation get far less sympathy than those of captured terrorists.

      • Constant

        If people are not upset by the conditions at Gitmo, why is there so much political desire to close it and send its prisoners elsewhere?

        If the conditions are bad, they can be improved without moving inmates anywhere. Surely it can’t have escaped your notice that there is something mighty unusual about Guantanamo’s location. It’s in a base on the island of Cuba. That doesn’t matter, you think? Then why is the proposed fix to send the inmates somewhere else? The fix involves a change of location, which suggests that the problem being fixed is a problem of location.

        It’s not conditions, because many of the detainees prefer Gitmo over the proposed alternative (last three paragraphs) precisely because of the conditions at Guantanamo. It’s not as though American prisons are nice places to stay!

        The detainees at Guantanamo are pawns in a power struggle. A common criticism goes something like (quoting from Wiki):

        Guantánamo is part of “… a chain of shadowy detention camps that includes Abu Ghraib in Iraq, the military prison at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan and other secret locations run by the intelligence agencies” which are “part of a tightly linked global detention system with no accountability in law.”

        Opposition to Guantanamo is opposition to the global shadow government run by the Pentagon and the CIA. (Hey, I’m not saying this, I’m just explaining it.)

    • James K

      I like it, boredom is a powerful weapon to wield against a teenager.

  • James, good job teaching.

    Rob, good link.

    TGGP, a motel room then ankle bracelet also sounds better to me.

    • ERIC

      That is until they take off the bracelets and re-offend as is the seriously pathetic problem in Canada. Gangs target youth (10-14 year olds) to steal cars, break into homes, assault, etc. because of the lax laws against minors. Aside from arguing that people shouldn’t be locked up for certain crimes (drug possession) in the first place, perhaps; there are those who really should suffer a stricter punishment that may actually deter future offense. A motel and bracelet is preferable for those who “didn’t really do anything that bad” but what about those who are in essence gaming the system? We know criminals aren’t stupid but yes we still allow the bleeding-hearts to have their way when it comes to “giving kids one more chance”. Makes me feel sorry for the police who have to continually arrest these kids knowing their effort is futile. Maybe the disgusting acts present in the prison system are the only type of deterrent or punishment that serve to deter future offense giving how soft certain punishments are and how little effect they have on re-offense? I don’t really believe that myself though.

      I agree with your points about preferring torture because things are “that bad” in prisons. What is your take? What are prisons, and those who run them, trying to signal to criminals?

  • Constant

    There was a lot of discussion about this back when Michael Fay was caned in Singapore.

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  • 2999

    This is another failure of democracy. Can you imagine any politician taking a positive stand on prisoner’s rights?

    It seems tragic to me that any politician making an effort on the issue will be branded “soft on crime” and lose political capital.

  • Another factor to consider in why we don’t change the prison system is the strength of correctional officers’ unions.

    • ERIC

      Great point and link.

  • kamileon

    Actually, if you accept, say, the Finkelhor et al. (1990) statistics on child abuse, those prison statistics make them excellent parents. They’re significantly lower than the child sexual abuse statistics outside of prison (27% of females, 16% of males.) Which is not to say that US prisons are pleasant places, but it’s important to place abuses in their proper context.

    • I very much doubt those are per year statistics.

  • Ryan Vann

    On preferences (I suppose that is the correct term in a very macabre sense) of rape over branding, how exactly would you know?

    Being that I haven’t ever been raped, or branded, or strapped into an iron maiden, I really could not say which damages the psyche more.

  • James D. Miller, the situation in Guantanamo was not analogous to being unable to afford bail. Habeas corpus still applies to the indigent. Continuing on Constant’s referefences to the location, the Bush admin argued that because the prison was located in Cuba the usual laws did not apply. SCOTUS rejected that argument in Boumediene. The move from Guantanamo to Baghram or “Gitmo North” is really symbolic though. The Obama admin reserves the right to hold people without trial and have stated that they will only give normal civilian trials to those they are assured of convicting.

    ERIC: Kleiman’s argument is that criminals tend to be hypermyopic. Increasing the severity of a punishment deters less than increasing the swiftness and certainty. More severe punishments require more due process, so they actually tend to be less swift & certain. The HOPE program shows that recidivism can be massively reduced if people know they will be punished, harsher punishments for the minority of reoffenders further reduces their recidivism. I support abolishing all drug laws, Kleiman does not.

    • ERIC

      I think that might be part of the problem, that severity requires more time, unless you are wrongly accused of course, but I have a tough time seeing swiftness and certainty over-ridding brute punishment. You either increase the chances they get caught or make the punishment so severe that it deters crime. Was it David or Arnold on EconLog who said something to the effect that double-parking should be punishable by death 🙂 Sure doesn’t seem like it would be worth doing it, right! Brings us back to what the liberals vs. conservatives view as a “fair” punishment generally. I do see your point though in any case.

  • Vladimir

    It seems to me that one additional mechanism where the bias against torture ends up producing effectively more torture in practice is the present lack of means for prisoner discipline.

    Inmates with long sentences often have very little incentive to behave well, since any additional punishments they can get under the current system are either very mild or so complicated bureaucratically that the prison authorities won’t bother to apply them in all but the most severe cases. In particular, prisoners sentenced to life without parole have almost no incentive for good behavior at all; they’ve already received the highest punishment available short of death penalty.

    Accordingly, there is nothing to stop them from perpetrating rape, violence, extortion, and other abuse against weaker prisoners. (The only exception is possible vigilantism by prison guards, but they don’t have any incentive to punish misbehavior that victimizes only prisoners.) Moreover, the prison authorities have no easy way to break the power of the prison gangs, so they end up relying on the gangs themselves to make the discipline easier, and weaker prisoners at the bottom of the power hierarchy really get shafted.

    In contrast, if summary corporal punishments were available to the prison authorities, this would enable much easier control of prisoner behavior. A potential rapist who presently has almost nothing to fear could still be deterred by the threat of (say) lashing, and even if such punishments were applied without any procedural safeguards, most men would rather choose lashing than rape. I don’t see how any hypothetical “reform” of prisons could reduce the level of abuse against weaker prisoners and break the power of prison gangs without introducing some form of corporal punishment for misbehavior.

    • Good point about limits on torture in prison making prison more torturous.

  • jonathan

    You could also add that the system is incredibly racially tilted, especially against young black males. That is a main reason why we incarcerate; the white main stream is not unhappy to lock up black males even when confronted with the blunt cost of running prison systems, even when the statistics say prison doesn’t work, even though many of the crimes committed are related to drugs (including violence) that are illegal in part for the circular reason that young black males are involved with them and thus young black males can be sent to prison because of them.

    I have been in a number of prisons. As a lawyer. They are not good places. Actual prisons are less dangerous than “jails” or reformatories because maximum security – not SuperMax – is safer for an inmate. If I had a choice, other than a country club prison for white collar criminals, I think I’d prefer a really secure prison because the mixing of inmates is more controlled and thus there’s much less personal risk. Especially if you’re not in a gang.

    • Good point that lower security prisons are worse for most prisoners. Low security juvenile “detention” seems the logical extreme of that tendency.

  • nazgulnarsil

    I can’t imagine pursuing a career in being a correctional officer unless I was interested in kiddy rape.

    • It would also be an excellent career choice if you placed a high value on reducing rape.

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  • Sam

    Here is a key sentence you wrote, “With prison, citizens can more easily pretend that they have the prisons they wished for, rather than the prisons they actually have.”

    What is needed is for individual community members to go inside the prisons and youthful offender centers and get involved. They need a connection to healthy outside people and need mentoring upon release.

    The numbers don’t surprise me. Prison is a power and control environment. And when you mix evil people who become correctional authorities (who have all the power) with youth (who are powerless), you are going to get trouble.

    That said, having worked within correctional facilities for the past 10 years, I have worked with many, many professional, great people in corrections who care about those under their authority. Unfortunately, in corrections as in other vocations you have those who are evil as well.

    • People have “gotten involved” for many decades. It is an empire bias to think new people getting involved tomorrow can overturn the vast inefficiency of these large organizations.

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  • Matt C

    Singapore canes juvenile offenders. Much cheaper, to me more humane, and part of a process that gives much more effective crime prevention.

    Is caning “torture”? Certainly it is in one sense. But “torture” also suggests one person at the helpless mercy of another, to be tortured or mutilated or killed at the torturer’s pleasure. A fixed punishment of five lashes assigned by a judge is nothing like being “disappeared” and locked up indefinitely in a dungeon with psychopaths.

    It would be interesting to see how caning would end up distorted if we tried to import the practice to the U.S.

  • “95 percent of the youth making such [sex abuse] allegations said they were victimized by female staff.”

    Is that really a stunning stat, given that (as you reported) more than 90% of the youths in these facilities are male? Assuming mostly heterosexual contact, we should expect about the same percentage based purely on random interactions — although to calculate the appropriate baseline, we would need to know the gender ratio of the staff as well.

  • ad

    12 percent of incarcerated juveniles … had been raped or sexually abused in the past year by fellow inmates or prison staff.

    I know what rape is. How are they defining “sexual abuse”?

  • Anonymous
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  • Price Theory Economist

    Katz, Levitt, and Shustorovich showed that increased prison death rates lead to decreasing crime rates. It’s not clear to me that these rape rates do not also serve as a deterrent for other young people. That is to say, when 12 percent (let’s say 100,000) of incarcerated juveniles have horrible things happening to them, you are missing the 5,000,000 juveniles not part of your dataset because they never became criminals.

    In this sense we may be being humane to the 4,900,000, whose time we never even take.

    If you want to debate the best method, fine, but it’s not clear that this is not humane in the aggregate, ignoring your bias of focusing on only the the effect of rape on individuals in state care who are raped, rather than the overall effect on the entire population.

    This may require that you reject the notion that juvenile prisons are not punitive, which seems to be shown to be false by your very statistics.

  • nobody

    For an article on a website about overcoming bias, this contains a lot of damaging and dangerous ignorance. You think you’d rather be tortured than raped, do you? I presume your vast personal experience of torture and rape, and your extensive dialogues with victims of these crimes, has provided you with such great insight, yes?


    Don’t argue that you’d rather suffer one crime against you than another. Even if you HAVE experienced both, which I am doubting, you CANNOT speak for all victims. I read these articles, and I was so horrified that you would think to speak your opinion on atrocities you don’t seem to know much about that I could not, at first, gather my thoughts to respond.

    It is good to have a site about overcoming bias. We should all learn to reason clearly, and recognise bias in ourselves. But, torture? Really? Is this a joke? I would go so far as to say that NOT having a bias against torture is a flaw in your thinking. A big one.

    I want to tell you some things about torture: what it is, and what it is not. You have these articles on your site, about “bias against torture,” and I don’t think you have the knowledge to address this.

    * Torture is NOT the same thing as corporal punishment. Corporal punishment may or may not be part of torture, but it is not a synonym. The primary goal of torture is to cause psychological suffering: to break and alter the mind brutally. Torture invokes primal and often unconquerable fears: the fear of grotesque injury, the fear of death, the fear of the unknown, the fear of pain which cannot be escaped.

    * Torture is NOT primarily used for punitive purposes. Torture is most commonly inflicted on people who are NOT criminals: targets may be chosen for their ethnicity, political or religious position, race, or origin. Torture is used in times of unrest and conflict, to create an atmosphere of terror. Because people are terrified of torture. For good reason.

    * Torture is NOT only damaging to the victim. People who have inflicted torture often suffer psychological trauma, also.

    * Torture is NOT something that’s done, and then the victim returns to his life–and it is NOT easy to rehabilitate victims. Some psychologists have thought it was not possible, at all. In your other article on this subject, you (or one of your commenters–sorry; I did not want to read the article again) said that you’d rather be tortured than imprisoned for many years, because the torture would be over with faster. But the physical pain from torture may continue for years, or for all of one’s life. Some forms of torture may be fatal. Beatings can cause blood clots to form, break off, and get in the lungs, heart, or brain. Stress positions can cause heart failure. And all forms of torture can–no, almost certainly WILL–cause horrendous psychological damage: agoraphobia (and other phobias), dissociation, PTSD, anxiety disorders of all types, violent anger.

    Torture IS an assault on bodily integrity, bodily autonomy, and human dignity. “Crimes against humanity” are described as “…particularly odious offences in that they constitute a serious attack on human dignity or grave humiliation or a degradation of one or more human beings.” Torture is a crime against humanity.

    Torture IS designed to crush the ego of a person, humiliate and denigrate them, and break down their sense of self. And it works. Even following a relatively brief period of torture, lasting only a day or two, a victim can display symptoms of identification with their attacker, dissociation, lapses in memory, flashbacks, nightmares, and anxiety disorders.

    Torture IS cruel and unusual punishment, which is defined as “criminal punishment which is considered unacceptable due to the suffering or humiliation it inflicts on the condemned person.” Are you in the USA? I think your constitution has an amendment about this.

    So, you want to bring a crime against humanity to your shores, even more than it’s already surfaced? You think it’s a good idea to commit gross bodily harm, and inflict the fear (and actual possibility) of death upon citizens of your country? You don’t see a problem with this?

    Maybe you mean corporal punishment, which is a somewhat different animal: the victim of court-imposed corporal punishment will generally know what is to be done: how severe and how long the punishment will be, and what it entails. It is still immensely problematic, as it often shares components of humiliation and intimidation with torture. The distinction between the two is not always clear, especially as there HAVE been fatalities from judicially-imposed corporal punishment, so the fear of death may be a component of this, also.

    I would not presume to speak for all victims of torture, but I am a victim, myself. I committed no crime. Still, I sometimes thought I deserved this, and had no worth. That is what torture can do to the mind. For nearly twelve years, now, I can’t pass through one day without remembering it. I am still in great physical pain, and also afraid to leave my home. There is no help, either: in the country where I live, torture is not common. Nobody knows what it’s like to have experienced it, or to live in fear of bodily trauma.

    If anyone reads these articles still, and sees this comment, I hope you are biased against torture. Strongly biased. I hope you see it as an atrocity, and as the CRIME it is. By all means, call out unjustified bias where you see it. Speak up against harmful patterns of thought. But holding a bias against something so brutally damaging as torture is, I am certain, the sane thing to do.

    • GS

      smartest words I’ve seen on this blog…

  • nobody — see some further proposals for torture on this blog. I don’t really know how to explain the fact that so many libertarian-minded people, who are supposed to be distrustful of government, are happy to propose that it have total power over the most intimate physical being of persons and use that power in horrific ways.

  • Liberals say the have the solution and republicans have the solution to the justice system and why so many are incarcerated in this country. However, none of them really know how it feels to be locked up. We should seek the input of intelligent former inmates in order to have conversations between all parties…at leas this way they can at least take a consideration of another’s point of view.

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