The Prison System

Sunday, May 22, 2011
First Aired: 
Sunday, July 26, 2009

What Is It

As of June 30, 2007, the prisons and jails in the land of the free held 2,299,116 inmates; one in every 31 American adults is in prison, on parole, or on probation.  The state of California has more people in jail than China does, and this year expects to spend more on prisons than on higher education.  Is something wrong with this picture?  John and Ken explore the nature of incarceration and rehabilitation with Kara Dansky, Executive Director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center.

Listening Notes

What is the purpose of prisons:  to keep criminals off the street, to educate and rehabilitate, or to punish?  The United States imprisons more citizens for more crimes than does any other nation.  Does America’s mass incarceration serve justice, or is it vastly inefficient?  John and Ken delve into the issue of the American prison system with guest Kara Dansky, Professor in the Stanford Law School and Executive Director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center.  John and Ken begin by giving a taste of the philosophical arguments surrounding punishment and criminal justice, outlining the positions of retribution, deterrence, rehabilitation, and incapacitation.  They allude to the moral imperfections riddling the prison system and return to the fundamental question: what is punishment for?

Guest Professor Kara Dansky joins the conversation.  Dansky came to her current position of Executive Director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center after serving as a public defender.  She poses the question:  what are we doing and why do we choose to punish in the way we punish?  She argues that this question is most frequently addressed in terms of social utility instead of morality.  Ken agrees, questioning whether there is a shared, explicit theory behind our system of crime and punishment.  Dansky describes how the American prison system was originally created as a humane rehabilitative form of punishment in contrast to the death penalty and other forms of corporeal punishment.  This orientation changed in the 1970s with Nixon’s war on drugs, when society embraced the idea that rehabilitation is impossible.

Dansky emphasizes the inequities in the prison system stating that in California those incarcerated are disproportionately poor, undereducated, mentally ill, and people of color.  A caller agrees, arguing that the prison system creates a permanent underclass.  The conversation turns to the effectiveness of non prison punishment methods, such as social condemnation.  Should prisons be abolished?  Do other nations have a better system?  Is there any good in our current prison system?   John closes the conversation by arguing that through cowardice, incompetence, and lack of information, the prison system perpetrates societal ill.

  • Roving Philosophical Report (Seek to 5:31): Devon Strolovitch speaks with two attorneys representing Debbie Peagler, a 49 year old woman wrongfully incarcerated for the past 20 years for first degree murder, now diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. UPDATE: Debbie was freed on August 22, 2009.  The day following her release, she got to visit the Pacific Ocean to watch the sunset and feel the ocean water lap at her feet for the first time in 27 years.
  • 60-Second Philosopher (Seek to 49:51):  Ian Shoales describes America’s long history of obsession with prisons in the movies.