Cossacks vs Space Cowboys - Prison System Reform

Chat with Rupert August

You posted a tweet a few days ago on Twitter:

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Prisons really are a waste on every front: a waste of space, a good night watchman, and the prisoners' skills. Violence can be made useful, so can the coveting, the impetuous, the scheming. We already accept depriving them of self-determination, so at least exile them.

I get that people need to feel that justice is done, but something more short term and visceral would do a better job at that.

Then I learned that you’ve also written a poem reflecting this thought.   

Then we decided to discuss it in more depth. You said that prisons are really a waste on every front, a waste of space, a good night watchman and the prisoners skills. You also mentioned that violence can be made useful. That’s your motivation for the improvements to the current prison paradigm. Let me start with this question - any such system needs to fill some border conditions, right? 

Rupert August

Well I think that is a good place to start. There's the collective sense of retribution that's required. You can separate the victim’s or the victim family’s desire for justice from general sympathy with the victim. Then there's the rehabilitative quality. And then there's a need, for certain people or certain qualities to be removed from society, because they are incompatible with civil society. That is a bit newer.

Doxometrist

Let's try picturing this in sort of engineering terms, designing a new prison system. We’d aim for a solution that provides all 3 functions (retributive, rehabilitative and separation), but cheaper. Let’s take a quick look at the process of genesis of the current system...

RA

The issue of separation of undesirable individuals is a major cause. In the 19C we've had a proliferation of the kind of the qualities which were seen as not compatible with civilised society, that's where we've really seen prisons take off. Going back to that tweet, someone responded: “I thought you were going to make a Foucaultian critique.” He's touching on the same theme in ‘Discipline and Punish’, in that the requirements for civil society are becoming more and more narrow, and we're developing social technologies to drive people down this narrow path of acceptable civil discourse. But he sees that as a bad thing, of course, and he thinks that as soon as you take away this disciplining quality, you'll be able to more easily interpret the truth. I'm taking that in a slightly different direction. So it's similar in that I'm saying that there are these sort of immutable qualities that people have. And that they may indeed, not be compatible with civil society. Because, for example, if you have somebody that is compelled by their own proclivities and natural tendencies to murder for whatever reason, then that's not something that you can have just existing in civil society, you need to either change that quality in the person or remove them from society in some way. But what I'm saying is that it is a very useful skill set to have in certain circumstances. Applying them to other situations, may be a more productive use of not only those skills and that person's time, but also all that makes a prison function: guards, space, maintenance, all of these things that are deliberately suppressing the skills that person has.

D

You said that prisons are subpar, that something more short term and visceral would do a better job...

RA 

This is going to sound barbaric, but bear with me for a second. If we were to reintroduce something like public flogging, that would quite obviously satisfy that visceral desire for public retribution. You could even record that! Let’s say that a particularly heinous crime has been committed. You can just go and find out how that person was punished, you open a link to the video of this guy publicly flogged. It's direct pain being inflicted on this person in retribution for a crime. But once you've done that, you can move on to something else, which is going to be a productive use of those skills. You just get a quick event, and then you move on to some other longer term solution. There'd be a very flashy media quality to it - that I'm sure that a lot of people would be able to get on board with. Even if, from a 90s, early 2000s view we think that would be unfair, a gradual adjustment should work. Someone horrified by the idea of flogging paedophiles would probably be okay with the idea of flogging Nazis or people who were involved in the alleged coup on January 6, for example. I doubt that there'd be too many people who would hold this as an  absolute value. And I think we're kind of seeing that more and more as time goes on...

Public flogging, I think some people wouldn't really complain that much... Collars got normalized in fashion, public flogging couldn’t escape erotic connotations...

RA 

This would be really huge in the media. Poe's law, and that you cannot state something on the internet as a parody of something to not be taken by someone as a genuine description of this thing. Yeah, so I think that could be a similar thing. This sort of culture is open to so many behaviours, that it would be hard to find a sort of punishment which would be unequivocally interpreted and accepted as punishment. Because punishment is supposed to be serious.

D

How do you arrive at the long term part of your proposal?

RA 

Now we get to the core of my proposition, that you could modulate how your solution does each of the 3 functions (retributive, rehabilitative and separative). I'm assuming a certain essentialism that some can't be rehabilitated fully. They just have these skills, and you have to either find something to do with them that's useful or remove them from society. Those are the only two options really. Keep the public flogging if you need it, get rid of public flogging, if the removal from society is enough, then that's fine. But the meat of it is finding something better to do with these people. For example, somebody who is just not able to control their emotions, that leads them to committing multiple assaults. That it's something that they are obviously not prone to do in their everyday life. That's somebody who you would move to the peripheries, frontiers of society; have them be away from civil society but still able to do the work civilising the outer periphery of the civilization.  It's a bit more difficult now because we've not got that many frontiers anymore, as Australia or the 'Wild West' used to be, but even in the modern day; parts of northern Canada still require pioneers. There's some value to be gained there, but it's a very untamed place, and it's not society as we've come to see it. They would live on their own, with the work of their hand, a sort of libertarian existence.

D

It also sounds like the Tsar sending dissenters to Siberia. Though your model appears to give them more independence.

RA

It's not that you're sending them to an inhospitable place, for the purpose of the punishment. You're sending them to be away from society, but otherwise, they are free to do as they will. You're obviously losing some self determination. But you are also maintaining a good deal of it - much more than in the dehumanizing prison conditions - but just away from society. So it's not entirely necessary that this be an inhospitable place. But it still required people just going out there and living away from society to, from the state perspective, conquer the land, and bring it under civilization eventually. But in the more immediate sense, just to just go out there and be away from society. So insofar as our society is also digital, what you described is the Twitter policy of bans and other companies. They are using it in the digital world. And, this appears to be working in some sense. 

There are some similarities. A drastic segregating of these certain types of perspectives. We have the civil marketplace of ideas, and then 'beyond the pale' marketplace of ideas, which exists in a different cyberspace. Beyond that, the stakes are a little lower, I daresay because you're not physically removing people in a life or death way. One difference being that you can't permanently keep somebody off your platform. 

D

What sort of frontier space do you envision in a few years time? Penal space colonies as in sci-fi?

RA

On the space side of things, that's very possible, but it would be, again, something more ‘old west in space’, rather than a penal colony. It's not deliberately inflicting punishment. The punishment is the very being outside of society. Freedom of action is retained. You're living in a parallel society, perhaps much more violent, impetuous, crime ridden generally, but those qualities can be channelled in more useful ways. For example, somebody who has a very keen eye for whatever necessities, they're going to need to just take by whatever means available, that person is going to be quite a good forager and survivalist. Living in border counties where there are more hostile interactions with other groups. This doesn't work so well in space. When you're living on a lawless frontier, nothing is quite as nailed down as you'd expect it to be. Thieves have a much better chance in that environment. Let's go back to the Australia example of just sending a load of convicts there. They build up the necessities of life, making it more amenable to further human settlement down the line. As a bonus in the short term, you're also getting rid of these people who can't exist in civil society like back home in England. And that has the dual effect again of sanitising and making the original place more civil. 

On the skill side of things a really good example of this would be the armies of Frederick the Great and a lot of different armies of that period, with another prominent example being the French Foreign Legion. I don't know how much this really holds up to reality, but in both of these cases you have military forces which are made of criminals, deserters, and outcasts from society. Perhaps people who owe a lot of money and need to escape. These types of people tend to be the people who found themselves in the rank and file of these military organisations.

And then by the imposition of the discipline of the officers, they were able to be channelled towards the national good, without being too much of a burden on the rest of the state. Obviously, instead of having all of those people as soldiers by Frederick the Great, he could have instead built a load of prisons, but then you'd have to pay a whole lot of soldiers to keep an eye on them. And then he'd still have to find his soldiers from somewhere. Vastly increasing his expenses. 

We could get much more specific about this, because we have much more fine tuned methods for finding appropriate vocations for people with certain sets of skills. Perhaps very well suited to certain battlefield conditions, if they are prone to having their excitement raised, and charging off into enemy lines or whatever. That's a very useful skill in certain scenarios of military life. The downside?

Two disadvantages have to do with how modern military works. Particularly in the West the trend has been towards increasing use of force multiplying technologies rather than sheer valour. But it also means that the hard edge that you're presenting to the rest of the world is going to be a lot harder than it is otherwise. For the second thing, the idea of winning hearts and minds is something that's been quite popular for the last 200 or so years. That means wanting your troops to adhere to some doctrines and not others, particularly for situations trying loyalty and requiring good PR - for instance counterinsurgency type wars. If you're taking all of your criminal elements out of society, and then putting them in a country that you're trying to occupy and expecting those people to like you, there may be difficulties there.

It appears now we have the two scenarios; libertarian: just sending off to some frontier so that they can work on the periphery of society; the second, army-like one is when they are employed into some more specific structure. I have a question about the libertarian variant: you're sending people with a dangerous set of skills right to a place where they are out of your control. Then they could be very well approached by some non allied actors: gangs or foreign intelligence. You're letting them out of your orbit. And they are left to their own devices. How would you address this risk?

RA

The traditional solution to this problem would be to set the outside parameters. So in the US context you have the US government effectively still determining what's going to happen on the entire North American continent, even if that means that they're going to just allow certain areas of the Old West to be, sort of free wheeling areas that aren't really under close actual government supervision. But if anybody were to try and influence some of their subjects in certain ways that they would find geopolitically unsavoury, then the American government itself is going to step in and stop that from happening. In the UK context, you have a similar thing with control of the seas. So even if there are some dissenting elements in Australia, what are they really going to do given a complete lack of physical proximity? It's not as though they can be offered a better deal by let's say Russia, if Russia has no has no ability to actually physically project that power, because Britain could still just arrive on the island with a small army and reassert order. And there's nothing that Russia would be able to do about that. On top of that, you have the island where, just because these people don’t have civilised society doesn't necessarily mean that they don't have a longing for it. There may still be patriots.

However, I would observe that prisons are also quite bad for this. And if it's something that is an outcome or risk of both scenarios, then it's not something that we can use as a differentiating factor. There's a lot of drug smuggling that goes on in prisons. I know, it's not quite affecting the wider society in the same way, but it does when they're released. And you do also see a lot of this kind of stuff, particularly in the UK, you get a lot of radicalization, towards certain political movements and terrorist movements that happen inside prisons. And so, is it really going to be that different event outcome? I'm not so sure.

D

I guess that a lower percentage of criminals see themselves as patriots than average citizens. Another thing is how technology makes the ‘separation from society’ part harder. In the 19th century, the act of physical separation by shipping to Australia could decrease an individual’s social participation by 99%. Now this wouldn’t work that well, 70% maybe? And so how much of a punishment would such a punishment be if they were able to use the internet? 

RA

That's the thing - I'm assuming that punishment is not just removal from society. Insofar as it is a total removal, obviously, there's only so much that somebody can do when they're that far physically removed. Now maybe this doesn't necessarily work for all crimes, if they were, for example, involved in some kind of financial fraud. So you'd have to be a little bit more specific about that kind of punishment. Maybe you'd have to do what is already an established practice - make them a persona non grata in the financial world, which is obviously going to be even more necessary if we're trying to make use of these skills rather than simply exile. 

There’s a story of Mariel boatlift Cuban forced emigration into the US from 1980. It didn’t focus exclusively on prisons, but has interesting social consequences in the US, even if not on a very large scale. Among the Marielitos we find a variety of personages, from gangsters, musicians to mass murderers. The whole exodus was used politically by the States as well, so that the ultimate benefit of the Cuban state is not clear.

About the patriotism and loyalty part, I don't think that necessarily is a very good solution to this idea of physical remoteness allowing for different loyalties to develop. I'm reminded of the Cossacks in the south and east of the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth who effectively developed themselves into a de facto free entity. They were initially part of the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth, albeit a more extreme and periphery part of it, eventually joining Russia, because they had common religion. That switching of loyalties, it's a risk if you can't protect the very outer boundaries. To be honest, I don't really have a good answer for that. 

D

We can see that this system is for a strong state, one which is able to protect its interests with force and financial support. It is a more risky system for the state and then prison, would you agree?

RA

This might not be the only option. There might be a frontier where many states compete for influence. Another option is all the theoretically civilised places that are not necessarily protecting themselves enough to realise when they are being made a frontier of another state. So if one state were to be sending all of their criminal elements to another country, the newly free could even create economic value and send some payments back to the home country. 

It’s not complicated, but also not very popular. The popular sentiment doesn’t favour these options as there's a lot of second order consequences in this scenario. One rumour I've heard is that Albania has been doing this, how certain that is; I have no idea. Suppose Albania does happen to be clearing out prisons and deliberately sending criminal elements to the UK to form gangs. That imposes costs on the UK, what if that were to become public? It would not look very good on Albania or on the Albanian government, particularly if deliberate. And it doesn't necessarily create the best impression of Albanians to the people of Britain.

D

One question often mentioned together with that topic is the capital punishment. You say that people who are in prison have some skills which don't exactly correspond to civil society skills, but can be used for good. What if not all the skills are replayable? Maybe if we want them to contribute some value, they should just ‘learn to code’? There were and still are societies which don't recognise the value of these skills to civil society. Maybe they should be delegated for human experimentation for medical progress. This is a way they could contribute to society. Are there skills that are not recoverable for use for the benefit of civil society?

RA

I can't think of any examples of skills that would be completely unusable in any other context. Even if somebody has a set of skills that are completely incompatible with other human connection, solely destructive with no constructive possible outlet, then that would still be something which could be weaponized effectively against an enemy. Which may not necessarily give that person a tremendously good lifespan. But when you're looking at it from the state, geopolitical perspective, is something that can be turned into a useful quality. Dropping a psychopath or a handful of psychopaths in different places around China, Russia, whoever, pick your geopolitical enemy, for them to cause some trouble, that's going to be something that is going to be an asset. 

On the death penalty itself - from the cost perspective, under the regular scenario you're paying to keep somebody away from society, executing them would be a very minor cost by comparison. And you get nothing more out of that person, but they cost you no more as well, while my solution is asset/ revenue / usefulness providing. Execution is not the best, but is halfway between what we have and what we could have (the proposed value generation).

D

Let’s take a look at historical examples. In Les Miserables there is a portrayal of Bagne de Toulon, a prison - working camp. It appears that there was no capitalist mindset to extract value from them to have a profit. The feeling of justice was stronger. They did receive a small salary, but for food.

The prisoner work programme was so that they behave better and retain better health, after an epidemic devastated the prison and local population.

RA

Paying prisoners for work is still practiced in the US, not UK, some small below subsistence remuneration. But that’s not using their skills, like having a doctor cleaning the practice with a mop and bucket. Reducing to something that could be done by any human, and still creating prisoner costs.

D

From the point of view of best efficiency, the case of outcasts in the Prussian army - there is a certain coordination problem of ‘matching roles to skill sets’. Forcing them into one role decreases the value from each of them, but also the cost of organizing opportunities is lower. 

RA

On a social level, even such imperfect solutions would be an improvement.

D

If you were to implement this, there would be a portion of the population less interested in the economy, and more with the moral ‘good feelings’. Feelings that these people get off thinking of themselves as noble souls supporting restorative justice. If you wanted or needed to appeal to them, how would you argue that this solution provides that rehabilitation factor that they value?

RA

I’d say that it helps in getting them out of their system. There are some behaviours in age brackets, this solution would be essentially a social hibernation for them. Males between 16 and 26 commit quite a significant percentage of violent crime. If someone commits assault every weekend, that person can't be in civil society. Assuming a particular man is not a total aberration, but he could return somewhere down the line, once ‘enthusiasm’ has lapsed. To put crudely: ‘once a knife murderer has found that stabbing people is bad - has outlived former mindset, he is now compatible with civil society’

D

Some people complain about one more thing - that ex-inmates rejoin the same social networks in organized crime. Half your family, many friends doing something illegal or in the legal grey area. What would you do to address this problem?

RA

Insofar as the state would want to keep some portion of the proceeds of these people, they could keep a good portion for themselves. So on reentering could enter with huge assets, could place them in a different circle. But alternatively you could go with a different theory of origin of crime - that physiological qualities lead people to crime, not purely socioeconomic position. 

D

Moving on, the prisons are just a part of the justice system. Would you address and change other parts of the larger system of justice? Any changes to how the verdicts are made, judges are trained? Maybe decreasing the number of laws, for example drug decriminalization?

RA

The core structure would stay the same, one change in the judicial process could be that when the type of crime is established and identity of the wrongdoer is beyond reasonable doubt, as examination would proceed. 

A psychological professional would get a read of the emotional disposition of that person, discerning what pushed them, what skills they do possess.

D

Thanks for coming today, pleasure speaking with you.

RA

It was interesting to go into this idea far more than I expected. Hopefully the readers will get something interesting out of it, or at least food for thought.

vs


Would this work?

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