Building Conservative Prison Reform
Talk of bipartisan prison form has rallied spirits in Washington in recent weeks, and was a topic of hope at CPAC last month. Though American politics may suffer schismatic divides in many issues, maybe—just maybe—we can find agreement here.
But it’s interesting how many are framing the debate—while the left’s motivation is largely viewed as humanitarian, the right’s motives are seen as decidedly pragmatic: prisons are costing us too much. Let’s change that.
Of course we can appreciate this pragmatism, but where is the principle and conscience in our prison reform views? Do conservatives only think in dollar signs?
In a conversation with Idaho Rep. Raúl Labrador some weeks ago, he agreed that prison reform makes fiscal sense—but expanded conservative interests into the ethical sphere. He argued that as a Christian and defender of justice, our system ought not consign so many people to rotting in jail. “Because of the fear of crime,” he said, “We keep making it easier and easier for the state to take away your liberty and your freedom … we shouldn’t be throwing people in jail for long periods of time over non-violent offenses.”
Is this something other conservatives should be on-board with? Take solitary confinement, for instance: as conservatives, should we support it—and to what extent is it also deserving of reform?
A Wednesday piece by Lisa Guenther for Aeon provides some good philosophical reasons to oppose solitary confinement. She argues that, since man is (as Aristotle put it) a “social animal,” it is spiritually, emotionally, and psychologically deleterious for him to be alone. We depend on “the other” to undergird and reinforce our experience, our reality. Without that, the soul and mind are cut loose:
When we isolate a prisoner in solitary confinement, we deprive him of this network of perceptual and existential orientation. He might still have an experience of the table that is bolted in place in his cell, and he might still have the memory of what tables mean for other people. But the lived experience of these objects as both for-me and for-another is, by and large, denied to him. The ‘there’ that would otherwise anchor his experience of the world from ‘here’ has been pulled up, casting him adrift without a clear view of the horizon.
We may live in a rather individualistic society—but we never have to experience life in total solitude. “Only the prisoner in solitary confinement is forced to occupy the position of an isolated individual, and to bear the full weight of his existence alone,” writes Guenther. Traditional conservatism opposes individualism—it upholds the important and reforming nature of community. Should this principle extend to our penal system?
It depends, to some extent, on what you think prison is for. Those who believe in “locking up prisoners and throwing away the key” have a good, strong understanding of human depravity. But their belief in redemption is somewhat lacking. This is, perhaps, the largest problem I see with solitary confinement: it leaves absolutely no room for reform of the person. Instead, it turns the soul further toward its inner depravity, and keeps it locked there, away from “the other.” This may keep the individual from harming others—but it also leaves no room for the soul to grow or emerge from its inner prison.
True conservative prison reform should consider the impact such measures have on the human psyche and soul—not merely their monetary cost.