Economic Discipline Confines Analysis of Prison Conditions

face of a prisoner

In seeking to develop treatment expertise, economists have explicitly sought to limit communication. Consider, for example, that many more U.S. prisoners die in prison than are executed as punishment for crimes. Those facts could prompt wide-ranging discussion about punishment, public concern, and possibilities for change. Economists Lawrence Katz, Steven Levitt, and Ellen Shustorovich, in contrast, focused on whether death in prison deters crime. Their study, published in a scholarly journal, found “a robust negative relationship between prison death rates and violent and property crime rates”:

In terms of crimes reduced per prison death, the estimated effects are quite large: 30-100 violent crimes and a similar number of property crimes.^

The penultimate paragraph in the study’s introduction, which preceded an outline of the study, stated:

We cannot stress enough that evidence of a deterrent effect of poor prison conditions is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for arguing that current prison conditions are either overly benign or unjustifiably inhumane. Efficiency arguments related to deterrence are only one small aspect of an issue that is inextricably associated with basic human rights, constitutionality, and equity considerations. Our research is descriptive, not proscriptive.^

The rest of the twenty-five page-paper focused on estimating the effect of prison deaths on crime and contributed nothing to considering any issue other than this deterrent effect. The textual evidence indicates that the authors’ concern is to claim technical expertise. The last paragraph of the paper explicitly sought to limit discussion:

Without further analysis of the question, we also caution against extrapolating our results to argue that the elimination of prison amenities such as cable television and athletic facilities will prove a deterrent to crime. Although that position is consistent with our findings, it is by no means a direct implication of our results. Substantial changes in prison death rates are categorically different from minor alterations of the quality of life associated with the removal of weight rooms. Before drawing any conclusions about the later, we would be prudent to compile evidence that is more directly relevant to the issue.^

Death is surely a disincentive of a much different magnitude than ending a prisoner’s access to cable television. Yet at its foundations, economic analysis implies no categorical distinction between these disincentives. This study’s attempt to limit discussion of its finding and shift the burden of related policy discussion to further research is an economically rational communicative strategy for enhancing the value of the type of research it provides.

An economic study addressing the deterrent effect of prison location similarly limited communication. This study provided econometric estimates of “the punitiveness of reduced visitation associated with incarceration in institutions far from one’s city of residence.” The results:

Our results suggest that incarceration location has a sizeable deterrence effect. Increasing the average distance to a women’s prison by 40 miles reduces the female violent crime rate by approximately 6%.^

This study also included a technical statement of limitations:

our estimates do not quantify the welfare implications of this change. Increasing the distance to women’s prisons (or an outright ban on visitation) has clear externalities. There is ample evidence that a mother’s incarceration has adverse effects on her children (Baunach, 1985). It therefore seems quite likely, although not certain, that even more severe restrictions on maternal visitation would exacerbate an already bad situation for the children of female inmates. As such, the secondary effects therefore render the long-run general equilibrium effects of prison location on crime rates ambiguous. In contrast, other forms of hardening hard time do not suffer from the same types of externalities. Chain gangs, prison stripes, and loss of recreational privileges generally do not lower the utility of anyone but the convict.^

Only harshly disciplined scholars would discuss visiting prisoners in terms of externalities and “long-run general equilibrium effects.” Even Jeremy Bentham, who relished shocking sensibilities with his foundational proto-economic analysis of pleasure, pain, and utility, recognized sympathetic connections among family members. This study’s reason can be understood only in conjunction with communication confined to a group subject to particular, painful discipline.