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Up With The Carceral State

Prisons are ugly places, are regrettable institutions -- but what's the alternative?
Screen Shot 2022-09-07 at 8.02.05 AM

"You need to move to New Orleans," said my friend, who lives Uptown.

I told him that that's a good idea in theory -- New Orleans fits my sensibility like a velvet glove, and I could finally achieve my destiny of becoming Ignatius Reilly. But the fact is, I don't want to live in a place so ridden with crime. It's a great place, but not worth it to me, not at my age, anyway. Look:

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New Orleans' murder rate is on pace to be one of the highest in the world in 2022 after already sharp increases in 2020 and 2021.

The city has recorded 145 murders as of June 30, putting it on pace for nearly 300 murders this year and a rate of 74.12 per 100,000 population. That rate would dwarf Chicago's 18.26 murders per 100,000 population and would rank 9th among major cities in the world that are not at war, according to 2018 data compiled by the Citizen Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice, a Mexico City-based advocacy group.

The surging murder rate continues to b a troubling trend for the city, which saw murders rise from 119 in 2019 to 201 in 2020. That number continued to climb in 2021, reaching 218, an 83% increase over 2019 numbers.

It's not quite Jackson, Miss., levels of violence -- that's 97 murders per 100,000 residents -- but it's far higher than the murder rate of the world's most violent country, El Salvador, which has 52 killings per 100,000 residents. There's a lot to recommend New Orleans, but not enough to overcome the risk of falling victim to violent crime or property crime. Your mileage may vary.

Today on his Substack (subscriber-only), Ed West writes about how the police in his native Britain have all but given up on solving crimes -- and on the wider cost to society caused by crime. For example, West has had six bikes stolen since he started riding around London twenty years ago. None were ever recovered, as almost no stolen bikes are ever recovered in Britain. This makes bicycle theft basically legal there.

At the Baldwin Substack, Works in Progress editor Ben Southwood recently looked at the cost of crime in the US, citing one paper estimating it to be $2.6 trillion annually – about 12% of GDP, an immense drain on society. But, as he points out, the actual total is probably larger, because this figure doesn’t cover the cost of crime-prevention. 

‘People try their damnedest to avoid being the victims of crime,’ Southwood writes: ‘This leads to many extremely socially costly behaviours. Some of these have really obvious “macro” effects. People who fear new neighbours have a substantial risk of committing crimes tend to oppose new development nearby, and to live in extremely spread out “sprawl” suburbs, where sheer walking distance between places makes crime more difficult. What’s more, people in high-crime areas prefer to travel with metal shields around them at all times — that is by car — causing dramatically higher carbon emissions. By contrast ultra-low-crime Japan is tolerant of high-density development throughout its cities, and rates of cycling, walking, and transit use are all extremely high, while carbon emissions are much lower.’

The issue of NIMBYism is more existential in the US because, with its huge supply of land and more extreme violence, neighbourhoods and even whole cities can quickly fall apart as law-abiding taxpayers flee crime. It makes complete sense for people to oppose housing projects which might lead to disorder and a spiral of secondary migration.

I'm in Baton Rouge this month, settling my affairs before moving to Budapest -- a city whose safety shocked a visiting friend from Birmingham, Alabama, earlier this year. The other day, I was talking to someone older and more knowledgeable about the future of Baton Rouge. He said that over the coming decades, he expects the middle class to accelerate its abandonment of the Louisiana capital, pressured by crime and the realization that there's nothing really to be done about the failed state that is the northern half of the city, which is overwhelmingly poor, black, and violent. There are no government programs that can compensate for generations of collapsed family structures and family networks, he said. We have not figured out how to replace fathers as agents of socialization for males. Until and unless we do, we are going to see rampant crime from young impoverished black males.

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It cannot be said often enough that according to FBI statistics, though black males are disproportionately the committers of crime, their victims are usually other black people. Black people are the greatest victims of black crime. Don't forget that.

I have never understood the case against the so-called "carceral state". Of course it's not good to have a large proportion of one's population locked up in prison. But have people forgotten why criminals get sent to prison in the first place? For committing violent crimes! Ed West writes:

What does reduce offending, though, is incapacitation, with ‘multiple studies find[ing] strong evidence that [it] works to prevent crime’ – in other works, prison works.

Not only would expanding the prison population be a worthwhile investment in terms of the savings made from lower crime, but it would also be worth spending on more comfortable and pleasant jails, such as those of the Norwegians, ‘marked by their civilised treatment of prisoners.’ Give them comfortable rooms, televisions, free subscriptions to their favourite Substack writers — but keep them away from the people they will inevitably hurt.

The Tory-led governments of the past 12 years have largely forgotten the Victorian wisdom that a section of the population are not capable of caring for themselves, some because they are bad but most because they lack impulse control or are enslaved to addiction: they will bring misery to themselves and those around them, and so even from a straight-up cost-benefit analysis, let alone deeper moral considerations, it is worth spending money on their care and incapacitation. This is also seen with psychiatric care, which was partly dismantled in the later 20th century due to a combination of radical ideological reasons and small-state callousness. Since 2010 there has been a 25% drop in NHS psychiatric beds, and reduced psychiatric beds lead to an increase in prison numbers.

Subscribe to West's Substack to read the whole thing -- you'll be glad you did.

Louisiana, where I live, is one of the most violent American states. Here, from the Louisiana Department of Corrections, is a demographic breakdown of who is in our prisons:

The state's black population is 31.4 percent, according to the 2020 census. Because half of those are males, then roughly 15 percent of the Louisiana population produces two-thirds of those incarcerated in the state's prisons. What's more, according to the demographic breakdown provided by the state, almost half of the state's inmates come from its big cities (New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Shreveport).

An aside: when liberals mock so-called "Red States" like Louisiana for having high crime rates, despite voting conservative, they overlook the fact that many Southern red states have large black populations -- and that those populations, who are not Republican voters, produce the high crime rates.

I focus on the racial angle because activists condemn the "carceral state" as racist, because of the disproportionate number of black men in prison. My argument is that the number of black men in prison is so high because the number of black men who commit violent crimes is so high. Again, let's take Louisiana. According to the FBI's most recent statistics, here is a breakdown of who is committing violent crimes here:

Fifty-seven percent of the violent crimes in Louisiana that can be attributed to a member of a racial demographic are committed by black people, at least in the most recent year in which we have reliable statistics. Though 66 percent of Louisiana's prison inmates are black, this could have something to do with much higher crime rates in past years, when inmates still in jail were sentenced. Louisiana is arguably the most violent, crime-ridden state in the country. But if there were no black people in Louisiana, and assuming that the "unknown" category above is 100 percent non-black (which cannot be true, but let's just assume it), the violent crime rate here would not be 639.4 violent crimes per 100,000 people (as it is today), but 364.8 per 100,000 -- that is, about in the midrange of American states:

My point is this: prison populations are disproportionately black because violent criminals are disproportionately black. As Ed West points out, the cost to society at large from crime is immense. No places bear those costs more heavily than black neighborhoods, and majority black cities. The objectively pro-black thing to do is to get more of those criminals off the streets and behind bars, so decent people can get on with their lives. But we refuse to see this.

I wonder what it's going to take to cause society at large to turn on the Black Lives Matter activists who racialized the crime issue and put society at large on the defense for wanting to protect itself against the small population of violent black men who prey on decent people -- again, first of all decent black people? I recently posted an item here (though I can't find it now) highlighting a woke video a Colorado high school showed to its students, urging them not to report it to the police if they are victimized by a BIPOC criminal, because they would subject that BIPOC person to the racism of the police. This is morally insane. These activists, and their collaborators within institutions like that high school, are training people to acquiesce to their own rape and robbery for the sake of a twisted idea of racial virtue.

It will be a good day when society, both in Britain and America, rediscovers the truth that people who threaten the safety of law-abiding citizens, and who threaten the civil order, deserve prison, without remorse or apology. Middle-class people of whatever race have the wherewithal to pick up and move (indeed, as reporting from Jackson has shown, the white flight out of Mississippi's capital was followed by the flight of the black middle class, which sensibly wants to live in safe neighborhoods away from violent poor people). But the poor and working class, they have no choice but to live in cities where they and their families suffer from endemic violence, and where the social fabric is so tattered that their male children are socialized into a culture of violence and criminality.

Some people -- almost always young men -- have shown by their behavior that they have no place in society. Prisons are ugly places, but necessary ones. The only people who can afford to be sentimental about this are those whose money and privilege buys them distance from criminals and criminal culture. I have no problem with spending tax money to improve prison conditions, but I also have no problem with spending tax money to build more prisons. What is the alternative? In Britain, we're seeing it -- and in New Orleans too, with its woke DA.

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Michael Campbell
Michael Campbell
Crime is an extremely potent support issue for strongmen. If ordinary elected leaders allow an environment of lawlessness because of their own harebrained ideology, people ditch them fast.

An "American Orban" probably would look more like Nayib Bukele, President of El Salvador, consistently Latin America's most popular leader, a right wing populist and mass imprisoner.

From a recent New Yorker profile:
<i>Bukele, after many accusations that he was concentrating power, changed his Twitter bio to “the coolest dictator in the world.” A member of his party identified himself on social media as “Minister of Trolls.” Bukele’s voters expected him to have enemies, a member of Congress told me. “What the President is selling the people is revenge.”</i>
schedule 3 months ago
John Phillips
John Phillips
The lawlessness after hurricane Katrina is the most important thing people who want to move there need to ne aware of. Its like Haiti after a natural disaster. Contrast that with Japan after a natural disaster. Recognizing truth is always the best policy. PC is never harmless.
schedule 3 months ago
Andrew Szekely
Andrew Szekely
I served as a Board member of the Montgomery County Correctional Facility in Pennsylvania for a total of ten years with five years as president. This Board was unique in that there were only two of its kind in Pennsylvania; it is an oversight Board that consists of group of volunteers that are appointed by the County Commissioners or Judges. The purpose of the Board is to make sure that the prisoners are treated humanely and that staff are equipped to perform their duties safely. The Board that I sat on consisted of a former school superintendent, a medical doctor, a police officer, a former correctional officer, a mental health professional and a retired pharmaceutical executive. This Board was also diverse in its make-up including an African-American, a Latino and a woman. I can say that the prison staff does its best in caring for the inmates. As a Board we advocated for tablets for the inmates, increased funding for mental health and allocated funding for numerous other practical changes based on feedback from the prisoners.

With the COVID pandemic and bail reform the prison population went from 1,800 in 2019 to 800 in 2022. As a result of emptying the prison, there are more criminals out in streets with enough offenders committing serious crimes that the Montgomery County Police Chiefs Association sent a letter to the District Attorney and the County Commissioner to protest bail reform. Because the District Attorney and the County Commissioner are Progressive Democrats, I don't see the prisoner population increasing unless Republicans get elected and crime once again becomes a priority issue.

These Progressive Democrats are ideologues and unfortunately, they won't listen to reason or commons sense. To give an example of their insanity, the County Commissioner told the prison staff that if a biological male (or vice versa) was remanded to the prison yet identified as a female, that biological male was to be housed with the females with no questions asked as this would be too demeaning. The Board, the Warden and staff laughed at this dicktat because it was so ridiculous. And because I protested this idiotic idea, when my term on the Board expired this June, I was removed from the Board by the progressive commissioners (in April 2022, I was unanimously elected president of the Board) and replaced with a convicted felon who spent 32 years in jail for first degree murder. Now granted this convicted felon served his time, and I cannot judge him. But based on the convictions of the two progressive commissioners, I would not be surprised if his appointment to the Board is a first step towards more pressure on the justice system to keep criminals out of the jail and on the streets.
schedule 3 months ago
    Zenos Alexandrovitch
    Zenos Alexandrovitch
    Are you up on the abuses of the prison communications racket?

    And the banning of physical items in lieu of digital - digital books, christmas cards get digitized and tossed away, locking prisoner's digital and scanned in mail communication behind paywalls - cutting journalists off from access to prisoners who are sources about prison abuse?
    schedule 1 month ago
Zenos Alexandrovitch
Zenos Alexandrovitch
Bring back flogging.
schedule 1 month ago