The Pit of Despair

I was horrified today to learn of the work of Harry Harlow, Ph.D. Harlow actually stumbled into his most famous work because he was attempting to lower the cost of his laboratory by raising his own rhesus monkeys. He raised them Skinner style, fed and warm, but bereft of any contact with either their mothers or other juveniles. He discovered that his monkeys went crazy from this lack of social interaction. Instead of thinking to himself, gee, that was dumb, Harlow instead decided to do this on purpose to see what happens when you deprive an animal of something that it needs. Does that count as a sin against nature?

I came across this little tidbit in an article in the New Yorker about solitary confinement. The article is tough going, but I can recommend it if you are interested in matters of crime and punishment. The reason Harlow came up is that what he saw in his monkeys is oftentimes seen in prisoners who undergo extended periods of solitary confinement. The article is an extended reflection on whether solitary confinement is making things worse or better in American prisons. The article refers to a study done in 2003 on just that question but regrettably fails to cite it. Ah well. I'm sure the experimental design would just annoy me.

I am generally sympathetic to the conclusion of the article that solitary confinement is probably not worth it overall, given that those subjected to it are generally rendered less fit for society than they were previously, and the violence in the general prison population continues unabated.  By way of counter-example, British prisons are cited for a different approach (but again no data!)

Beginning in the nineteen-eighties, they gradually adopted a strategy that focussed on preventing prison violence rather than on delivering an ever more brutal series of punishments for it. The approach starts with the simple observation that prisoners who are unmanageable in one setting often behave perfectly reasonably in another. This suggested that violence might, to a critical extent, be a function of the conditions of incarceration. The British noticed that problem prisoners were usually people for whom avoiding humiliation and saving face were fundamental and instinctive. When conditions maximized humiliation and confrontation, every interaction escalated into a trial of strength. Violence became a predictable consequence.

So the British decided to give their most dangerous prisoners more control, rather than less. They reduced isolation and offered them opportunities for work, education, and special programming to increase social ties and skills. The prisoners were housed in small, stable units of fewer than ten people in individual cells, to avoid conditions of social chaos and unpredictability. In these reformed “Close Supervision Centres,” prisoners could receive mental-health treatment and earn rights for more exercise, more phone calls, “contact visits,” and even access to cooking facilities. They were allowed to air grievances. And the government set up an independent body of inspectors to track the results and enable adjustments based on the data.

This too makes sense. Prison violence is not irrational. You do what you got to do to survive. To shank. It's a verb.

However, on the other hand, it is a bit unwise to hold up England as a paragon of criminal rehabilitiation. If anything, the English slums are worse than the prisons in some respects. For example, take the experience of Theodore Dalyrymple, who found that his patients were much healthier after a stint in prison than they were when left to their own devices. If anything, the English seem to have quelled violence in the prisons by unleashing it on the countryside. Perhaps part of the problem is that you can only punish (and thereby rehabilitate) a good man.

It would be helpful to see some real data on this. Perhaps I will troll through the work of Steve Sailer to see if something pertinent comes up. I do know that a large part of the problem is that American jurisprudence has constitutionalized criminal justice to such a degree that the only options left to the ordinary modes of government are longer sentences and harsher penalties. The better European policing referenced in the New Yorker article is actually a result of Europeans having fewer rights than Americans do.