Does “doing time” harden prisoners?

Wunderkind Jesse Shapiro says yes:

Some two million Americans are currently incarcerated, with roughly six hundred thousand to be released this year.  Despite this, little is known about the effects of confinement conditions on the post-release lives of inmates.  In this paper we estimate the causal effect of prison conditions on recidivism rates by exploiting a discontinuity in the assignment of federal prisoners to security levels, and find that harsher prison conditions lead to significantly more post-release crime.  We check our identifying assumptions by showing that similar discontinuities do not arise in a control population housed separately from other inmates, and that predetermined correlates of recidivism do not change discretely around score cutoffs.  We argue our findings may have important implications for prison policy, and that our methodology is likely to be applicable beyond the particular context we study.

Here is the paper.  The authors also argue that these peer effects appear large, relative to the deterrence effects of sending people to nasty prisons.  Here is a good recent article on the prison economy.


There was a discussion over at Aymmetrical Information a while back, where 'Jane Galt' was very critical about the moral aspect of prison sentencing which involves using 'other prisoners' as an 'unofficial' (albeit tacit) form of punishment (especially the prison rape aspect) in addition to the 'official' element of incarceration.

I agree; and I wonder whether the answer might be much shorter sentences but with universal solitary confinement: solitary to avoid the many bad effects of interaction between prisoners, shorter because solitary confinement is regarded as a much harsher punishment.

So: maybe three or four weeks of solitary confinement as equivalent to 6-12 months of normal prison. Of course, it would be cheaper as well. But more important, it would perhaps minimize brutalization and torture of weaker prisoers, and reduce the power and influence of gang-leaders among prisoners.

This paper contributes to the literature on the "waste" of the drug war. Given that many people are arrested for drugs and that the penalties are so steep for drugs, it would seem that these people will be sent to a harsher climate and then emerge more likely to commit a crime. This "incubator" argument has been made elsewhere, but empirical evidence comes in handy. The sad thing is that the drug war/prohibition is unpopular to a majority and punishes a behavior/habit that is embraced and legitimated elsewhere (eg, cigarettes, alcohol). I hope that that the authors break out the drug segment in a follow-up paper. (I looked but saw no such dummy, eg.)

David - is the war unpopular? I heard Gary Becker once say that it is actually very popular among the white middle class.

I appreciate the paper's contributions, but I have to pause and wonder why "brutalizing people tends to make them more brutal" needed formal confirmation.

Plenty of people who go to prison aren't callous monsters, but rather dumb, or desperate, or cocky, or some combination thereof. They're not "destined" to be recidvists ... but we try hard to make them that way.;

I just blogged about prisoner rape yesterday. The upshot: this is a problem everyone knows about but that virtually no one is documenting, much less trying to address. The government reports only on allegations made to authorities, so their numbers seem to be useless. Based on two hours of web research I hesitantly offered an estimate, which is unsettlingly enormous.

It would be great to hear whether anyone else has looked around for some figures and tried to make a guess.

NCJRS just released a research report on prison rape. They claim that the guards talk about it a lot but that it's not as frequent as people think. They also offer ways to detect and reduce it. Their entry about the report is at

"the guards talk about it a lot but that it's not as frequent as people think"

That's good to hear, but we still need to know how frequent it is. If someone only gets raped once a year, or even once per sentence, is that infrequent enough to ignore? As a woman, I've worried my whole life (not excessively, but the concern is always there) about getting raped while walking alone at night, etc. It has never happened to me or to anyone I know, yet the fear alone has had an effect.

I really like Bruce's idea of solitary confinement, for shorter periods of time. They could be given access to a PC with all kinds of educational software, so that they can make good use of their time if they want, plus limited amounts of TV for entertainment (and nothing violent). It would be the adult equivalent of a 'time out', where the punishment is that human companionship is withdrawn until the person learns to behave. It seems more humane than what we have now, and more likely to be productive.

I concur with the solitary confinement concept. Why should we spend tax dollars to simply send criminals to "Universities of Criminality" so they can do better crime once they get out?

We know peer effects are important, so the last person a confined criminal should be allowed to talk to is another confined criminal.

If one is concerned that long periods of solitary confinement may lead to long-term decreased mental health, use videoconferencing with non-criminals such as therapists, along with a selection of educational videos.

When an inmate spends 3 or 4 years of fighting lifting weights and subjected to mental abuse they are more likely to be problematic

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