When Tocqueville toured America in the early national period, he visited several prisons:
To sum up the whole on this point, it must be acknowledged that the penitentiary system in America is severe. While society in the United States gives the example of the most extended liberty, the prisons of the same country offer the spectacle of the most complete despotism.
In Democracy in America he recalled the Quakers who sought to add redemption to our criminal justice system.
The public were moved by [the pious individuals'] statements, and the reform of criminals became a popular undertaking. New prisons were built; and for the first time the idea of reforming as well as punishing the delinquent formed a part of prison discipline.
When Bernard-Henri Lévy reprised Tocqueville’s trip for a modern age, he found many American prisons had reverted to simply places for punishment, putting reclamation aside. (Our own Midwest trip this year will likely include a house of correction.) While there are certainly places in America where they lock you up and throw away the key — Louisiana’s Angola Prison, for example — I don’t think BHL’s characterization is correct.
The truth is more insidious because American justice promises redemption to someone seeking a plea and to the incarcerated, and then blacklists ex-cons from civil society after they are released. Second chances, even for the wrongly convicted, are rare. The taint of suspicion is indelible for the acquitted and unprosecuted. Television crime dramas (such as the “Law & Order” franchise) manipulate us to believe that suspects are guilty, even after the “unexpected” plot twist shows that someone else did the crime. The more I read of actual events, the more I am convinced that the U.S. is a nation that throws away people.
It’s even worse if you commit a sex crime involving children. Civil commitment incarcerates “free men” indefinitely after the term of their sentence. Offender registries proclaim (with a bullhorn) that there is no such thing as “past.” I would be among the last people to excuse these crimes; but the perpetuity of punishment seems unusually Kafka-esque.
Some states have so severely limited where sex offenders can live that they are forced into homelessness or driven underground beyond state supervision. Today’s Times examines laws in Iowa that render more than 90% of some towns off-limits.