Escape from Dannemora


I’m going to say something that many libertarians don’t want to hear: prisons need discipline, and plenty of it.

I’m reflecting on the big news item of the past three weeks, the escape of two convicts from the maximum-security prison in Dannemora, New York, an institution that used to be feared as “Siberia.” They escaped because they were allowed to live in an “honor” block, work with and have sex with civilians, cook their own meals, wear civilian clothes, and enjoy a level of control and discipline that permitted them to acquire power tools and use them to cut holes in their cells and escape. Power tools. Used by men sent to prison for vicious murders, including, in one instance, the dismemberment of the murder victim. Tools freely used, and undetected.

What’s that noise? Is that a guy cutting his way out of prison, or is that just a guy cutting up some other prisoner? Whatever. Have a nice night.

It is one thing to debate about whom to send to prison. It is another thing to screw around with the lives of the people we decide to send there. Because, make no mistake about it, the first victims of convicts who are not controlled are other convicts. If you want the rapes, murders, tortures, and gang aggressions that happen routinely in American prisons to continue to happen, all you need to do is let the bad guys act in whatever way they want. If that’s your “libertarian” philosophy, it will have a big impact, because just one of those bad guys in a prison unit can be enough to ensure the victimization of everybody else.

When there’s a good reason to send somebody to prison — and sometimes there is — you don’t have to give him a life sentence, but you do have to keep him safely inside.

The late Nathan Kantrowitz made this point very powerfully in his exacting study of prison life, Close Control. I followed Nathan’s lead in my own book, The Big House: Image and Reality of the American Prison. I added that, in my judgment, the sorry state of American penology is the result of a vicious convergence of modern liberal and modern conservative ideas. The conservatives want to lock people up, and do it on the cheap. And it’s true, you can get a lot of non-discipline and non-control, very cheaply indeed. The liberals believe that convicts are somehow rehabilitated by being allowed to wear their own clothes, cook their own meals, and wander about the joint, victimizing anyone who’s weaker than they are. (Unnoticed by the conservatives, the liberals also ordained that those who run the prison system would get paid enough to give them 15 degrees at Harvard. They’re unionized, after all, and they’re the biggest sinkhole in many state budgets.)

Libertarians ought to be smarter. When there’s a good reason to send somebody to prison — and sometimes there is — you don’t have to give him a life sentence, but you do have to keep him safely inside, and safe from victimizing or being victimized by other prisoners.

In the short run, whoever is running the New York prison system needs to be fired, immediately. (I’m afraid that the fix is already in, and this will never happen.) In the middle run, real investigations of penology — not ideological declarations about penology, from any vantage point — need to be conducted, so that people can learn what the few good scholars, such as Nathan Kantrowitz, have already established. In the long run, Americans should stop making savage jokes about rape in prison and start considering the steps that are necessary to keep rape and murder, and by the same token, escape, from happening in their supposedly secure institutions.

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Libertarians, as exemplified by the Koch brothers State Policy Network, have promoted for-profit prisons as a solution to the carcerel state. Of course, that profit motive just worsens a sorry situation. The Koch brothers SPN members, such as Reason, Heartland, Mackinac, Rio Grande, etc, etc., produce completely bogus "studies," to justify their contentions.

In fact, the privatizers have greatly expanded the prison nation, thanks to their membership in and presence at another Koch front, the American Legislative Exchange Council where the industry has repeatedly co-chaired the criminal justice committees to write legislation to put more people in jail for much longer sentences, with even less basis for doing so.

Dannemora was run badly, for sure. But ALL for-profit prisons are run badly. One, its origin and operation steeped in corruption, burned down in Willacy County, Texas, this past winter. Another in Arizona, built and operated by the same cast of seamy characters rioted on July 1st, 2nd and 4th, rendering much of it, as in Texas, uninhabitable.

So what did the state of Arizona do? Why it sent hundreds of prisoners to the same outfit, MTC, in Texas, where increasing distance from families and support systems has demonstrably been proven to produce recidivism.

The owners and top executives of these corporations typically receive over a million dollars a month in compensation while deferring maintenance, cheating staff of earned pay, and bribing the officials charged with contracting with them and performing their monitoring.

Some libertarians may come up with better ideas to make this system more rational and effective, but I won't be holding my breath waiting for that to happen.


Good points.

I think that in a right society, a facility of detention for criminals ought to be a place where all "clients" are simply prohibited from exercising any "vice". I promise you that then they wouldn't want to go there. That is how you rehabilitate criminals -- just prohibit them from exercising vice during their stay and they will either stay out or not go back. This would be the "discipline" that Cox refers to. One place that their vice is exercised is in their "playground" time that I see on TV all the time. That is playground stuff is such B.S. Prisons should be designed differently.


"Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler."

Scott Robinson

Dear Stephen,

As you described the prison situation in your article, this is why I called, "life in prison without parole" the "welfare state for life", in my comment about Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's death penalty sentence. However, I just thought that was free housing, food, medical care, and education. I didn't realize that they had ready access to power tools too. I actually thought that somehow that woman Joyce Mitchell had smuggled them in to them somehow. That is the other surprising thing, a woman prison guard of men? There are good reasons why that is not typically the case, the best being that statistically, a man beats a woman in hand to hand combat. The evidence you presented reaffirms my contention that the important issue is punishment. I wonder if every year, inmates fill out a service review to critique their guards and warden.

I should read your book "The Big House...",

Paul Thiel

I am sure that others have more insight into this issue than I do, but I have long thought that the American prison system is large enough to justify creating a dual system that completely separates violent prisoners from non-violent ones. Admittedly this would not solve all of our in-prison crime problems, but I think it would be a step in the right direction to protecting prisoners from others.

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