Back to previous post: The Holy Rood of Bromholm

Go to Making Light's front page.

Forward to next post: Insufficiently Boring

Subscribe (via RSS) to this post's comment thread. (What does this mean? Here's a quick introduction.)

June 23, 2012

Punishment, damned punishment, and statistics
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 07:05 PM *

Trigger warning: discussion of prison rape

When I woke up this morning, I saw from my Twitter stream that Jerry Sandusky was found guilty on a sufficient quantity of child sex abuse charges to make it likely that he’ll go to prison. But said tweets did not contain what I’d half-dreaded they would: the inevitable prison rape comments.

Some of that is that I have good Tweeps. But when I braced myself and went looking, I didn’t see nearly as much of them as I’d feared. I’m sure they lurk in the comment threads of the newspaper sites and propagate on Facebook. Or perhaps the subject is now just under the surface, the subject of a nod and a wink and a tap alongside the nose.

Back in 2007, Patrick wrote about “the conviction that society requires extra-legal violence in order to hold together”. That’s still a good description of the role of prison rape in the popular culture. But somewhere in the last five years, that strain of discourse seems to have become muted in the political conversation**. I don’t know if I’ve learned to tune it out, or if it left the building when Bush left the White House. It always struck me as a partisan canard.

Still, the problem itself remains. Whether people joke about it or call it justice, prison rape is pervasive. There’s a much bandied-about figure: 216,600 victims in 2008 (the latest year for which figures are available). The DOJ appears to have recalculated that down to 203,000 (pdf) based on some methodology changes, and most responsible journalists seem to agree with that revision. (In comparison to earlier survey results from the DOJ, 49,000 (pdf) and 88,500 (pdf), the reduction pales in significance. It’s still a radical increase on what was previously acknowledged.)

The federal government has just brought out new regulations, which form the long-delayed practical implementation of the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003. According to the Huffington Post,

The regulations are immediately binding on federal prisons. States that don’t fall in line face a loss of 5 percent of their Justice Department prison money unless their governor certifies that the same amount of money is being used to bring the state into compliance. Prison accreditation organizations also will be barred from federal grants unless they include similar anti-prison rape standards in their accreditation process, which means local jails could lose their accreditation unless they comply.

Of course, corrections officials are objecting, citing the costs of implementing the regulations. I hope it won’t take nine more years to get changes in place.

This is distressing, all of it, but not anything I hadn’t already known, suspected, or thought about. But while Googling around, I came across an article† that gave me an interestingly different angle on the matter.

Crime has not fallen in the United States—it’s been shifted. Just as Wall Street connived with regulators to transfer financial risk from spendthrift banks to careless home buyers, so have federal, state, and local legislatures succeeded in rerouting criminal risk away from urban centers and concentrating it in a proliferating web of hyperhells. The statistics touting the country’s crime-reduction miracle, when juxtaposed with those documenting the quantity of rape and assault that takes place each year within the correctional system, are exposed as not merely a lie, or even a damn lie—but as the single most shameful lie in American life.

I find the notion that violent crime has moved from the outside world to the prisons an interesting one. I’m not sure it’s a straight transfer, that we moved the criminals there so they aren’t committing crimes in our cities any more. I think violent urban crime has also fallen for the other reasons that usually get cited. Crime is not necessarily a zero-sum game; its absence in one place does not mean a new occurrence somewhere else. But I think the larger picture is true in a way the article did not intend. There is indeed a great crime going on in the prisons of the United States, one that encompasses unrecorded sexual assault, murder, and robbery, but whose extent is not defined by their boundaries. Its presence has shifted the balance of criminality in the nation.

Basically, we’re locking too damn many people up. There were 1.6 million (pdf) people in state and federal prisons as of December 2010. And it’s not all murderers, rapists and thieves: 51% of federal inmates are serving time for drug offenses and 35% for public-order offenses. Even if nothing worse happens to them, prisoners spend years in distorting and damaging regimes, where they lose the self-organization skills people need in the outside world. Some of them are kept in conditions that drive people insane.

And when we let them out (if we let them out), we prevent them from voting, so politicians rarely represent the interests of ex-cons. In this economic climate, they struggle to get jobs as well, which can in itself violate the terms of their parole. It’s even dangerous for them to blog, lest they offend the wrong person.

Allowing them to be sexually assaulted is just the icing on the cake.

We’re breaking human beings, beyond the needs of punishment or deterrence. We’re not reforming them, redeeming them, or giving them a tools to restore the social balance that they broke when they committed their crimes. We’re taking the bad situations they created and giving them no way to make them anything other than worse.

Why do we do this? Some of it’s capitalism gone septic yet again: one private prison company demanded a 90% occupancy rate as part of its management contracts. Some of it’s that streak of mutated Calvinism that infects our national discourse, whispering that bad things only happen to bad people, and therefore that the occurrence of bad things proves that those people were bad. That’s fear talking, since it’s so easy to fall off of the bottom of the ladder these days. Any reassurance that we won’t be next is a lifeline.

What to do? And who will do it?

** Note that we still seem to commit an awful lot of extra-legal violence. We just seem to valorize it less
† Mind you, there’s a lot to disagree with in the article. It repeats the canard current among the MRA crowd, that the figure of 216,600 sexual assault victims means that ‘more men are raped than women in the US’*. And its conclusions are bats: it’s all the fault of moderates! In order to stop prison rape, we must abandon all other forms of prison reform, such as elimination of the death penalty! We should embrace a British-style surveillance society!
* This ignores both the difference between assault and rape and the existence of female prisoners. So it’s wrong. But worse, it also creates an opposition between the parallel and synergistic causes of eliminating both forms of rape. Wrong and harmful. I don’t need to tell anyone what will happen to commenters pursuing that line of discussion in this conversation.

Comments on Punishment, damned punishment, and statistics:
#1 ::: lightning ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2012, 09:07 PM:

The Law'n Order types forget that people in prison don't cease to exist -- they've just been removed from the greater "outside" culture and put into a different culture. We have allowed that "inside" culture to become mind-bogglingly poisonous. If you look at the behaviors that are rewarded in prison, they're just about the total opposite of what we might want somebody to "learn".

The only way out of it that I see is:
1. Cut down the prison population. This means shorter sentences and not locking people up for things like nonviolent drug crimes.
2. Hire prison guards who are well-educated enough to know how to use behavior- modification techniques, and who are stable enough not to turn into sadists. This implies paying them *a lot* more.
3. Prisoners need something useful and productive to do. A lot of prison problems I've heard about look a lot like boredom. And renting out prisoners as slave labor doesn't count. Jobs should pay at least minimum wage.
4. Restore civil rights (especially the right to vote) to felons after their sentences have been served. More prisoners means a bigger voting bloc ...

I'll let you imagine the probability of anything like this actually happening. Best we can probably expect is to get rid of some of the more egregious guards/wardens.

#2 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2012, 09:38 PM:

lightning, I think most of those problems would take care of themselves in short order if we got rid of the for-profit prison industry. I think prisons should always have to run at a net loss; this will encourage imprisoning fewer people. But the for-profit prison industry's financial incentives are ALL counter to the public good.

#3 ::: Rymenhild ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2012, 10:48 PM:

Tying into lightning's first point, another problem with the American prison structure is how many obstacles the system puts in front of prisoners who are ready to leave the system.

My father volunteers at a local prison. The parole board ruled that one of the men there -- let's call him Nathan* -- was eligible for release under probation five years ago. By that time, Nathan had been imprisoned for more than twenty years, and had shown good behavior throughout his time there. But Nathan can't get out of jail until he finds a particular kind of housing, in a location that conforms to a particular set of rules. Five years later, Nathan is still in the state's overcrowded prison system... and he's seventy-something years old.

*his name is not Nathan

This man, and presumably many other men and women like him, can't get out, even though the people responsible for determining whether the prisoners have paid their debts to society agree that the debts have been paid. For America's Nathans, prison can be a one-way trip even when it's not technically a life sentence. They've been permanently characterized as criminals, and might not ever get the chance to rejoin the citizens outside of the prison walls.

(For Nathan, at least, my father's working on finding a place that meets all the requirements, and he may already have found one. There may be a way out at last. But it shouldn't take five years of work from someone outside of the prison system to find it.)

#4 ::: lightning ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2012, 11:24 PM:

Xopher, I'll certainly agree that private prisons are a Seriously Bad Idea, and should be eliminated ASAP. However, getting rid of them won't do anything about the basic prison problems. Prisons have been snake pits for far longer than they've been privately run.

The main issue is that prisoners are members of a *culture*, which is self-sustaining and largely controlled by the prisoners themselves. Changing that culture is going to require *a lot* of work, by people who know what they're doing. This does not (ahem!) describe your friendly average prison guard.

#5 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2012, 02:53 AM:

A large part of the problem in prisons, both the for-profit versions and the more ordinary kind, is that the guards and other employees are not screened very well, and many of them would be classified as criminals if they didn't already have a different job description.

There's a for-profit juvenile prison here in Oregon which was recently taken over by the state department of corrections after a DOJ investigation reported it as one of the most inhumane prisons they'd ever seen. There were hundreds of cases of sexual assault, sexual misconduct, extortion, and improper use of discipline, and those are the ones by the guards and officials. And we're talking here about mostly teenage inmates, both male and female. I'm not sure anyone knows how many offenses were committed by inmates on other inmates and tolerated by the prison management and guards.

#6 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2012, 02:59 AM:

I've been thinking lately that something's broken in US culture, some fundamental part of society that normally governs the way society thinks of and treats it's more vulnerable members. Children, prisoners, the poor, the sick, the elderly, all of them are more and more the targets of scorn, contempt, neglect, even envy of what little they have and campaigns to take that away. I have no idea why this is so, but it does not bode well for the future welfare or even survival of this country. Eating your children is at least as destructive as eating your seed corn.

#7 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2012, 07:02 AM:

The major Sandusky-verdict-related comment (not joke, the way I've been hearing it) I've run into lately runs something like this: "Well, they might've at least been honest and given him the death penalty, because the first day the guards feel like being 'inattentive' some guy with a shiv is going to kill him, and if he's lucky, they'll JUST kill him. Look what happened to Dahmer."

Because one thing about that prison culture is, it actively hates and wishes to destroy any of its members who were convicted of specific crimes, most especially violence against children and illegal "homosexual" activities. The guards wouldn't even have to bribe anyone, they'd just have to let it be known in the general population that he was going to be in a general-use exercise yard instead of under specific, protective solitary confinement.

#8 ::: LMM ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2012, 09:52 AM:

Children, prisoners, the poor, the sick, the elderly, all of them are more and more the targets of scorn, contempt, neglect, even envy of what little they have and campaigns to take that away.

I'd hypothesize that it has to do with the atomization of society -- we live (perhaps for the first time) in a society in which the *norm* is for the college-educated class is not just to move away from home but to move into communities *overtly* segregated by wealth. Couple that with the very real shrinkage of wealth available to the majority of the public and you achieve a situation in which most people are so afraid of losing ground that they blame programs that are taking their money away.

(Social Security and Medicare are especially bad on these grounds. My generation -- the older Millenials -- are often explicitly told that SS, at least, won't be around for us, and yet the amount deduced for SS and Medicare is listed right on our pay stubs. I'm quite liberal, and yet even I caught myself being annoyed at the amount that was deducted from my paycheck -- Don't these people know I have college loans to pay off? Don't these people know that I'm supposed to be saving for retirement on my own? If we itemized where the rest of our taxes were going, things might be different -- but as it stands, *knowing* the amount of money that is going to pay for a program that we have been assured won't be around for us is galling.)

#9 ::: LMM ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2012, 10:20 AM:

Also, to add one other point: The fact that most people have seen their hours increased, their benefits cut, and their real wages decreased over the past few decades leads to a perverse belief that everyone else should suffer. That was the argument I saw repeated time after time in Wisconsin: the private-sector workers have suffered, so why shouldn't the public-sector workers suffer as well?

It never occurs to many people to ask why *their* benefits have been cut -- just to lash out and blame those who have fared better than they have.

#10 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2012, 11:22 AM:

Bruce Cohen @ #6: Children, prisoners, the poor, the sick, the elderly

Add widows and orphans and you have a suspiciously familiar list. At least as far back as 33 A.D., these groups were commended to our particular care (by a religious movement supposedly very influential in modern-day America!), presumably because society was doing a terrible job of looking after them.

I'm not at all disagreeing with your point; I'm only saying that this is by no means a new, or a distinctively American, problem.

#11 ::: geekosaur ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2012, 11:51 AM:

Not to mention the understanding that in

It shall be that if the transgressor is punishable by lashes, then the judge shall have him lie down and he shall be beaten before him with a number of lashes that is in accordance with his evil actions. He shall be dealt forty lashes, no more, lest he beat him further with many lashes and your brother shall be degraded before your eyes.
once the punishment is done, there is no longer the transgressor but "your brother" again. (Not to mention explicitly rejecting the situation @3.)

#12 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2012, 11:54 AM:

Xopher Halftongue:

The problems were there before the for-profit prisons. The for-profit prison industry simply exacerbates them.

Part of the reality is that once people have been sentenced to imprisonment there's a set of people who believe that whatever happens to them is deserved and that they earned it.

Being raped in prison for, say, possession of one crystal of cocaine, strikes me as an insane definition of desert.

#13 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2012, 12:07 PM:

LMM at #8: thanks for your comment; you've cleared up something which has been puzzling me mightily: i.e. the hostility of folks coming after me -- yeah, I'm a boomer -- to paying Social Security and Medicare. I always understood that the amounts I paid (and continue to pay, I'm still working) into those programs were helping to pay for my parents' retirement and health care. I was and am totally fine with that. However, unlike you, I always believed that both programs would be there for me when I needed them.

I'm curious -- and these are general questions, not intended to put LMM on the spot -- if, like LMM, you doubt that Medicare and Social Security will be there for you, do you want them to go away now? That is, do you want everybody to stop paying into those funds?

Do you see any hope of "fixing" them? (A fix for Social Security would be relatively simple; Medicare, not so much.)

#14 ::: Concerned ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2012, 12:11 PM:

On avg 60% of all prison populations across amerika are made up of child sex offenders. In most states they have reserved prisons specifically to house them so they won't be killed by the regular prison population.

Sandusky is on suicide watch to keep him out of the prison population until he can be moved.

Guard sanctioned prison rape is a tool of authority. Just like Jeffrey Dahlmer being killed. Privatizing prisons will only make that worse...

#15 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2012, 12:19 PM:

Following up at my #13: my comment and questions are entirely off topic, so perhaps it would be better to hold any responses, assuming anyone wants to get into this discussion with me, until we have another open thread.

#16 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2012, 12:26 PM:

Concerned @ 14:

You are either new to Making Light (no previous comments in :"view all by") or a using different email address and nym. If the former, you need to understand that citing statistics that are frankly very hard to believe, without supporting references ,is not considered effective or constructive discourse here. If the latter, you should know better.

In either case, I'm calling bullshit on "60% of all prison populations across amerika are made up of child sex offenders". And if you're not a drive-by troll, I'd like to see you provide some corroboration for it.

#17 ::: geekosaur ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2012, 12:43 PM:

Also the remark about "privatizing prisons", as if it weren't already effectively the case. Spurious.

#18 ::: Manny ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2012, 12:58 PM:

Also the spelling of America with a "k".

#19 ::: Neil W ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2012, 01:05 PM:

Concerned @14

First I read this comment as satire, assuming the spelling of 'amerika' and the outrageous statistic to be the clue. But the ending seemed all wrong.

Then I read it as serious, if misinformed, but I ended up puzzled by where all the detail could have come from. So I find it difficult to understand what you mean to say.

Your statement "Guard sanctioned prison rape is a tool of authority," is, perhaps, true, but it is an illegitimate tool.

(Also what the people above said.)

#20 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2012, 01:22 PM:

Concerned @14:
On avg 60% of all prison populations across amerika are made up of child sex offenders. In most states they have reserved prisons specifically to house them so they won't be killed by the regular prison population.

That doesn't quite square with my (linked to a DoJ report) point above that 51% of federal inmates are serving time for drug offenses and 35% for public-order offenses. Cite or we ignore it from here on out.

Sandusky is on suicide watch to keep him out of the prison population until he can be moved.

Given your previous paragraph, you will forgive me if I do not add this to my treasure trove of reliable information.

Guard sanctioned prison rape is a tool of authority.

I don't have to take your word for it, having believed it for a long time.

Just like Jeffrey Dahlmer being killed. Privatizing prisons will only make that worse...

According to this assembly of sourced information, 128,195 of the 1.6 million state and federal prisoners are already in private prisons. That's about 8%. I suspect that further privatization will make things worse, or at least, not improve them.

Lizzy @15:

It's not off of the broader topic, which is about how our social fabric is holding up. I'm fine with it as a subthread here, if people are willing to answer.

Since I'm out of the geographic population for your questions, I won't answer them very specifically. (I am in the age group, though I don't know what my generation is called. I was born in 1970, and my parents are Boomers.)

But in general, I've always been told that my generation is the one where we pivot from paying for our parents' retirements to paying for our own. So I get to pay twice. It worries and scares me. But I don't recall being offered a choice, and I'm not exactly keen to let the elderly starve in the streets or go without medical care. At least I've always known it, and have had time to prepare as best I can.

So I reckon that I got the short end of the stick, and thank my lucky stars that I've generally been able to save as the years have gone by. I hope it will work out. But what else do all of us do, in the end?

#21 ::: LMM ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2012, 02:06 PM:

I'm curious -- and these are general questions, not intended to put LMM on the spot -- if, like LMM, you doubt that Medicare and Social Security will be there for you, do you want them to go away now?

Honestly, my opinions aren't as much of an issue as the general social consensus. I'm ambivalent about whether or not SS or Medicare will be there when I retire. And I honestly don't think that me paying into it is a bad thing -- there are other budget items I have a much greater objection to. But when that's what I've been fed for the last ten years (coupled with "save a lot of money for retirement!"), the fact that SS and Medicare are itemized in ways that other programs are not just rubs the crumbling security net in my face.

Ultimately, it doesn't really matter that much whether or not SS is deducted from my paycheck or not (well, okay, it does, but not for these purposes) -- the amount of money that most calculators tell me I should be saving is so much greater than what I could afford to do even without taxes that it's irrelevant. (And compared to many people my age, I have it good: I have a steady job with good health insurance, I live in a reasonably walkable neighborhood, and I don't have to individually pay for a cell phone plan or for Internet.) Every one in awhile one of my friends will post results from a retirement calculator on FB. The results are treated as a joke. (I think it's no coincidence that -- of my very liberal group of close friends from college -- the only ones that have become conservatives are the ones who are making $70k+ per year. Many of the rest of us have been sporadically unemployed and uninsured. We need a safety net. It's just that we don't have one.)

Pitched in terms of universal coverage, I am sure that *many* more younger people would support SS / Medicare. But one of the issues with the US is that, for whatever reason, Johnson didn't feel the need to apply the safety net to everyone. And when my own grandfather sees universal health care not as something that would allow his grandchildren to not have to go bankrupt but as something that would threaten his own benefits, when Medicaid only manages to cover a tiny fraction of the uninsured population ... well, it's really hard for the future of the safety net not to result in a generational conflict.

#22 ::: Concerned ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2012, 02:23 PM:

I worked as a prison guard for 7 years. You won't find accurate reporting on this because it is not reported in crime statistics. When your county/town releases it's annual crime rate (around 33 - 37%, usually) the paper publishes the crimes vs. Those in jail. You will find murder, rape (of adult women), arson, burglary, etc. You will not find a stat for child sex crimes. Do you really think they want you to know that 60% of crime is not reported? The thinking is that these are crimes against children so therefor the children must be protected from the report. I tried for 7 years to change that. I was unsuccessful. I stand by my comment. No troll here, just someone who worked it, lived it.

#23 ::: Concerned ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2012, 02:33 PM:

Here's Georgia:

#24 ::: Concerned ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2012, 02:44 PM:

More stats:

#25 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2012, 03:13 PM:

Prison rape is continually used as a threat on cop shows. More and more of these cop characters are becoming scumbags by using that threat...but then threatening ordinary non-terrorist people with disappearing into Gitmo with no access to a lawyer is a way of putting fear in all of us, too. I don't know why I haven't stopped watching NCIS: Los Angeles, which is populated by attractive, appealing people whose actions represent tremendous threats to democracy and freedom.

Prison rape (sometimes not outright in-the-moment force, but coercion and threat) is also, shamefully, a common topic for gay porn. Coercion of all kinds is a common theme in gay porn though, I think primarily because straight guys are considered more masculine (which is internalized homophobia, really), and therefore sexier, so "getting" a straight guy is supposed to be the hottest thing ever. This ranges from "gay for pay" (the guys are straight but "just doing it for the money") to exploitation of "drunk" or otherwise incapacitated people (which of course crosses the line into rape).

Fortunately the quality of the acting is usually pretty low, so it often winds up being no worse than your boyfriend rolling his eyes and saying "oh yeah, I'm hating every minute" or "you should stop that anytime in the next couple of hours."

Elliott 7: But this is well known to corrections authorities, and they probably will protect him as best they can. People really do lose their jobs when very high-profile prisoners get killed in preventable ways.

#26 ::: Torie ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2012, 03:15 PM:

For the past two years I've volunteered here. Every week I answer mail--we get about 100-150/week--from prisoners around the country. We can't help with criminal cases at all. What we can and do provide is a handbook for how to sue prisons for violations of civil rights.

All of the letters have horror stories. Some are rape. Many are physical abuse. The most difficult ones for me to read are about untreated medical issues (some hear voices and no one will let them see a shrink; some are old men who've been in prison since before I was born and suddenly must struggle with dementia or prostate cancer). We get letters from Muslims complaining of religious discrimination, LGBT (especially T) victims of targeted abuse, and pro se folks being refused access to their pitifully inadequate law library. (I can't tell you how many requests we get for a copy of the Constitution.) Another top complaint is isolation, which as Abi mentioned in her article, literally drives men and women insane. Then there are postcard-only policies and utterly inadequate protections of low-level offenders from gangs. But when I tell people these stories, the first thing they ask is: well what did they do to get in there?

The answer to that question shouldn't matter. They are human beings, aren't they?

Every person in this country should be utterly terrified of the prospect of prison.

#27 ::: lightning ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2012, 03:31 PM:

Social security is in no financial danger at all for the foreseeable future. Claims that it will be in trouble "soon" are pure right-wing propaganda. (Wall Street *really* wants to get its hands on all of our retirement money.)

Medicare is a more serious problem, but Fred Clark over at Slacktivist has come up with a rather simple solution -- find a cure for diabetes. Not a treatment, a *cure*. Turns out that something like one third of Medicare goes to pay for complications of diabetes.

#28 ::: Neil W ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2012, 03:47 PM:

Concerned @23 Those are some interesting statistics, which do not back up your assertion that "On avg 60% of all prison populations across amerika are made up of child sex offenders." From figure 1 I calculate that slightly more than 60,000 offenders, as at 1997, have been convicted of rape or sexual assault with a victim aged 17 or less. The total number of violent criminals in state prisons in that graph is given as 432,028, and there are in addition non-violent offenders incarcerated. A swift google suggests than in 1997 America had somewhat more than 1.5 million prisoners, making for a child sex offender rate of about 4%.

I am not an American, but if prison guards require "Guard sanctioned prison rape is a tool of authority," then I'm in agreement with the people above who suggest you need better prison guards.

#29 ::: mjfgates ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2012, 03:52 PM:

I hate this subject.

I hate it because however you divide things, it all comes back to, "Step One: Decriminalize Drug Use, Already." Prison overcrowding? Decriminalize drug use and clear out the poor buggers who are in there for carrying a joint. Violence between prisoners, or by guards? Take the pressure down by not jamming people six into a two-person cell, and you're halfway done-- in fact, you might be ALL the way done. Teach prisoners to be good citizens? Make it safe to act like good citizens, and bring down the prisoner/guard ratio enough so that somebody can go in and teach.

Decriminalize drug use, already. That has to be the first step. Nothing will work until it happens; any plan that doesn't start with that step is doomed.

And yet half the population of the United States is determined to Win The War On Drugs.

#30 ::: KayTei ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2012, 03:56 PM:

Lizzy @ 13

I'll add that it goes down hard, when the same people who benefitted from extensive social programs and mandatory retirement, who later voted to drastically reduce or eliminate those benefits for everyone who came after them, then decide to criticize my generation for not doing big enough things, young enough, in the middle of the biggest "recession" since the great depression.

Even those of us who have stable jobs, commensurate with our abilities, on a conventional job track, apparently aren't doing it right. When I think how many of my friends have gone into the military in the last five years, because it was the best way to keep body and soul together... I just feel like my generation has been abandoned, so that everyone else can have their perfect lives.

No, I don't think social security and medicare will be there for me, unless a lot more people suddenly start caring about things that they haven't shown any sign of caring about before now. At this point, I sometimes think our best bet is to wait for people to die off.

So yes, I'm resentful. I'm grateful that safety net programs have been there for other people, and I'm resentful that people under 35 have been treated as completely disposable (with a strong implication that it's their own wastrel fault if they can't get ahead "the way everyone else" did).

And I'm awfully tired of being told it's not fair to feel that way, because Person X cares, so the entire generalization is false. If only that were enough.

#31 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2012, 04:15 PM:

Xopher @24:
Coercion of all kinds is a common theme in gay porn though, I think primarily because straight guys are considered more masculine (which is internalized homophobia, really), and therefore sexier, so "getting" a straight guy is supposed to be the hottest thing ever.

I haven't watched a lot of gay porn, but I'm wondering if there's another motivation to it as well? Coercion means that whatever happens isn't your choice or your "fault". If your identity is tied to Not Being Gay, then you can still put yourself into the porn if there's a character who didn't consent to all those sexy, sexy things happening to him.

#32 ::: Marc Mielke ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2012, 04:17 PM:

Not sure of the actual stats, but I have been told that HI has a separate prison ostensibly for sex offenders. But then, the person who told me had been serving there for drug offenses and had been sent there because the normal prisons were overcrowded. So it isn't really separate.

#33 ::: KayTei ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2012, 04:18 PM:

mjfgates @ 26

Agreed. I have so many objections to the war on drugs and the way it's being handled that I can't even figure out where to start, without launching into a dissertation that everyone has heard before...

#34 ::: Concerned ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2012, 04:29 PM:

Neil @25; yes, but if you add in the offenders molesting very young children - not just the under 17s - the under 12 or 10s - and also add in that 53% of child molesters do no real jail time until they've been convicted many, many times you start to see a more complete picture. As I said before, real hard stats are few and far between. The system requires it be so. I'm not defending the system, just trying to show that it's much worse than one has been led to believe. Really, what would the general public do if they found out that they really had closer to a 95% crime rate?

#35 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2012, 04:50 PM:

Concerned @34:

What are you really arguing here? Back at 14 you said 60% of all prison populations across amerika are made up of child sex offenders. In most states they have reserved prisons specifically to house them so they won't be killed by the regular prison population.

Now you're saying:

if you add in the offenders molesting very young children - not just the under 17s - the under 12 or 10s - and also add in that 53% of child molesters do no real jail time until they've been convicted many, many times you start to see a more complete picture.

I don't see how this invalidates the point Neil @28 makes about the proportion of child sex offenders to the population as a whole. How do you "add in offenders molesting very young children", when the report doesn't break them out separately, because they're already included? And how does the number of offenses a prisoner has committed before conviction relate to the quantity of sex offenders in the prison population?

I'm not defending the system, just trying to show that it's much worse than one has been led to believe. Really, what would the general public do if they found out that they really had closer to a 95% crime rate?

Are you really trying to make a point about the proportion of child sexual abuse in the population? If so, please just say it, though be aware that surveys looking for victims of such abuse don't come up with those kinds of numbers at all.

#36 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2012, 05:10 PM:

abi 31: Hmm, maybe. I don't think that's where most guys are coming from though. When the porn is text, the coerced person is rarely the viewpoint character.

#37 ::: Syd ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2012, 05:56 PM:

One thing that always ticks me off is that we apparently live in a society that's perfectly willing to cover the country with prisons but can't stand the idea of bringing our school system into the 21st Century (as in, actually TEACH students, including those who may not be on/see themselves on a going-to-college path, rather than "teaching to the test," cutting things like arts programs, shop and other more vocationally oriented courses, etc.). It seems to me that more and better educational opportunities, across a wider spectrum of potential professions, would be better for everybody. So would adding (or adding back) after-school programs.

The likelihood of such changes being made in the foreseeable future seems depressingly small.

Re: the social safety net, raising the income level on which Social Security and Medicare taxes are collected would seem like the best way of keeping those programs funded. I figure the folks on the wealthier end of the spectrum might kick up a fuss, but on the other hand, the latest financial meltdowns should have given them a clue that that thing you think can't happen to you? That losing your financial security thing? It can happen to you, so maybe paying into this part of the system isn't such a bad idea.

Also helpful, at least from the Medicare standpoint, would be things like letting Medicare negotiate drug prices, etc., to bring down costs. Oddly enough, this rarely seems to be given consideration by the political entities who complain about the cost of the safety net.

In strong agreement with the idea to decriminalize drugs. At least then the government could collect taxes and, if they wanted, could try strangling the "problem" with red tape...

#38 ::: KayTei ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2012, 05:59 PM:

Xopher @ 36

I don't have anything but anecdata, but I think there's a significant difference between point of view and point of primary identification. I also wonder how much of that genre is targeted at extremely closeted people, or people still in struggle with their sexual identity.

#39 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2012, 06:16 PM:

Well, remember that porn isn't like other fiction. It's designed to get the reader/viewer off, not stimulate them intellectually or present a polemic or anything like that. So the POV character is generally the one the reader (for text) is supposed to identify with. The other characters are obstacles or lust objects; often the only named characters in a porn story are the POV character and the one he's having sex with.

#40 ::: guthrie ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2012, 06:38 PM:

A relevant article about privatisation of services in the USA:

A short quote which summarises it nicely:

“And, sure enough, despite many promises that prison privatization will lead to big cost savings, such savings — as a comprehensive study by the Bureau of Justice Assistance, part of the U.S. Department of Justice, concluded — “have simply not materialized.” To the extent that private prison operators do manage to save money, they do so through “reductions in staffing patterns, fringe benefits, and other labor-related costs.”

So let’s see: Privatized prisons save money by employing fewer guards and other workers, and by paying them badly. And then we get horror stories about how these prisons are run. What a surprise!”

As to what to do about it, I don't really know. It's a cultural sort of issue; what has corroded american society (and of course other countrie's) so much that things are as you say they are? Why are you locking so many people up?
Obviously in some ways things are better than they used to be, but in others, they clearly aren't.

#41 ::: Concerned ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2012, 07:58 PM:

Abi @35: if you look at Fig. 1 on page 3 of the link I posted, you'll see that in rape/sex assaults 39% are against young children, 32% are 13-17, the other 29% against those over 18. Add to this that 53% rec'd no jail time until they've done small time many times and I think you'll better understand my point. Almost every state has what is euphemistically referred to by the inmates as a 'ripper dome'.

Those 53% are always convicted, they just get very light sentences until they've been convicted so many times some judge finally gives them years instead of months.

#42 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2012, 11:53 PM:

Is there data that says whether or not private prisons have more or less abuse than similar public prisons? My intuition is that there is probably little difference, but I really don't know. I have the uneasy feeling that in a similar group with a rightward tilt to their politics, the demon of the hour would be prison guards' unions, instead. I don't see where the obvious connection would be between brutal prisons where staff and inmates rape weaker inmates, and whether some crony of the governor is turning a profit on each inmate[1]. Certainly, there is a long history of godawful, brutal prisons run by the state.

I suspect there is more fundamental stuff going on--a culture of how prisons are run that is self-sustaining and accepts rape and brutality, a puritanical turn of mind that thinks bad people deserve whatever they get, othering of criminals so it's easy to discard them down a garbage disposal, self-sustaining patterns of rape and brutality among prison guards and prisoners (for example, if people who can't tolerate such things are uniformly driven out of the field of being prison guards in brutal prisons, then there will never be a new generation of guards who wn't put up with it; similarly, if pay and working conditions are lousy enough that only a sadist is willing to take the job (for the fringe benefits of beatings and rape he gets to inflict and watch), then it's not going to be easy to bring in a new, better-behaved batch of guards.).

[1] How does the old joke go? Under capitalism, man exploits man, but under socialism, it's just the opposite.

#43 ::: KayTei ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2012, 11:53 PM:

Xopher @ 39

I think that's a thing that is more subject to variation than you are perhaps acknowledging.

#44 ::: Devin ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2012, 12:09 AM:

Concerned @41

Is it possible for you to articulate your point clearly and simply, without using statistics?

(I don't mean that your statistics are invalid as evidence, but it seems that the more percentages you include in a sentence, the less able I am to figure out what you're trying to say. It might help if you wrote out exactly what you're hoping to teach us, in words.)

#45 ::: Devin ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2012, 12:22 AM:

Lizzy L @13

I was born in 1985. I have no real faith that I'll see any of the money I pay into Social Security. I'd like to believe that it's a good system and we'll keep it running, but I don't have confidence in that.

Largely, this stems from my eroded faith in the ability of our government, at the highest levels, to see a problem and fix it.

It's also not something I really worry about. I don't see any clear action I can take to fix it, but more importantly, I don't think it's the first thing that's going to break. I don't see our society surviving the next forty years without undergoing major changes, the sort of changes that would make Social Security in its present form either unnecessary or impossible. (I'm hoping for 'unnecessary,' myself.)

#46 ::: Mea ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2012, 01:53 AM:

Abi - thank you for bringing up the issue. I agree with Xopher's point that privatizing prisons makes things worse, and the other comment that drug laws need reform.

Devin at 45 and Lizzy at 13: I am in my 40's so in Congressman Ryan's and other (Republican) plans to gut SS I'm in the "you still have time to adapt so we will cut your benifits" category. My response is NOT to say I dont count on Social Security. I get angry and I vote. And contribute to candidates, and speak up. The politicians try to convince us that we shouldn't expect a safety net. The way to fight back is to scream BULLSHIT and push back. They tried to privatize social security during the Bush administration, and failed. They will keep trying, but we can push back.

I plan on getting SS and medical coverage. They are both insurance programs that we need to have a civilized society. We cant all save on our own, because some people just won't, or will have bad luck. And we should all have a safety net. Also, under the Reagan administration they raised my age of eligibility to 67 in the last fix of social security. They fixed it, and if it is broken again (it isnt really broken in any way a strong economy and sensible tweaks can't fix) then make the high income folks pay more. That will increase my taxes and I am FINE with higher taxes for a society that takes care of all its senior citizens.

#47 ::: Mea has been gnomed ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2012, 01:55 AM:

Maybe misplaced commas strewn like chocolate kisses for gnomes?

['Twas a "don't" with no apostrophe. -- Enidolph Causens, Duty Gnome trainee (under instruction)]

#48 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2012, 08:48 AM:

'Twas a "don't" with no apostrophe

Mastodo or mastodont?

#49 ::: Ginger ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2012, 08:56 AM:

Serge @48: Masticate or masticant?

#50 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2012, 09:01 AM:

Now this is one thing that can happen in a privatised prison. There are words for it.

#51 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2012, 09:23 AM:

My impression is that privatized prisons offer worse conditions in all respects. I haven't seen any detailed analysis. However, the government prisons were pretty bad to start with.

I think the general public's model of prison rape is partly that it happens to prisoners who deserve it, and partly that all prisoners deserve it. As far as I can tell (and I've tried), the idea that prison rape is more likely to happen to the more vulnerable prisoners (younger and smaller) gets no traction whatsoever.

I've also tried promoting the idea that part of what's bad about prison rape is rapists getting away with it. No traction on that one, either.

#52 ::: fidelio ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2012, 10:01 AM:

If anyone is interested in an internal view of the status of Social Security's finances in the US, here's the Trustees's report.

The disability programs are in far worse financial shape, for a couple of reasons. A large aging population not yet of retirement age is subject to the sort of health problems which worsen with age, or are more common over age 50; secondly, many workers who worked in spite of their health problems became unemployed in the recession, and resorted to filing for whatever benefits they might qualify for. We see a lot of applications at work where people mention that they stopped working because the business closed.

Currently, the payroll taxes for Social Security benefits top out at $108K/annual pay, so that people making well over $108K annually do not pay any more in Social Security payroll taxes than they would if they were making only $108K. This was part of the Social Security reform passed during the Reagan administration, and I'm sure that limit looked perfectly reasonable at that point, given the average rate of pay in the US at that time. The simplest and least politically booby-trapped revision would be to end that top-out.

I agree with Mea: if you're concerned about whether Social Security benefits will be around for you, tell your Seantors and Representatives what you want. In the absence of noise from us, they are likely to succumb to other pressures. Make a lot of noise. Remember, all of the people talking about "the end of Social Security" have an interest in making that happen. They want you to believe there's no fix possible. It's to their benefit that you not argue with them. So speak up.

#53 ::: Lori Coulson ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2012, 11:30 AM:

Look, folks, I worked for Social Security before I moved on to audit...and for those of you who are listening to the Elephants trumpeting "It won't be there for YOU!" I have a question:

Do you REALLY believe that the Federal Government is going to STOP COLLECTING TAXES?*

Right now if the current financial circumstances continue for the next 20 years SSA will be able to pay out full retirement benefits until 2036. If we raise the cap on the amount of income subject to OASDI tax (currently $110,100), the program will be solvent until 2075, when it may need to be tweaked again.

SSID(isability) is in trouble, so is Medicare. Getting people back to work would solve most of the problem (more revenues). Allowing people who don't have insurance to buy into Medicare, or reducing the age at which one becomes eligible for Medicare (say age 50)** would also help, again more revenue because enrollees pay about a premium of about $100-200 per month.

What you need to know is that Wall Street is salivating to get at the Social Security revenues -- look at what they've done to 401(k)s -- do you really want Wall Street to put their snouts in that trough?

*Particularly the ones that come directly out of your paycheck?

**This might keep the over-50 crowd employed, as their health insurance wouldn't be coming out of their employer's pocket.

#54 ::: Steven desJardins ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2012, 12:08 PM:

And even if Social Security becomes unable to pay full benefits, it will still have enough revenue coming in to pay about 75% of benefits. A 25% cut in Social Security payments would be a bad thing, but it's a far cry from the program "not being there" for people.

#55 ::: LMM ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2012, 12:12 PM:

@50: Holy shit:

One of the contract's major cost-saving provisions says that Corizon is not required to provide overnight medical staff in the state's prisons, except Oak Park Heights and Faribault, where medically complicated, elderly and terminally ill prisoners are held.

@53: FWIW, if my original statement was read as "I don't believe I should be contributing to SS," that was a misstatement on my part. What it should have read was, my initial (emotional) reaction to reading my paystub was shock and anger. Intellectually, I do believe that SS should exist. That doesn't stop me from reacting to the amount of money being drawn out of my salary with horror when everyone under thirty has been taught that they won't be getting anything out of it.

Also, I am not trying to start a flame war. I am not even trying to argue my position is correct. I am trying to convey the message Millenials have been getting from day one. It may very well be wrong. That doesn't mean that everyone my age doesn't believe it -- it's the message we've been getting since high school. It's not even seen as a partisan position anymore -- I have seen people casually refer to it in presentations in which they wouldn't (knowingly) incorporate strictly political messages.

The difference between people my age (I'm under 30) and people in their 40s is that they can remember a time when SS was going to be there for them. Most of us can't. It's not a fight we can have because it's not a fight most of us feel exists. Even the more liberal sources out there -- the ones that don't take the end of SS for granted -- tell us that SS benefits can only be a tiny part of our retirement savings and that we should be investing our current salaries. (FWIW, my job doesn't contribute to a 401K, either.)

I know there are fixes. I know there are easy solutions. But few of us believe it will happen, because, if the past few decades have proven *anything*, the consensus everywhere has been, in the face of budget cuts, to throw younger people under the bus rather than to increase taxes or to spread the suffering out over older generations.

#56 ::: Lori Coulson ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2012, 12:48 PM:

LMM @55: There is nothing new under the sun -- the Boomers got the same "SS won't be there for you" back in the late 1970s and early 1980s. That's when Reagan and Congress passed the last changes to OASDI.

In 1983, the retirement age was raised from 65 to 67, and the FICA tax was doubled (both the employee and the employer contribution) to build the SS Trust Fund. Please note the Trust Fund was designed to deplete as the Boomers die off.

Now about that "SS can only be a tiny part of our retirement benefits" thing -- as designed, OASDI is supposed to be one third of your retirement benefits. The other two thirds are supposed to be comprised of either a pension or 401(k) from your employer, and your own personal savings.

The SS retirement insurance is not, and was never meant to be, the sole source of an individual's income in retirement.

It will be there for you, but you would be well advised to take advantage of any way of saving (401(k), IRA, etc.) that you can. Anyone born in 1980 was a toddler* when the last changes to OASDI were made, ask your parents about it.

#57 ::: fidelio ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2012, 12:59 PM:

LMM @55--I understand what you're saying. Between the statements coming from the Simpson-Bowles Commission, Rep. Ryan's pronouncements, the articles written and arguments presented on television by Very Serious People--it's all aimed to convince you there is no hope and the program should be abandoned.

In my opinion, Congress will find the willpower to make the necessary fixes if they get enough pressure to do so from voters. Absent that, they will probably let things slide--which is why we are all being propagandized so heavily. They want you to decide it's pointless, and give up on things. Who are "They"? Some of them are Wall Street people, who'd like to be able to handle the investment of Social Security funds in something besides secured government bonds. Some of them are 'thinkers' who feel that there's something 'wrong' about government-funded pension plans (so nice of them to worry about our moral fiber and loss of self-reliance! To say nothing of that slippery slope of creeping Socialism!). There are probably other players involved as well, whose motives remain obscure to me.

The only way to fight back is to rebut the untruths when they appear (which is why I put up that link earlier) and to let your elected representative in the House and Senate know how you feel, loudly, and often. The reason older generations are getting a better deal right now is that they are known to be noisy and to vote.

Every time there's something in the news about Social Security's problems, call and express your views. Make it plain you feel that you have the same rights and interests in this matter as other generations. Urge others in your age group to do the same.

#58 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2012, 01:37 PM:

Lori Coulson @56, yes, I was remembering this as well - I went into the labor force in 1978 and remember half-joking with colleagues that we should be able to deduct our FICA taxes as a charitable contribution since it wasn't like we would ever see any payout from it.

But yes. We as a society need to find the middle ground between viewing this as a magical entitlement (as in, the government should keep its hands off my social security) and declaring it prematurely unsustainable.

As a parent of a child with intellectual disabilities who may well be employed but will never be fully self-supporting, SSDI concerns me greatly, but it's a somewhat different issue.

#59 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2012, 01:49 PM:

Nancy L, #51: Part of the reason you're not getting any traction with those concepts is that they run up against the general-culture meme that rape is OKAY as long as it only happens to the "right" victims. As a society, we pay only lip-service to the idea that rape is really a crime in and of itself. This is also what fuels victim-bashing in general about rape -- the determination to make the victim into someone who deserved it, which makes the rape itself okay.

fidelio, #52: I agree 100% that the #1 thing that needs to be done with Social Security is to remove the income cap; this is something I've been arguing for 20 years, because that's about how long I've been hearing people claim that Social Security is broken. If it is, it was done so deliberately, by the same people who are now trying to destroy the rest of the economy.

#60 ::: Melissa Singer ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2012, 01:51 PM:

I'm over 50, but can't take SS until I'm 67, and realistically will probably not be able to afford to retire to the kind of retirement that investment corporations and the "retirement industry" push on people--the kind where you don't have to work at all and can travel and spend money freely.

I started working full time at 19 and since I was still living at home and had minimal student loans (that's what happens when you drop out), I was able to open an IRA and contribute to the maximum every year for several years. So that's been ticking away for a while, though with a very low interest rate.

My first pension, I lost when I changed jobs 6 months before vesting, after 6.5 years with the company. My second pension was lost as a consequence of a merger. My 3rd pension, I managed to vest, but the company changed over to a 401K system and after a while, rolled all the existing pensions into that, so goodness knows if there will be any money in that account when I reach "retirement age."

I'm hoping that all the bits and pieces will add up to roughly what I'm making now, which I can live on, if I'm careful and stay healthy.

I've had some furious arguments with my mother, who insists that the money she is getting from SS is "her money and the interest on her money." Sorry, mom, but no. Your money is long gone.

What causes me concern is looking at the younger people in my workplace. Many of them are paying off student loans. Some of them are house-poor (this is NYC, after all). Many of them do not pay much of anything into their 401Ks, in part because they simply don't seem to have anything to spare, and won't until they can get out from under the student debt. This is not a good situation for our society.

#61 ::: Lori Coulson ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2012, 01:57 PM:

OtterB, I started working for SSA in 1978. Prior to 1983, Federal employees did not pay into OASDI. That changed in 1987, when Reagan changed the Federal retirement system.

That first paycheck where the OASDI tax deducted showed up was painful. I'm grateful that I have SS benefits to look forward to -- at the moment I'm not planning to file for benefits until I'm 67, and if all goes well I may not apply until I'm 70.

But I can understand folks saying "keep your hands off my Social Security benefits" -- They HAVE paid into the system all their working lives and they ARE entitled to get the benefits that they worked for -- and if they don't get those benefits, who do you think they're going to be living with?

Those of you with parents approaching retirement -- would you rather they be able to afford to live on their own, or do you want them to HAVE to live with you?

This is NOT a rhetorical question.

#62 ::: Nancy C. Mittens ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2012, 02:10 PM:

Starting a rant now:

I hate calling Social Security and some of these other government programs "entitlements," like it's some sort of bad thing. That's the contract! I pay in when I work, the government pays out when I retire! I AM entitled to that money, and not in a bad way, in the way I am entitled to my salary - I have an agreement with my employer, and an agreement with the government!

end of rant

#63 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2012, 02:25 PM:

#59 ::: Lee:

Another problem is probably just impatience at my end-- one thing I learned from arguing about torture is that moral intuitions don't transfer directly from one mind to another. Possibly this is just as well.

#64 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2012, 02:39 PM:

Nancy Lebovitz @62:

I hate calling Social Security and some of these other government programs "entitlements," like it's some sort of bad thing.


But I doubt we can uproot the usage. So I'd suggest we subvert it. What programs that benefit the wealthy can we also term "entitlements"?

#65 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2012, 02:49 PM:

This is an intensely personal and scary topic for me. I had hoped to put off taking Social Security until age 70, but it now looks like I will take it between 67 - 68. It's a very small amount, and will cover less than half of my income. I expect to have to keep working part time at something until I am mentally or physically unable to work. I have some savings -- though watching the stock market drop is giving me severe cramps -- but I am trying to not touch the bulk of my savings (and they are not a lot) until I must. Oh yeah, and I still have a mortgage; I expect it to outlive me.

There is a lot of stuff on the net right now about well-to-do elders who are living the high life while their grand-kids scrape by. I know such people exist. I am not one of them. LMM, I sympathize with your horror when you see your money taken for a program that you believe is not going to be there when you need it, and I appreciate your candor: I hope you won't feel dumped on by being, by virtue of that candor, the rhetorical antagonist in this discussion.

Lori's question at 61 is a good one. Had my mother not had her own funds (including some Social Security payments) during the eleven years I was her caregiver, I have no idea how we would have managed. We would both have suffered.

So is this: What if you (any "you," not LMM particularly) were to become permanently and irrevocably disabled? It happens, believe me, and if you think family and friends are going to ensure your survival in comfort, well, unless you have the family wealth of say, Mitt Romney, I can assure you, it's not possible. The state -- by which I mean, the rest of us, your fellow citizens -- has to help.

#66 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2012, 03:15 PM:

Lori Coulson @61 and Nancy Lebovitz @62, I didn't intend to deprecate those who want the social security benefits they have every reason to feel entitled to. I want mine too, although I don't expect to begin claiming for at least 12 years and probably 15. It's the "no Obamacare, that's socialism, but don't mess with my social security" rhetoric that I object to, and I don't think that applies to anyone here. (I hear it from some of my elderly, well-off, and conservative relatives.) Sorry if I sounded otherwise.

Melissa Singer @60, I share your concern about the younger people in the workplace. I am deeply grateful that my husband and had the opportunity to pay into 401Ks with company match for some years before our kids were born. We made the right choice to do that rather than spending the extra money on fancier consumer goods, but I realize that we were also privileged in working for companies that offered the opportunity, and in not having have student loan debt, in itself another combination of prudence (attending a reasonably-priced state school) and priviliege (parents who had been able to save for our education, plus summer employment that actually paid, rather than necessary-but-unpaid internships).

#67 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2012, 03:17 PM:

I'm the Nancy @ 63, Nancy C. Mittens is the Nancy @ 62.

#68 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2012, 03:22 PM:

Nancy Lebovitz & Nancy C. Mittens:

I apologize.

#69 ::: Syd ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2012, 03:42 PM:

Melissa Singer @ 60, re: the company that switched over to a 401(k) plan, do you have the option to direct the investment of your funds? If not, you can skip the rest of this, and I will keep my fingers crossed that people with actual brains are investing wisely on behalf of the employees.

However, my next-to-last employer offered a menu of investment choices, and we could change our allocations once a year (as I recall). If your employer offers a similar opportunity, I suggest looking up a CFP (Certified Financial Planner) who does NOT work for a brokerage firm with its own products to push. My guy (to whom I will happily refer you if you'd like) will go over your retirement and other goals and help you determine which of the company's available investment options will help you the most. (At least, he used to offer this service without a fee and would gladly accept referrals for same.) A CFP will also be able to help you invest any personal savings in a beneficial-to-you way.

Not as good as a pension plan administered with the intention of providing benefits for good and faithful service, but better than nothing.

#70 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2012, 03:47 PM:

Nancy Lebovitz & Nancy C Mittens, my apologies also.

#71 ::: Melissa Singer ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2012, 04:07 PM:

Syd @69: it does, but I don't have the brainpower to deal, being all too consumed with managing my teenager. Also, I have poor past experience with financial professionals, and don't have enough money for any of them to give a sh*t.

#72 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2012, 05:00 PM:

It seems to me part of what's happening wrt doubt about SS is the effect of intentional political rhetoric intended to weaken it, but a bigger part is loss of trust in public institutions. My assumption, more and more, is that the powerful in my society simply don't have to play by normal rules, and few people who matter (that is, with the power to make it stick) hold them responsible to stick to their promises or behave decently or act with any kind of intelligence or judgment. If they discard their promises, or drive some important program into disaster through incompetence or corruption, I expect they will probably be promoted, or given think-tank sinecures, or at least keep their jobs but get more money and powers.

SS will not go away, for political calculation reasons--older people tend to vote more than younger people, and older people are closer to collecting SS and react badly to being told it's time to cut SS. But if the politicians running this year see their choice as either win the next election or make sure SS is worth something when I get it, there is zero question in my mind what most of them will choose. Everything from our lack of response to global warming to our deficits every year to our unsustainable and crazy foreign policy points in that direction.

To get public support for any large scale public effort, you have to have some kind of faith that it will be done well. One reason, IMO, that Obamacare[1] got a lot less support from its intended beneficiaries than it probably should have is that everyone is deeply skeptical of promises from politicians and government. Are those individual mandates going to mainly serve to ensure everyone gets coverage, or that insurance companies stay in business? Go ask the victims of document fraud in foreclosure cases whether the government is interested in helping nobodies being ground up in the gears or protecting large, powerful companies. Or the folks hauling around several years' worth of their annual income in student loans while working for squat.

It seems to me that most every respectable organization and institution in the US has spent a lot of time this last decade or two spending their reputations on short-term gains for their leaders, or achieving short-term political goals favored by their leaders. And when reputation, and trust in institutions, is spent, it's gone.

[1] Which is perhaps as annoying as calling SS an entitlement, but is also common usage.

#73 ::: Nancy C. Mittens ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2012, 05:08 PM:

abi and OtterB,

I am honored to be confused with Nancy Lebowitz.

OtterB, I marked it as rant because it is - something that irritates me but may or may not be important or derailing to the conversation.

#74 ::: LMM ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2012, 05:52 PM:

@65: I hope you won't feel dumped on by being, by virtue of that candor, the rhetorical antagonist in this discussion....

Yes, I do feel dumped on -- especially because I have stated several times that my reaction was visceral, and I do in fact support SS.

That being said, people keep behaving as if I'm a lone individual who can be converted through a series of rhetorical questions -- or as if this were some sort of recent belief. It's not. Most people under thirty have been taught that SS won't be there for them. This isn't about Paul Ryan or about any other recent politician -- this is about what we've been taught since we were in grade school. (And, honestly? I care more at the moment about skyrocketing tuition and the unemployment rate than I do about SS. It's not a fight worth having when many of my college-educated friends are unemployed and uninsured. I care more about us managing to make it to thirty-five in reasonably health and with a positive net value than I do about what's going to happen with SS.)

But the issue is, SS is only part of the safety net. Other aspects of the safety net -- the stuff that should have kicked in for people my age -- aren't there anymore. Student loans are outrageous. (Most state-funded schools aren't so state-funded anymore.) The unemployment rate is sky-high. Many people my age are un- or under-insured, and lowering the age of Medicare eligibility won't do anything. You want to prove to me that SS will be there? Start by restoring the aspects of the safety net that should be available *today*.

As a final note:

By now, this is turning into a useless derail -- one that keeps (apologetically) attacking me in particular. Forget I said anything.

#75 ::: LMM ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2012, 05:55 PM:

... or, at the very least: abi et al can say whether or not this is a derail. But -- given the fact that every single person who has responded to me has misportrayed my position -- I'm out. This is an interested topic, and it's entirely possible that there could be a productive discussion on it, but I really am not happy with the role I seem to be playing in it.

#76 ::: Diatryma ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2012, 06:22 PM:

LMM, I'm another twentysomething who was taught that I will never get Social Security. My parents are more angry about it than I am, but I think they're being angry on my behalf because their own retirements are being gutted-- they're teachers and Illinois is changing how retirement works.

I think you have a very good point about the safety nets that should have caught us not being there. I'm lucky in that I have done everything 'right' so when I want to snap at people, they can't throw my past decisions in my face, but... I want to have a family someday. I'm twenty-eighty and I honestly can't envision a future where I can have kids, or a house, or a really big vacation.

I'm still paying into Social Security, and I'm glad it's there. I am pretty sure it will be there for me, but I certainly wasn't taught that.

#77 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2012, 06:40 PM:

albatross, #72: Obamacare got a lot less support from its intended beneficiaries than it probably should have

This is because what got passed was NOT what we were told we'd be getting, and we watched as the things we needed were chipped away in favor of handouts to Big Insurance and Big Pharma. If we'd gotten anything resembling genuine health care reform, you'd see a lot more people supporting it a lot more strongly. For example, I still don't know whether we'll be able to buy health insurance at a cost that won't put us out on the street even after the mandatory bit kicks in in 2014 -- and we're supposed to be among the people who would benefit the most!

Medicare should cover everybody for basic health care, period, end of sentence. Then let the insurance companies sell boutique extension policies to the well-to-do, just the way they do now with so-called "MediGap" coverage. They won't lose a penny, and many fewer people will die from being denied treatment.

#78 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2012, 07:54 PM:

LMM at 74 & 75: I apologize for not making it sufficiently clear: my previous questions are NOT directed at you. I recognize that you support Social Security; you said so. I hope you will return to the conversation. You come at the whole topic of "the safety net" from an angle that I don't automatically see; your viewpoint and experience are valuable.

Diatryma, you say at #76 that you can't envision yourself with kids or a house, or even a long vacation. I wonder if you could unpack that a bit. Is it because those things appear to be economically out of reach pretty much forever?

#79 ::: Diatryma ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2012, 08:48 PM:

Lizzy L, I've graduated with a Master's in environmental science (ish) in 2009. I've been looking for a realjob ever since. Right now, I make about $13k a year if my second job doesn't happen, as it hasn't this year. I do all right, barring catastrophe, but there's a big difference between 'I can live within my means and be mostly okay except at the end of the summer' and 'I am living the life I was told I would'.

Then again, I've been jobsearching today. Jobsearching always makes me cranky and passive-aggressive.

I'm willing to talk about it more in the open thread, but I'd rather not take a thread about the horrific conditions within prisons and turn it into my tough, but not impossible, situation.

#80 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2012, 10:59 PM:

Diatryma, I'm fine with holding off on this conversation. I also don't want to hijack the thread.

#81 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2012, 01:18 AM:


I'm sorry I held off posting earlier, because I wanted to tell you that I understand your position, and to explain why many people of a lot of different ages agree with you that the system is screwed up and the people who run it can't be trusted.

I'm a Boomer: I'll be 66 next month. I realized early on that Social Security by itself wouldn't be enough to keep me and my wife (who has been chronically ill but not "disabled" for many years and hasn't been able to pay into Social Security) living even comfortably. We managed to save considerably over the last 20 years or so, even though we were helping our children through college and to some extent afterwards, mostly by not going on vacations, keeping cars and appliances running for years longer than average, and having parents who didn't need us to help them. But the dotcom bust, my serious back condition, and several year-long periods of unemployment depleted our savings. Then the meltdown and recession in 2008 left me without a job and nuked another part of our savings, and as unemployment ran out, I realized I would have to start receiving Social Security at 63, reducing the payments permanently by 1/3.

And both of us have had serious health problems for years before we could go on Medicare; health care has been costing us approximately $30,000 a year and seriously depleting our savings. Ten years ago our retirement income from our savings was projected to last into our late 90s; now it may last to our mid 80's (and both our families are long-lived, so we could live that long).

The fact is, all of us have been screwed, and all of us have good reason not to trust the systems that were supposed to save us from the kind of economic failure that most of us are now facing. Yes, Social Security should be solvent for another 70 years with no trouble, but that assumes that our financial lords and masters don't break it in order to get the money out for themselves, and we have strong reason to believe they want to.

#82 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2012, 04:01 AM:

Quite frankly, there's not a huge prison-rape discussion occurring in this thread to disrupt.

To a certain extent, I think there's very little to say except, "Yes, yes, this again, still a nightmare," with a side of "we know that ending the war on drugs would be a good first step. Alternatively and equally likely, Princess Celestia from My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic could step in and solve it all in a shower of rainbow sparkles."

I can understand LMM's desire not to be a poster child for a set of views that ze doesn't actually hold. If it would help to start a new thread to take a new tack on the conversation, I'm happy to do that.

What say ye?

#83 ::: Neil W ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2012, 04:39 AM:

Melissa Singer @60 My first pension, I lost when I changed jobs 6 months before vesting, after 6.5 years with the company. My second pension was lost as a consequence of a merger.

I'm not an American, nor am I an expert on pensions. On the other hand I did hang out with some qualified pension actuaries for a while, so I'll just say that that first one sounds like legalised theft, and the second just plain theft[1].

In all, I might understate the case and say that if retirees are expected to suplement their income with their own pensions, then the regulatory environment is overly lax is several areas. Politicians and professional commentators who are noting that social security will become insufficent in the future should be working to make pensions more widely available and easier to keep hold of.

[1] I might call it breach of contract, but a breach of contract where someone refuses to pay for services received is just theft, the difference being it's easier to prove a civil case of contract rather than a criminal case of theft.

abi @82 "...we know that ending the war on drugs would be a good first step."

Tackling the symptoms wouldn't hurt. Single cell occupancy. Guards, or at least monitored cameras in all communal areas and swift response to any violent action. Change to the culture - guards enforce the law; they don't stand by when prisoners break it.

Another thread might clear the air a little, as we're definitely on two tracks here.

#84 ::: LMM ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2012, 07:08 AM:

@82: That might be a really good idea. This conversation -- in this context -- is getting *way* more heated than I usually expect, and, since the average age of ML is 40 to 50-ish, [1] I feel I'm getting the raw end of it. It's really not a comfortable position for me.

I mean, objectively, what seems to be coming out is that most people of my generation have been receiving *very* different messages about SS / Medicare over our lives than those that most (liberal?) Boomers have thought we've received. Which, to me, is stunning -- I thought that most people were aware of the message we were being given (in part because they were the ones sending it) -- and apparently it is to the older generation here as well.

What I'm not comfortable with is the reaction: on the one hand, a flipped version of the moral is-ought fallacy ("well, don't you believe that...") and, on the other hand, the reaction that this is a new message for people my age and can be fought (it isn't and it really can't) or that the disbelief that SS will be here for me is *itself* somehow immoral and should be shot down.

The last one I kind of get. The safety net is (in a non-dismissal way) like Tinkerbell: if enough people don't believe in it, it's dead. But the fact that we (apparently) have been receiving very different messages means that I feel that the reaction is more targeted towards me as an individual than it is towards the general message.

I don't think there's been anyone here who has argued that SS shouldn't exist -- that entire line of conversation is pretty much targeted at straw men. But whether SS *will* exist in any sort of useful format in forty-ish years *is* a valid question, and it's one that's kind of getting buried in the fight.

[1] Which I'm not complaining about -- at *all*. I have long said that (whether this is real or nostalgia) the difference between Usenet when I was on it in the late 1990s-ish and the big message boards today is that the Usenet groups I read had a decent ratio of maturity to immaturity.

#85 ::: Cassy B ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2012, 07:57 AM:

LMM @84

If it makes you feel better, I'm in my late 40s and I, too, have just breathed in with my oxygen the "fact" that Social Security won't be there for me. I was making wry jokes about it back when I was in my 20s. (Actually, probably starting with the Reagan "reforms", come to think of it....) On an intellectual level, I know I'm likely to get something (although perhaps not as much as I've paid in). On an emotional level... well, I pretty much disregard the possibility I'll ever see it.

#86 ::: Lori Coulson ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2012, 08:55 AM:

LMM -- Please accept my apology, I have been hearing this argument so long that it tends to make me crazy.

If you got the "it's not going to be there" message in grade school you are to be commended for paying attention. The safest course in saving for retirement would be to think that way. I'm guessing you were hearing about the changes Reagan made.

It continually worries me that there are a number of people out there who think that their Social Security benefits will cover their entire retirement. I've even had retired folks ask me if there was a way to increase their benefits...sigh.

FWIW, as long as the Feds are collecting the OASDI tax, the voters will hold their feet to the fire when necessary to get at least some benefits.

I suspect the threat of not getting that monthly check might be the only thing that would trigger a torches and pitchforks march.

#87 ::: Melissa Singer ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2012, 11:59 AM:

Neil W @83

The US pension system has been reformed, somewhat, since my younger adulthood, but if you are not a member of a union, you have few protections, and changes in the last couple of decades basically nullified the few things that had changed for the better in the previous twenty years.

For instance: that first pension, I almost earned at a time when it took 7 years to vest. Since the (nonunion) American worker of the time rarely stayed 7 years at a job, most people never vested.

A year or so after that, laws were changed to allow vesting at 5 years. Still a long time, but better. However, again, if you were a nonunion employee, your employer could scrap your pension plan for any number of reasons, including bankruptcy, merger, or sale of the firm.

I believe that the period for vesting was decreased again after that, but I'm not sure.

Since so many places no longer have a traditional pension plan (for nonunion employees) but just a 401K option, vesting is immaterial for many workers.

There are also small businesses which are exempt from having to offer a pension plan of any kind because of their size/number of employees.

That said, many employers make matching or partially-matching contributions to their employees' 401Ks. Some even give more in years when the company makes more profit.

But overall, yeah, the pension system is messy and I suspect many people will be surprised when they get to the point of trying to collect.

#88 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2012, 01:55 PM:

There's now a new thread for the SS discussion.

And as we discuss this, please go gently with one another, dear people. This is deep fear we're dealing with, and everyone's got their skin off.

#89 ::: B. Durbin ::: (view all by) ::: June 27, 2012, 01:15 AM:

I think it's important to keep iterating, here and elsewhere, that our prison system is broken. As part of that, it's also important to talk about why the War On Drugs has failed, because unless we distribute that topic widely, it will remain a political death sentence to consider drug decriminalization. And drug decriminalization (plus complete pardons for nonviolent possession sentences) is the one thing that would bring a major cut to our prison population.

If you repeat enough times that the War On Drugs has failed, using cites of why, and that we keep trying to do more of the same, it might eventually sink in. And the reasonable caveat to the fear that there will be negative consequences to addicts with a newly decriminalized hobby and their families is to point out how it could hardly be worse than our current incarceration rate, plus the fallout from that, plus the search & seizure laws, and so on.


There is a certain mindset, both historically and in some cultures, that has a different mindset of what we might term "gayness" from modern American culture. Modern American culture has that concept for people with same-sex attraction and for same-sex actions. In contrast, first-century Rome had some associations that we would consider fairly nasty in regards to that; namely that what we might call the subordinate partner was always seen as feminine (for which read "dirt") and the dominant partner, especially in cases of rape, was not seen as anything but manly (with a dash of "straight.")* There are still some cultures today which have that view of a rapist vs. the raped when it comes to two men. Needless to say, that view seems to hold in the prison system. Not nice.

*I once saw this in a history article discussing the views of St. Paul in the Bible as regards to homosexuality. As the article writer pointed out, it was pretty much impossible for someone raised in that culture to imagine any form of homosexuality as anything other than rape, at which point his diatribes make a lot more sense to modern sensibilities.

#90 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: June 27, 2012, 03:13 AM:

A BBC report on sex in prisons, prompted by a British prison reform charity deciding to try to find out what really happens in English prisons.

Under English law, sex in prisons is illegal. The article does summarise some of the variations, mostly systems of conjugal visits, and suggests where there could be particular problems. For instance, teenagers missing out on information and experience with other people.

#91 ::: Mycroft W ::: (view all by) ::: June 27, 2012, 12:14 PM:

I think the key to the Huffington Post article linked in the original here is the following paragraph:

"Full compliance with the standards set out in the PREA would cost penal facilities about $468.5 million a year, according to the report. By contrast, the financial benefits to society from eliminating prison rape would come to almost $52 billion a year."

Bolding is mine, emphasis in the original. Of course this will never get done - the people getting benefits aren't the people paying the costs, and the people paying the costs are the people being listened to by politicians (at least that is what seems to be happening, or we wouldn't be having a growing private prison industry in the first place).

Again, to hell with the world; if spending money doesn't make *me* money, even if it would generate daisies and unicorns, then it's the wrong thing to do. And I'll fight legislation forcing more ethical, or societally beneficial behaviour, because read last sentence.

But 100-1 benefits. Even if the findings are biased and massively inflated, 20-1 benefits. I find this sickening.

#92 ::: jennythereader ::: (view all by) ::: June 27, 2012, 12:28 PM:

It seems to me that part of the problem (in the USA, at least) is that we don't have any sort of consistent theory of what we're trying to do to/for the people in prison.

Are we trying to rehabilitate them? Then we should be offering as many academic and vocational classes as possible, and optimizing conditions for learning.

Are we trying to punish them? Then we should be offering no privileges (except for maybe a few to reward good behavior) and conditions should be as spartan as possible, in both cases without crossing the line into deprivation of basic human rights or endangering their safety or health.

Or are we trying to protect the rest of society from them? In that case conditions & and privileges should be good enough that they aren't extremely motivated to escape, but beyond that level should be secondary to security concerns (again, without crossing the line into deprivation of basic human rights or endangering their safety or health).

Personally I think that society would be best served by recognizing that the vast majority of people currently in our criminal justice system can and should be rehabilitated. There is a minority for whom punishment is the best answer, and a minority of the minority who will continue to be a threat no matter what training or punishment they receive. They should be quarantined.

#93 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: June 28, 2012, 01:25 AM:

jennythereader @ 92:

I think there's a consistent motive for our prison system, if not a theory. It's not rehabilitation or protection for society I'm certain, because there's no credible attempt at rehabilitation and if we were trying to protect society we wouldn't create a system that ensures a high rate of recidivism. What we keep talking about doing in news stories about court cases and in fictional stories about law enforcement is taking revenge on criminals for the harm they've done to the victims (at least for those victims we care about).

#94 ::: KayTei ::: (view all by) ::: June 28, 2012, 02:06 AM:

Bruce @ 93

Exactly. I'm sympathetic as hell to the victim's rights groups, but I think they have way too much influence over decisions about what we ought to do with criminals once we've caught them. I just don't agree that vengeance is the ultimate or superior good, and I think the sacrifice we make in locking up significant proportions of our population far outweighs the value of any added sense of security.

(Not to mention the problem with incarcerating the innocent; not to mention that even if we prefer vengeance, it doesn't explain why we're not funding prevention and education; not to mention disproportionate racial and income-related outcomes; not to mention sentencing disproportion; not to mention the innate value of every human life; not to mention....)

#95 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: June 28, 2012, 09:47 AM:

I'll note that "vengeance" is probably an important motive.

Here's Mark Kleiman: It proclaims that what he did was wrong, that the victims did not deserve their victimization, and that they were important enough to be worth revenging.

On the original topic--I do not think prison brutality is a new thing. Read, for example, G Gordon Liddy's "Will" (his autobiography)--the section about his time in jail for his involvement in Watergate. The brutality level seems to me higher than now.

#96 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: June 28, 2012, 10:02 AM:

SamChevre @95:
I do not think prison brutality is a new thing. Read, for example, G Gordon Liddy's "Will" (his autobiography)--the section about his time in jail for his involvement in Watergate. The brutality level seems to me higher than now.

Where did anyone say that it was a new thing? What does that have to do with it being morally unacceptable?

#97 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: June 28, 2012, 10:22 AM:

Where did anyone say that it was a new thing? What does that have to do with it being morally unacceptable?

The focus on private prisons would be a focus on something that has started in the last couple decades.

#98 ::: KayTei ::: (view all by) ::: June 28, 2012, 11:13 AM:

I feel like "justice" proclaims those things just as well, as does "just punishment." But the levels of vengeance we are imposing now seem to me to exceed what is just. I do have an expectation that justice will always be tempered with mercy - and that mercy is not just because it is the ethical thing to do, but because it is a recognition that a human justice system will make misjudgements, and we will inevitably also be punishing some of the innocent along with the guilty, no matter how hard we try to protect the innocent.

I'm also concerned that our approach to imprisonment and other extreme remedies is, in many cases, overinclusive in a way that is actively unjust - we appear to be more interested in imprisoning anyone who might be a criminal than in protecting the rights of the innocent. And the basis of it seems to be this idea that if we throw all potential criminals in jail, "no one else will ever have to suffer this anguish." I have serious concerns that our desire for revenge is blinding us to the flaws in our system; we're so eager to get the bad guys, that we overlook the good guys or the "okay" guys that we're also sweeping up in our nets.

#99 ::: Howard Bannister ::: (view all by) ::: June 28, 2012, 12:35 PM:

"It seems to me that part of the problem (in the USA, at least) is that we don't have any sort of consistent theory of what we're trying to do to/for the people in prison."

Or perhaps we're muddled because every time one group tries to apply what we know about the human mind and psychology and reforming people to prisons (or schools) the other side screams about how we really need more authoritarian violence and blocks any change.

See also: conservatives acting against the new prison regulations.

(which is simply a longer version of 'no consistent view,' but pointing fingers--something I seem to be doing a lot of. It's a thing.)

#100 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: June 28, 2012, 04:04 PM:

Bruce Cohen @93: What we keep talking about doing in news stories about court cases and in fictional stories about law enforcement is taking revenge on criminals for the harm they've done to the victims (at least for those victims we care about).

KayTei @94: I just don't agree that vengeance is the ultimate or superior good, and I think the sacrifice we make in locking up significant proportions of our population far outweighs the value of any added sense of security.

This intersects very interestingly with an article linked to from over in the Dysfunctional Families thread. Basically, making the distinction between "fault" and "responsibility," and then addressing the question of "response."

We have two basic conflicts going on: "objective," (E.g., jennythereader @92 what are we trying to do to/for the people in prison?), which in turn conflicts with "agenda" (abi's @0: capitalism gone septic).

Speaking as a Martian (e.g., someone standing outside of the system), it would make more sense to me to run law and justice on a medical model ("How do we resolve conflict and achieve health?") rather than a military one ("How do we keep people under control?").

#101 ::: Jeremy Leader ::: (view all by) ::: June 28, 2012, 05:43 PM:

If vengeance is a key motivation for what we do to people in prison (and the vengeance motive seems to me to be a plausible explanation for why we don't stop prison rape), how does that interact with the high percentage of prisoners convicted of drug crimes?

Why does society want revenge on people who are (pick one or more according your political leanings) weak-willed, genetically predisposed to addiction, wilfully stupid, attempting to self-medicate?

#102 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: June 28, 2012, 06:05 PM:

What we keep talking about doing in news stories about court cases and in fictional stories about law enforcement is taking revenge on criminals for the harm they've done to the victims (at least for those victims we care about).

I really do recommend clicking on the Kleiman link I posted above, but that was part of his point. Taking vengeance is significantly about saying that the victim WAS someone we care about.

#103 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: June 28, 2012, 06:17 PM:

Jacque @ 100:

Using a medical model makes sense to me. I've been thinking of the entire criminal justice / law enforcement system as a public health problem. What's needed is careful study of etiology, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of social problems that lead to criminal behavior, of the behaviors themselves, and of the problems that can lead to recidivism. Then there'll probably be some residue of crimes and criminals that need to be treated as quarantine situations, to protect the rest of society from incurable individuals. Everything else being done in the system should be re-evaluated on that basis, and anything that doesn't fit that model should be removed: drug possession should be decriminalized, drug sale should be treated as a licensing and taxation issue, and prevention of harm to people rather than punishment of offenders should be the highest priority.

#104 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: June 28, 2012, 06:23 PM:

Jeremy Leader @ 101:

I get the impression that many people who want vengeance for crimes are projecting their anger for other crimes onto the accused in a particular case. So for many people an accused criminal stands in for many others, or for some abstract idea of a "criminal". This is probably exacerbated by the fact that a large number of violent crimes are never solved, or at least never result in an arrest and a conviction. And still further exacerbated by the common fallacy of clumping together criminals of all sorts, and not making a sufficient distinction between violent and non-violent offenders.

#105 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: June 28, 2012, 06:53 PM:

Jeremy, #101: It helps if you remember that the War On Some Drugs is not like other kinds of criminality. It gets its appeal largely from a combination of Righteous Control-Freakism (aka people who want to control everyone else's "moral decisions" for reasons arising out of their religious beliefs) and racism (felony convictions for possession of small amounts of drugs are an excellent tool for selectively disenfranchising blacks) supported by fear (cf. Trayvon Martin), but a lot of the money that pushes the supporting memes comes (directly or indirectly) from the people who benefit financially from this particular version of Prohibition. Which is to say, organized crime on the one hand and the privatized prison industry on the other.

#106 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: June 28, 2012, 07:39 PM:

Bruce Cohen #93: Oh, there's a much more blatant "motive" for society -- the prisons are used to enforce an underclass, and exert social control over the populace at large.

KayTei #98: It's worth noting that in Old Testament times, "an eye for an eye" was meant as a limit on vengeance.

#107 ::: B. Durbin ::: (view all by) ::: June 29, 2012, 12:19 AM:

David Harmon: Code of Hammurabi*, not the Bible.

Yes, a lot of Biblical literalists get that one wrong, which brings an interesting flavor of irony to their using it.

*196 on. Note that the consequences for injury go down with the status of the victim. Earlier in the code there is the death penalty for abolitionists, so this is not exactly what we would consider a just set of laws.

#108 ::: KayTei ::: (view all by) ::: June 29, 2012, 02:06 AM:

Sam @ 102

But I am still not convinced that the vengeance we are extracting is proportionate to the harm done. Also, I think that too often, vengeance shades over into bloodlust and vicarious enjoyment of the pain of others, and I think that is a trend that society should resist, because it leads us away from justice and reasoned decision-making.

We rely on the courts to be rational, when everyone around them is caught up in an emotional whirl, because rational evaluation is essential to a fair trial and just sentencing. When we get in a tizzy anyway, and start mandating a lot of draconian sentences, we have abdicated our responsibility to the accused.

Being convicted of a crime does not make you less of a person. But I sometimes think that we treat criminals as a subclass of human beings, regardless of the type of offense, or their motivation or circumstances. I think that's wrong. Even if we acknowledge a legitimate role for vengeance, I sincerely question whether it should have such a broad and inescapable reach.

#109 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: June 29, 2012, 02:49 AM:

Jeremy Leader @101:

Remember that there was a huge upswing in crime in the inner cities of the US in the 1980's: murder rates went up; property crime, particularly theft, was through the roof. This was concurrent with the spread of crack cocaine, and many of the murders and property crimes were associated with the trade.

Where I think things went wrong is that, rather than seeing crack use as a form of self-medication, and asking how else we could help these people (like ensuring that the growing prosperity of the country was shared with them), we continued to criminalize that symptom of despair. Which, of course, led to more crimes, since illegal drugs trades tend to be more violent and vicious than legalized, regulated ones that compete by giving pens to doctors.

This more than just the Puritannical fear that someone, somewhere, might be having fun. This was looking at two things happening in parallel and blaming one for the other. The reason that powdered cocaine didn't attract the same set of penalties as crystallized cocaine did may have been racist at its roots, but the ostensible, defensible reason was that the people in suits who snorted stuff weren't shooting each other the way the people in jeans who injected stuff were.

There's a profound disjunction with one particular legal drug here, of course, and we're all aware of it. I suspect that's part of what makes it so hard to talk about drug addicts as anything other than inherently criminal: it makes it too easy to look at the level of damage that alcohol can do. It's an awkward moment. Easier to treat drug addicts as "other" and criminalize them.

Now, of course, we're back in the same cycle of poverty, despair, and another pervasive drug: meth. I'm not seeing a lot of improvement in the way we deal with things.

Lee @105:

That's heavily into psychoanalyzing people you don't understand, or particularly like. That's an exercise that, done with sympathy, can lead to some useful grounds for empathy. But when you're doing it just to kick them, it doesn't really add much light to the situation. Particularly when phrased so definitively and absolutely (rather than with a few "in my opinions" to soften the impact), it also leads to the kind of shouting past one another I was hoping we could pull ourselves out of.

Please strive for a bit more charity, or at least some shred of understanding that they, too, have reasons to think they're the good guys, trying to do the right thing.

#110 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: June 29, 2012, 03:24 AM:

It occurs to me that many dysfunctions of the justice system are interestingly isomorphic with dysfunctions in family systems. (And produce a lot of similar failure modes.) I suspect that untangling the one will (have to) be part and parcel of untangling the other.

#111 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: June 29, 2012, 04:37 AM:

Taking a longer view, I also think that the politicians are constrained by choices made a century ago, and trapped by their fear of being seen as weak.

Briefly, in the aftermath of WW1 (and the Russian Revolution), there were a lot of new control laws. Well, the International Opium Convention is a hundred years old, and was incorporated in the Treaty of Versailles.

So, whichever country you are in, these things go back to international treaties which set limits, So, for example, the Netherlands cannot make marijuana legal, but they can make the choice not to prosecute.

A lot of firearms laws go back to the same period, but are not locked in the same way. It is just that the politicians saw a huge number of men with the training to fight battles, and got scared. It didn't upset the applecart if mine owners machine-gunned strikers and their families, but the thought that more ordinary thugs might use tommy-guns scared them.

On the whole, it's possibly a good thing that they did get scared at that point. The problem is that they kept acting scared ever since. And, if you are fanatical about some aspects of the US Constitution, and think there ought to be an armed revolution, you're about a century late.

Anyway, we're suffering the results of a century of fear, both the warping of political debate and the accumulated reactions of law-makers.

But one little thing: apparently, when political uniforms were banned in the UK in 1937, one such party took to marching while carrying their distinctive shirts on coat-hangars. It's a different way of looking at things....

#112 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: June 29, 2012, 08:54 AM:

Lee @ 105

I will note that you are missing what in my observation is a major constituency for drug prohibition; that's people whose social space (families, neighborhoods, etc) include a significant number of people for whom drug use has made their lives worse. (You don't need the War on Drugs for meth or cocaine to make a real mess of your life.)

This is true with alcohol too--the people I know who are vehemently anti-alcohol are very often people with family histories of alchol abuse.

#113 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: June 29, 2012, 09:33 AM:

I think there is at least one other option (between decriminialization and the War on Drugs) for dealing with addictive substances:

Free, no-questions-asked drug treatment for all. Expensive? Sure. But maybe not when compared with lifelong incarceration.

Disclosure: I have at least two relatives who are addicted to a legal drug.

(B. Durbin @ #107, the Code of Hammurabi is earlier, but "an eye for an eye" appears in Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy, and is also referenced in the New Testament--Matt 5:38ff)

#114 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: June 29, 2012, 10:05 AM:

The basis of the War on Some Drugs is, historically The Other. That Other may be working class white men (Prohibition, amphetamines), black men (cocaine), Mexican-Americans/black men (cannabis), or hippies (LSD).

The point is to control the dangerous Other and render him weak, powerless, and submissive. In the process, also, to deprive him (and, increasingly, her) of any political power.

The rules are not meant to apply to "People like us". Prohibition never applied to the affluent in the US, for example, and the loopholes (the use of alcohol for medical purposes, for example) were designed to make sure that the respectable continued to have access to it. The result is that drug prohibition is a means of social control, and the prisons become warehouses for the poor and a supplementary army of cheap labour which can be used to undermine the working class.

Slavery is reinstituted by underhanded means, but we don't call it that, and it is justified by saying that the victims did it to themselves.

#115 ::: Leigh Kimmel ::: (view all by) ::: June 29, 2012, 10:09 AM:

Jacque @ 110

The nation as family and the government as parent is one of the foundational Metaphors We Live By.

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson have an excellent book on just that subject, of how our metaphors shape our view of things. When we use the metaphor of nation as family and government as parent, it isn't just a figure of speech -- our whole sense of obligation and expectation of how parents and children ought to interact get transferred onto the relationship of citizens and government.

In present-day America we have the problem that we have two competing models of family -- the Inherited Obligation model and the Negotiated Commitment model. Doug Muder has some really good discussions at his website of how the conflict between these two models often leads liberals and conservatives to completely misread one another's intentions, simply because each side presupposes its model of family as a universal, rather than one of two models that isn't shared by the other side.

#116 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: June 29, 2012, 11:24 AM:


Yeah, my sense is that the overwhelming majority of support for drug prohibition comes from people who want there to be less drug use so there will be fewer drug addicts and fewer overdoses. I'm sure there is also some level of background othering based on fear or dislike of blacks, hispanics, hippies, the underclass, what-have-you. But the main driver is the fear that, say, their kids are going to get hooked on meth and wreck their lives, or their neighborhood is going to end up full of unemployable drug addicts who mug people and steal stuff to get the money with which to buy their drugs. Both of these outcomes are plausiblyly more likely if meth can be safely bought at the drug store with an ID that says you're 21.

I don't agree with this approach to protecting your kids or your neighborhood, FWIW, but it's neither crazy nor evil, just (IMO) not so likely to lead to good results.

#117 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: June 29, 2012, 11:30 AM:


I think I'd like to see the medical model used successfully in some largish place for awhile. My imperfect understanding is that there is a pendulum always in motion between more leniency/emphasis on fixing the criminals, and more harshness/emphasis on locking the bastards up till they rot. And this tends to lag crime waves and fear of crime. When lots of voters are scared of criminals (rationally or not), it's effective to run for office on a "lock 'em up" platform.

I am quite skeptical of anyone's ability to cure criminals. My understanding is that the best cure known for most kinds of crime is simply to keep a guy locked up till he is past the prime age for small-time crime.

#118 ::: KayTei ::: (view all by) ::: June 29, 2012, 03:39 PM:

albatross @ 117

Portugal isn't large enough for you? If the United States is too large to start with, what would be the right size to prove the point?

#119 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: June 29, 2012, 04:13 PM:

Lee @ 105/ abi @ 109

As if to illustrate abi's point, Ta-Nehisi Coates has a piece today on police shutting down drug-dealing in a public housing complex.

"There's obviously a drug war critique to made here. But when you live in a neighborhood overrun by drug-dealing, and the accompanying violence, your greatest concern is that you and your family can ensure for yourselves some sort of safety. "

#120 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: June 30, 2012, 03:31 AM:

Leigh Kimmel @115: the Inherited Obligation model and the Negotiated Commitment model

Yeah, I was really intrigued when that came up elsethread.

I wonder if these models have been extended to cover abuse and dysfunction (and by implication, nurturance and function) in cultural systems? For example, I wonder what the cultural-level equivalents of these would be?

#121 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: June 30, 2012, 03:16 PM:

SamChevre, #112: That's a valid point, and one I missed. However, the racism issue I noted has been documented; and as often as I hear drug use framed in terms of Moral Issues (right alongside the horrors of Unmarried Sex -- aka Those Tramps who use abortion for birth control -- and Gay Marriage), I don't think that cause can be readily dismissed either.

#122 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: July 01, 2012, 02:56 AM:

#107 ::: B. Durbin:

There were abolitionists in ancient Babylon?

#123 ::: B. Durbin ::: (view all by) ::: July 01, 2012, 11:00 PM:

"Anyone who induces a slave to escape shall be put to death," also references to trying to free slaves, hiding runaway slaves, and so forth. Sounds like abolitionists to me.

#124 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2012, 01:23 AM:

Re the Subatomic particle plush toys sidelight1:

There's a link on that page in the navbar at the top that goes to the iTunes store (or you can go to the App Store on your iGadget) where you can download a free iPhone/iPad app that shows the particle plushies and the characteristics of the real particles. It's kind of fun to play with.

1. Wouldn't it have been even better if Teresa had posted this as a Particle?

#125 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2012, 04:43 AM:

#123 ::: B. Durbin :

There might or might not have been a political movement, though, as distinct from efforts to help particular slaves.

#126 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2012, 09:32 AM:

SamChevre #119: Without having (yet) read the article: Having the police protecting you from the drug dealers falls squarely under Julius Caesar's advice to let a lion loose in the streets, then claim credit for killing it and protecting the citizenry.

The reason the drug dealers have all those guns, and the money to pay for them, is precisely because legitimate sales are forbidden, leaving the market to the criminals. The idea that such laws could actually stop the trafficking of these drugs is not merely naive idealism either, because most of those laws were passed when (alcohol) Prohibition, including the American embedding of the Mafia, was well in living memory.

#127 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2012, 01:54 PM:

Jeremy Leader @101: Why does society want revenge on people who are (pick one or more according your political leanings) weak-willed, genetically predisposed to addiction, wilfully stupid, attempting to self-medicate?

Because our culture (speaking of it as a single, large, not terribly conscious organism*) has many of the characteristics of a bully, and people who "just aren't right" for whatever reason should be punished for their defect.

Or so it seems to me on my more cynical days.

* Which brings up an interesting stfnal premise: what would a culture be like if it was conscious? How would that work? How would it change the relationship/interactions between the culture and the individual? What would it do to individual identity and autonomy? Are there any living examples of such a culture?

#128 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2012, 02:46 PM:

Lee @ 121

If you were somewhat less focused on thinking badly of those with whom you disagree, the set of concerns you mention could be summarized as: "Sex without commitment and mind-altering drugs can really mess your life up; Society ought to discourage people from things that can mess their lives up that badly."

#129 ::: Fade Manley ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2012, 02:56 PM:

SamChevre @128: That's a very hostile phrasing. It reads to me as you saying "If you weren't being unfair and wrong, you would agree with me." And I don't think that's fair at all.

#130 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2012, 03:04 PM:

SamChevre @128:

I think the "sex without committment" argument might have gone down a little better if Lee hadn't mentioned gay marriage.

And I'd point out that the issue isn't so simple as "things that can mess up your life". Being raised with religiously-enabled emotional abuse can also mess people's lives up quite severely indeed.

But freedom of religion is important enough to many people that they see that damage as an acceptable price to pay. And yet they don't see the same thing about relationships among consenting adults. So it's clearly more complicated, judgmental and debatable than a simple "harm = foul" evaluation.

#131 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2012, 03:05 PM:

"Sex without commitment and mind-altering drugs can really mess your life up; Society ought to discourage people from things that can mess their lives up that badly."

I personally prefer my sex with commitment but without mind-altering drugs. I think sex under the influence of mind-altering drugs is diminished in several ways.

#132 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2012, 03:07 PM:

Is the socialist pill considered a mind-altering drug?

#133 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2012, 03:41 PM:

I will note, for those for whom it's not already very clear, that the opinion quoted in my #128 is one I disagree with (I'm fairly openly pro-drug legalization, and generally libertarian; "people ought to be free to make a mess of their lives however they desire" is much closer to my thinking than "people should not be allowed to do things that can mess their lives up that badly.")

#134 ::: Leroy F. Berven ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2012, 03:43 PM:

Stepping aside from all moral issues for a moment, there is another, brutally pragmatic potential result of the widespread use of any intoxicating drug in any society, regardless of legality.

Consider the "gin craze" that was so ubiquitous in London (and much of the rest of Britain) circa 1700 - 1850. (And if you can, look closely at some of Hogarth's engravings on the subject.) With the ubiquitous availability of cheap, high-proof alcoholic beverages, people of all classes, but most especially the lower classes, literally drank themselves to death. Many who did not die directly of alcohol poisoning substantially shortened their own lives, damaging both family structures and their local societies in their descent through alcoholism.

Many who were succeptible to alcohol addiction (whether physiological, psychological, or both) removed themselves from the gene pool, often at what would today be considered a horrifyingly early age. Although this was a continuation of a trend which had begun centuries earlier with the advent of distilled alcoholic beverages in Europe, its apogee was highly visible, brutal in effects, and horrifying to most objective observers.

One of the practical results was directly Darwinian -- a significant fraction of the affected population, who were most succeptible to either the temptations or the effects of this specific drug, were removed from the local gene pool before they could reproduce. Result: the descendants of the survivors are likely, on the average, to be somewhat more resistant to the effects of this particular substance than a random population whose ancestors have not gone through a similar winnowing. (For results of subsequent field tests, see the effects of alcohol on native populations not previously exposed to it in large quantities, such as in North America and Australia.)

Regardless of the results, however, the process can be very, very hard on the populations who have the misfortune to find themselves living through it, regardless of the nominal legality (or lack of it) of whichever addictive substance has become locally popular at the moment.

#135 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2012, 03:53 PM:

SamChevre @133:

Yes; I recall saying something about how difficult it is to fairly and accurately sum up views that you don't agree with.

Given that, it's probably not a good line of conversation to try to pursue with Lee, who doesn't agree with them either. I can't really see any light at all coming out of it.

#136 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2012, 04:10 PM:

Leroy F. Berven #134: But there's a gotcha there, which is that evolution doesn't just apply to genetic predispositions and vulnerabilities.

A significant fraction of the survivors would have been resistant by virtue of a constraining religious mandate against alcohol, including susceptibility to the religious constraint. (Henry James commented that "the only cure for dipsomania is religiomania", q.v. AA.) And note that religion is also highly heritable, in the general sense of heritability.

#137 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2012, 04:13 PM:

Me #136: Whoops, William James.

#138 ::: Broken Pottery ::: (view all by) ::: July 10, 2012, 06:35 AM:

As someone imminently likely to be incarcerated this worries me on a personal level more than it does on my long term desire for prison and legal reform. While I'm fairly broadshouldered I am a pacifist (and pretty weak and untrained even if I were to try to defend myself in a crisis) and any sort of violence in my presence induces a panic attack. Beyond that I'm pretty much a coward when it comes to facing back against danger that I have no way of overcoming. I might be able to join a gang or pay one for protection (something I find highly distasteful) or just accept that as a vulnerable man with mental illness that the odds of me getting raped are going to be vastly higher than the 1 in 5.

Regardless of what I have done, I do not deserve to be raped. This should go without saying but I'm constantly barraged with culture saying that 'It's what I deserve for commiting a crime' (notably I haven't seen anyone here say that, again reinforcing how spectacular and intelligent this community is). I don't consider the actual jail time itself to be improper (highly misguided and wasteful compared to more effective alternatives) but I deeply resent the array of extrajudicial punishments in terms of rape and violence that I will likely be exposed to along with virtual future unemployability, restricted housing, and denial of basic citizen rights after my sentence is served.

#139 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: July 10, 2012, 10:32 PM:

Broken Pottery @138, I don't know that I have anything constructive to say, but read and witnessed.

#140 ::: Ginger ::: (view all by) ::: July 11, 2012, 09:05 AM:

Broken Pottery @ 138: Also witnessed, and I'm so sorry I have nothing more I can do.

#141 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: July 11, 2012, 04:54 PM:

Broken Pottery @138:


Also, don't assume an even distribution of, well, anything in statistics. Some prisons are better than others, and areas within each prison vary.

I'll hope for the best for you.

#142 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: July 11, 2012, 06:11 PM:

Broken Pottery @138: Also read and witnessed. Hope it doesn't go according to your worst expectations. And yes, the "extra" aspects are... despicable? Unjustifiable? Unjust? All of the above.

Smaller type (our default)
Larger type
Even larger type, with serifs

Dire legal notice
Making Light copyright 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 by Patrick & Teresa Nielsen Hayden. All rights reserved.