Ethics of Incarceration

Incarceration for the purpose of exacting vengeance against citizens has been a mainstay of human societies for millennia. Modern states currently rely heavily on incarceration as a consequence of conviction, but an ongoing shift in ethical thinking is beginning to challenge this use of incarceration. The new thinking contends that states ought to bring about good by decreasing the performance of wrong or criminal actions by its citizens. In this view, vengeance is unnecessary and immoral. Consequently many proponents of this view have been calling for our current incarceration institutions to be abolished or dramatically reduced in favor of new institutions that have been empirically shown to reduce the occurrence of criminal actions.

In the US specifically, incarceration is further criticized for its continued use in the enforcement of white supremacy. One example of this are the Nixon-era drug laws that were written specifically for incarcerating African American citizens; these laws have helped cause African American citizens to be incarcerated at six times the rate of white citizens for drug use that occurs at similar rates across race. Incarceration is also being criticized for its stunting effect on socioeconomic mobility and the incentive it creates for the state to convict the innocent (due to forced labor programs and contracts with private prisons). However US institutions for incarceration are currently thriving despite these criticisms due to significant public support for punishing convicts by incarceration. Is there good reason to act out our collective long-standing desire for vengeance? If not, what should we do about that desire? Is it possible to maintain freedom and order in a society without using incarceration? What if it was used very sparingly? Would such a society be better than one that incarcerated more people?

Considering the specific history and institutional biases of the US, should we strive to abolish incarceration here? If so, how can we persuade Americans that abolition is just and practicable? Is it just to punish those who have performed wrong actions? If so, how can we persuade those who view punishment as needless and immoral that it is instead right and just? Are our current institutions of incarceration a just or good form of punishment? Can incarceration be a just or good form of punishment?