Commentary Violence in Prison Demands some Draconian Measures

Some six hundred years before Jesus Christ’s birth, people in the Greek city state of Athens confronted a frightening social problem: crime. Fortunately, an official named Draco solved the dilemma.

He established new laws for Athens, devising a penal code noted both for its impartiality—and its severity.

The story of Draco’s reforms may hold value for the United States and some other nations. The public has a vested interest in this issue.

Statistics reveal that roughly 95% of people incarcerated in the US will eventually be released. They need a chance to re-enter society as law abiding citizens. American voters could pass three tough measures which might promote safer prisons.

An Overview

In an ideal scenario, after being convicted of crimes, inmates serve sentences in disciplined, secure environments. Just as parents send disobedient children into “time out,” courts in imposing confinement seek to punish while deterring antisocial conduct in the future.   

Unfortunately, many prisoners evidently learn violent messages.  Mugging, social intimidation, drug trafficking, foul language, rape or other forms of harassment should have no place in a correctional facility. Steps should be taken to make sure that inmates do not suffer brutalization during imprisonment.

In 2006, a disturbing report issued from the bipartisan Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons. The contents give everyone cause for alarm…

The prison population in the United States has exploded. Over 52% of ex-cons reportedly return as inmates within just three years of release. And prison violence remains a serious problem.

Questioning the high costs of prison violence and recidivism  

Taxpayers in the USA expend roughly $60 billion dollars every year to support some 5,000 prisons and local jails. These facilities hold an estimated 13.5 million individuals for some period of time during the course of any given year. A nation with a federal government mired in red ink simply cannot sustain these types of expenditures.

A civic process which evidently functioned to reform prisoners in some earlier eras no longer works properly today.  What happened?

Did changes in society cause this problem? Or could the fault lie within the system’s seeming unwillingness to exact respect for the rights of every single person…including members of the public on the outside who must eventually deal with the ugly consequences of prison violence?

The ten percent indictment

Obviously, prison officials want to maintain safe environments. Nonviolent institutional settings promote rehabilitation more effectively.

Secure facilities eliminate expenses and litigation associated with disruptive incidents. Peaceful conditions cause less stress for employees and inmates, while enhancing public safety.

But another, more recent report suggests that the issue of prison violence has reached crisis proportions: A study of state prisons revealed that tragically, nearly one in every ten of the people confined within state penal systems can expect to become a victim of sexual abuse while serving time. [See Terry Frieden’s excellent article in the CNN news archives entitled “Study finds nearly 1 in 10 state prisoners is sexually abused while incarcerated (May 17, 2012).]

The problem of prison violence has become too extensive to manage without significant systemic reform.

Stopping a detrimental cycle of prison violence requires proactive measures

The single appalling statistic concerning prison sexual abuse, if accurate, indicates that effective steps are not being taken to enforce respect for the fundamental human rights of inmates in U.S. prisons. Violence has become so pervasive, and so accepted, that prisons unintentionally convey the wrong message…

Many offenders evidently believe that they can abuse weaker inmates with impunity and that the authorities cannot, or will not, take steps to prevent their misbehavior.

The bench, the bar, and everyone concerned about the integrity of the penal system need to adopt a more proactive stance.  They must enable prison administrators to take aggressive corrective measures to punish violence by inmates or guards against prisoners without fail, and to establish a healthier moral climate within jails and prisons.

How else will prisoners learn to respect the basic rights of others? Society must reinforce the idea that certain exploitative violent behavior cannot occur without adverse consequences.

Invoking Draconian measures to resolve a crisis

The scope of the present crisis of violence within U.S. prisons suggests that in the long term, Draconian solutions might serve the best interest of the public. No one likes harsh discipline, but sometimes the consequences of rigid actions produce far kinder results than well intentioned but ineffective half-measures.

For example, a young man or woman who robs a convenience store at gunpoint should not enter a community service program simply because a judge fears that housing an impulsive wayward teen in jail will subject the youngster to lifelong harm. But neither should any offender suffer mistreatment while in detention!

A “happy medium” must exist.  It involves allowing prison officials to enforce discipline rigidly in order to protect all prisoners from violence.

The public must support them in this effort. The nation’s prisons should become safe institutions once again.

Three concrete Draconian reforms

During the early 1800s, military service proved unpopular in many remote forts in the USA. Commanding officers maintained order by implementing Draconian military justice codes. For instance, a soldier who deserted his post (even in peacetime) could expect a prompt court martial and execution. Applying a similarly harsh model might ultimately reform the penal system in the United States.

First, lawmakers should consider passing reforms to mandate the death penalty for inmates who assault, rape, murder, or otherwise instigate the abuse of other prisoners or guards or their families. These sentences should not involve extensive appeals, either—they should be implemented quickly to reduce the threat to the well being of the existing prison population.

Why should the public have to pay funds to house, feed, clothe and watch over unrepentant violent incarcerated lawbreakers who continue behaving in an antisocial way in prison by harming guards or other inmates?

Second, since some convicts notoriously lie, and corruption, gang affiliations and racism are frequent institutional problems, evidence in the form of distance surveillance in every single part of a prison facility should be available to confirm or refute allegations for the benefit of wardens, prosecutors and juries. Capital punishment represents a significant sanction and it should not be employed lightly.

Third, convicts should temporarily surrender First Amendment rights when they enter prison just as they lose Second Amendment rights and voting rights in many states.

Reportedly, the presence of surveillance cameras on public streets in Great Britain has significantly reduced street crime in many cities there. A similar result might occur if prison authorities could monitor private inmate living areas in penal institutions on an around-the-clock distance basis, too. There should be Zero Tolerance for abusive behavior in prison.


To enforce such Draconian measures, a constitutional amendment likely would be necessary in the United States. So the issue of whether Americans would support Draconian steps to enforce the right of incarcerated people not to suffer abuse while in prison ultimately rests squarely with voters and state legislatures.