I hope I never get arrested for any of my hilarious pranks, but if the day should come, the last place I’d like to be caught is in Phoenix, Arizona. Not just because of the heat and my aversion to the overuse of bland adobe houses. Because of the county’s judicial warlord, Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
Joe Arpaio (colloquially known as “Sheriff Joe”) propounds to be the toughest sheriff in the country. He’s certainly the nastiest in terms of prisoner treatment. He is the embodiment of punitive judicial thought: prisons exist to punish evil-doers. The harsher the sentence, the less likely felons are to resume unsavory activities upon release, and the more deterred potential criminals are from committing crimes in the first place. This contrasts sharply with utilitarian thinking, which centers around the notion that prisons exist to rehabilitate criminals to re-enter society.
Which system is better?
On a less benign level, he is responsible for the creation of “Tent City.” When faced with prison overcrowding and the need for a new facility, Sheriff Joe declined to build a $70 million complex, and instead cordoned off a plot of desert with barbed wire and a guard tower, then pitched several hundred tents left over from the Korean War. All at the bargain cost of $100,000.
While his fiscal restraint is laudable, tent city is in the desert, and its temperature hits levels which would otherwise violate the Geneva Accords. In July 2011 inmates complained when the heat index inside of their tents reached 145 °F, and their shoes began to melt. Sheriff Joe’s inmates are provided only two meals a day, which sometimes includes green bologna.
Sheriff Joe’s logic is summed up by his position on coffee. He quit serving jail java on the grounds that it has no nutritional value. When prisoners complained, he responded with, “This isn’t the Ritz Carlton. If you don’t like it, don’t come back.”
His rationale has great appeal to gritty disciplinarians. Criminals are evil: Punish them. If America treated outlaws more harshly, they would straighten up and fly right.
Contrast this with the Scandinavian model. The Norwegian penal system more or less operates like a summer camp for felons. Bastøy, their prison island, is like if Disneyland ran Alcatraz. Prisoners live in quaint cottages, play soccer and more or less wander about freely. They’re assigned farming chores, but during their free time they can pet and ride horses or go for a nice swim on the beach. Bastøy offers therapy sessions, art classes and vocational training to eventually re-integrate its wards into normal blond society.
Norwegian logic is summed up by Bastøy’s prison governor, Arne Kvernvik Nilsen: “Both society and the individual simply have to put aside their desire for revenge, and stop focusing on prisons as places of punishment and pain. Depriving a person of their freedom for a period of time is sufficient punishment in itself without any need whatsoever for harsh prison conditions.”
From a sheer financial perspective, we ought to side with Nilsen. Noting that it’s difficult to compare prisoner statistics between vastly different countries and demographics, Norway’s recidivism rate (when a released felon commits a crime and returns to prison) is shockingly low. The average recidivism rate in Europe is 70-75%. In Norway it’s 20%.
Meanwhile, the Arizona Prosecuting Attorneys’ Advisory Council found that 83.8% of the state’s current inmates had prior adult felony conviction or juvenile adjudications, and 56% had two or more prior felonies.
Financially speaking, the Norwegian model of resort-style prisons is a lot cheaper overall. Because the felons don’t come back: they go get jobs.
Personally, I would like a mixture of the two systems. Outside of truly heinous crimes, I would endorse a mix of 80% Norwegian-style rehabilitation and 20% punishment.
In Norway the maximum prison sentence length is twenty-one years. For everything. Murder, rape, tearing the tags off mattresses– all offenders are eventually readmitted to society. By my lights there are certain people who are simply unfixable and need to be locked up permanently for public safety.
By that same token, treating people like animals does not strike me as a good recipe to reintroduce them to society. If you spend five years getting beaten, sexually assaulted and inducted into Neo-Nazi prison gangs, it’s unlikely you’ll emotionally adjust to life in the suburbs and find a nice job as an insurance salesmen. People network, even in prison, which means you’re more likely to leave with tips on how to rob houses and hide corpses.
Overall, long prison sentences in brutal conditions provide a feeling of justice and revenge for citizens, but that retribution comes at a high price. Hardened prisoners are more likely to commit crimes again once on the outside. That makes our communities less safe, and it also means we pay more in taxes to incarcerate them during their victory laps.
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Andrew Heaton is a writer and standup comedian in New York City. If this post made you laugh or think, kindly "like" it on Facebook.