Essay:Prison reform and prison abolition

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Prison reform and prison abolition are changes in, or an end to, the system of incarceration of criminal offenders. It is not clear that a libertarian society would have prisons that are much like the ones that exist today, although it is possible that a person exiled and blacklisted from the more desirable communities would end up with no choice but to belong to a less desirable community that would function essentially as a prison. However, the particular prison need not be chosen by a government; it could be possible for a variety of prisons to compete for the business of exiles seeking a place to live. This is similar to how slumlords compete for the business of less desirable tenants. The prison, like the slum, is a particular market niche that might be regarded as an inferior good in some respects.

Prisons could compete on a variety of dimensions, such as offering a low price to stay there, or offering more amenities. Prisons could specialize in serving certain subgroups of the population, such as people skilled in certain trades. E.g., electrical engineers who have been found guilty of an offense might choose to be incarcerated at a prison that offers a full library on electrical engineering topics and work opportunities relevant to their abilities. Those who desire a religious diet and a community that is otherwise respectful of their religious beliefs could choose a prison that is owned and operated by people of that faith.

Of course, competition and choice would cut the other way too. In a free market, the prison's owners would have the right to refuse placement of any particular prisoner there. So, prisoners would have an incentive to maintain a good record of conduct so as to be able to obtain transfers to better prisons. They would also have a reason to work hard and acquire new skills in order to increase their earnings potential, since some of the better prisons might charge higher rent.

Eventually, by proving himself to be a good citizen, the prisoner might be able to get accepted back into his former community, or another non-prison-like community. He might be required to finish paying restitution to his victim before coming back, or to at least adhere to a restitution payment schedule as a condition of remaining there. Such payment schedules might not be much more onerous than the taxes people are presently required to pay in our comparatively non-libertarian society.


Often, half-measures for prison reform, such as imposing procedural safeguards for prisoners' rights within a government-run prison system, are proposed. These measures have the disadvantage that the entity in charge of promulgating, interpreting and enforcing these rights is still the government, the very entity whose abuses the system of regulation seeks to curtail. The legislative process requires that an interested group of citizens successfully persuade the legislative or executive authority to create the necessary regulations. In many cases, such an interested group does not exist; those citizens who have never been to prison are often uninformed about the abuses that occur in the prison system or do not care because they lack personal experience with it; as Henry David Thoreau notes, it would be an error to underestimate "how much more eloquently and effectively he can combat injustice who has experienced a little in his own person."[1] Those who have been to prison are often disenfranchised from voting[2] or disallowed to associate with other felons with whom they might otherwise organize for reform.

Also, there are many vested interests, such as bureaus of prisons, that would have a tendency to oppose such regulations as impinging on their ability to efficiently manage prisoner populations and encouraging costly lawsuits. Those groups would also have reason to use the regulatory process to create regulations that will tie the hands of judges from rendering relief to prisoners. Notable examples include the Prison Litigation Reform Act and the Administrative Remedy Program provisions of the Code of Federal Regulations, which establish a labyrinthine system of prison administrative remedies that can take a year or longer to exhaust, by which point the asked-for relief would often be too late.[3]


  1. Thoreau, Henry David. "Resistance to Civil Government". 
  2. "Why Prisoners Need the Vote". Prison Reform Trust. "There are few or no votes in prison reform and little interest in the rights and responsibilities of those behind bars. One of the reasons is that prisoners themselves can't vote." 

See also