How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new word!
That has such people in it!
-- William Shakespeare, "The Tempest," V, 1 --
When you keep doing something despite the fact you know it doesn't work, unconscious forces are at work. Something -- as powerful as it is irrational -- is controlling you, instead of you controlling it.
Everybody knows prisons don't work, that they are failures on whatever grading system you care to use, be it punishment or correction. Yet we keep building more prisons and stuffing more people in them.
The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world. In 2001, the yearly cost per state pen inmate (national average) was $22,650. With that money you can put a kid through college.
States typically spend 7% of their budget on corrections. And the cost is rising almost as fast as our prisons are deteriorating. Nationwide, the price of correction increased 660% between 1982-2006. No wonder we have budget deficits crushing the country.
Lock 'em up and throw away the key? I couldn't agree more -- only the "them" in this case is the prisons, at least the way they're currently operated, not the prisoners.
The key to understanding our prison overcrowding: America's prison sentences are long -- much longer relative to those handed down in other countries.
Sentencing fewer people to prison and/or ordering shorter sentences lack public support, and therefore are politically unfeasible. If only there was a safe, controlled way for more inmates to serve more of their sentences outside prison ...
A few days ago, California confirmed yet again our penal system's failure. The Supreme Court concluded the state's prisons were so overcrowded they constituted cruel and unusual punishment. The Court ordered The Golden State to cut the inmate population by 30,000 over a 2-year period. Even at the end of the reduction trail, the prisons would be running at 137% of capacity.
California's motto is Eureka, the Greek word for "I have found it." According to popular mythology, Eureka 1 was exclaimed in 1848, when gold was discovered; Eureka 2 in 1850, when California was admitted to the union.
Is Eureka 3 just over the horizon? California solves its overcrowded prison crisis? Leads the nation, shows the way? O, wonder!
First, in addressing the prison problem, we must know whom, exactly, we are talking about. Not all of California's 140,000 inmates are alike. For Eureka 3 to resound, meaningful distinctions must be made.
Let's start with a quizzical formula:
Those numbers form a universal screening principle. It is useful for evaluating the future prospects of hospital patients, college students, construction and assembly line workers, vehicle drivers, political candidates and government employees, athletes, soldiers, even grant and manuscript submissions.
Applied to prisoners, the 15%/15%/70% principle works this way:
The first 15% of them you are sure of. These prisoners are true criminals because they consciously identify themselves as criminals who resist society. Dangerous, incorrigible, this group is hopeless and must be locked up.
The second 15% you are also sure of. They are prisoners but not criminals. Mostly nonviolent people who made a stupid mistake, they can definitely be rehabilitated. This group will get out and stay out.
Finally, we come to the 70% group. They are the most difficult to decipher. Hopeless criminals? Or ordinary people who committed misdeeds out of passion, circumstances, or accident? These prisoners can go either way. Nobody knows.
The 70% group -- the vast majority -- concerns us here.
My post of 5/15/2011, "Jujitsu and Prisoners," featured a revolutionary technological device: the tiny Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) electronic chip:
Soon, a RFID chip will be embedded in almost everything, giving it a unique identifying code. The chip consists of a circuit for storing and processing data, and an antenna for receiving and sending information. In 2004, it was approved for human implantation.
The present generation of RFID chips has major deficiencies, i.e., the transmission range is short and they can be hacked. But the development of a new, improved, second generation chip could create unprecedented possibilities.
Take Guantanamo terrorist prisoners:
If a Second Generation RFID were implanted in each Guantanamo detainee before his release, not only would his exact location always be known, but also everything he said and heard would be transmitted. Who knows what else? And, by sending signals to the chip, you could knock out al-Qaeda's telephones, freeze their computers, prematurely blow up their bombs, stop their cars. Maybe control their TVs, burn their dinner.
Unlike today, there would be no reason to dread the release of a Guantanamo prisoner. On the contrary -- with a second generation chip he would be a breathing video audio recorder. He wouldn't be the first person, incidentally, who had to work for somebody he hates.
As enemy combatants, Guantanamo detainees don't have the same legal standing as common prisoners. Nevertheless, there's no prima facie reason why a Chip And Go program for terrorists in Guantanamo could not be applied to common prisoners in the 70% "unknown" category .
At the mere suggestion, hundreds of questions immediately arise. Should the chip be implanted with or without the prisoner's knowledge? Can the operation be performed without his consent? Should the chip be implanted in a vital area from which it cannot be removed, i.e., the liver, or in a nonvital one so that the chip could be removed if the released prisoner goes straight? Should an ankle bracelet accompany the chip? Is there a way of tweaking the chip to reward good behavior?
I won't attempt to answer such questions here. For now, let's leave the matter at this: advancing technology will allow for an ever expanding variety of options; they could be combined and tailor-made to fit the individual prisoner.
What is unquestionable is that the chip would take a gigantic slice out of the 70% prisoner group, thereby (1) reducing our overcrowded prison population and (2) saving megabucks.
To my knowledge, the second generation RFID chip does not yet exist, so any discussion about it is purely hypothetical. Nonetheless, when it comes to discussing a public policy change as major as implanting chips in prisoners, better too soon than too late.
I want to address the two groups most likely to oppose a Chip And Go program:
(1) Those who decry the loss of privacy caused by the chip.
My initial inclination: let's do something new. Instead of leaving human and civil rights changes to others to ponder and decide, e.g., well-healed Antioch College graduates and "liberal" millionaire lawyers, let's go ask the people who would undergo the changes -- the prisoners eligible for the Chip And Go program. Which do they want: stay in a crowded, hot, noisy dorm and endure abuse and little privacy, or be released and lose all privacy, go to the beach, go fishing, go on a date?
The chip dilemma is part of the core drama underlying our times: rights in conflict. Movies, books, articles, TV shows: there is plenty in there for everybody. That said, there are real grounds for civil rights concerns:
Make no mistake: the "freedom" granted the released prisoner with a Eureka chip would make him a prisoner of a different sort. He would be behind bars without a cage. I wrote of the released Guantanamo detainee:
In the intriguing world of terrorist networking, the Second Generation RFID chip would have intriguing repercussions. If a released detainee discovered he had a chip and couldn't remove it, he would face a singular dilemma. If he kept quiet about the chip, he would knowingly betray those around him. But if he were honest and openly acknowledged it, he would become a pariah. Fellow terrorists would not be the only people to shun him. Can you imagine a woman wanting to marry somebody whose most intimate actions and pillow talk were being transmitted to Virginia?
I'll bet you've never seen this word before: panopticon. It is a standard edifice in the prison landscape.
The panopticon consists of a tower surrounded by a circular, multi-storied cell block. Unseen guards in the tower can see any prisoner at any time. For the prisoners, the tower is forever present, unavoidable and interminable, offering no communication much less compromise -- a fact of life like the sky.
The panopticon is as controversial as the RFID chip. Conceived by Jeremy Bentham in the 1700s, the panopticon was designated by MIchel Foucault (Surveiller et Punir) as a forerunner of modern totalitarianism. With the chip, however, we're actually moving beyond Orwell's 1984, in which the hero could find relief from Big Brother by going to the working class section of town. In the near future, no such luck:
Joe Louis served notice to his opponents, "You can run but you can't hide." If the implanted chip receives a signal, you can't even run.
A released prisoner with a chip would be a walking panopticon guard tower. All listening; all recording; all knowing. Then again ... the prisoner could never be sure if the chip was turned on, if somebody was in the tower. Or, maybe the chip is simply there, a gimmick, and doesn't do anything. Who knows? Somebody, somewhere knows.
In the end, then, prisoners will be prisoners. Released prisoners with chips will be prisoners in a world in which both meanings of the word might -- possibility and power -- interlock and fuse all day everyday. To separate them would be like unscrambling scrambled eggs.
One thing the prisoner knows for certain: if the chip is turned on and he knocks over a bank, the authorities will know about it live time. They also know exactly where to find him, maybe even send a signal and knock him flat on his back.
Omniscience forms the peak of the mountain of maybes. From the summit's perspective, good behavior may be all the chipped prisoner has left. A brave, new world looms before him in which he MUST go straight -- be a goodly creature in, around and in spite of himself. That necessity is rooted in a paradox: not committing a crime would be his only way to beat the system, because it would make watching him a waste of time. Talk about ultimate correction ...
(2) The other group who would oppose a Chip And Go program: those who are terrified of turning 30,000 prisoners lose "in our neighborhood" to pillage and plunder.
In Western societies, we are absolutely convinced that the ultimate punishment is to restrict someone's space. Yet thousands of people, e.g., monks and video game fanatics, voluntarily live in restricted space and don't view it as punishment.
Punishment has to be defined, then, according to the individual or group receiving it. So, we need to ask not what would be the worst punishment for you or me, but what would be the worse punishment for a prison inmate? High recidivism and incarceration rates prove it definitely is not confinement.
Remember: the inmate with the implanted chip would be a living panopticon guard tower. No action is required on his part; all he has to do is be there. He records and transmits every single thing he says and hears. Who knows what else the chip knows, tastes, senses, sees, does?
The chipped prisoner thereby becomes what he despises the most, hates to his innermost fiber, what he dreams of pummeling and murdering if given two seconds: the snitch. Being transformed into the ultimate snitch = the ultimate punishment for a prison inmate.
Hardcore criminal prisoners comprising the first 15% of the screening formula will have one word for the chip program: diabolical. The same word, by the way, as hardcore liberals.
A Chip And Go program should not be initiated without thorough research funded by Congress. A study conducted in Guantanamo prison would be an appropriate starting place; literally, it would make the most of a bad situation.
The end goal of a Chip And Go program is readily summarized: firm but fair. To those who want firm punishment, the program offers from the criminal's standpoint the worse punishment imaginable. To those who seek humanitarian reforms, e.g., relieving overcrowding and cruel subhuman conditions, the program would offer a workable, flexible alternative. And to taxpayers fed up with paying megabucks for a correctional system that doesn't correct, the program offers fiscal relief to an extent heretofore unimaginable.
Eureka 3. A triple play.