Even in a stateless world based on the libertarian ideals of self-ownership and private property, prisons may be a necessary evil. I’ve written many posts based on how criminal justice could look in such a world, all of which I’ll link to at the bottom of this post, but I’ve never dealt directly with prisons. I put a few ideas in some of those posts, but this post will serve as a stand alone post dealing solely with how prisons could look without a government monopoly and funding through taxation.
What Prisons Won’t Look Like
In a stateless society, prisons would look nothing like they do today. Even though there are “private” prisons in America, they aren’t private in any sense of the word. They are completely funded by government and are completely tied to the government court system. They have all the privileges of a government enforced monopoly.
Without a government to fund prisons, public or “private,” one would imagine that they couldn’t exist at all. It would be impossible for the current business model of warehousing criminals in giant concrete buildings, for years on end, to exist without forcing people to pay for it.
With that in mind, we need to imagine a model where the prison would fund itself. Most prisons would most likely be funded voluntarily by the prisoners themselves.
Before I go into the concept of voluntary prisons, first I have to answer the question of “Who the hell would voluntarily go to prison?!”
Let’s say we have a person that is found guilty of a violent crime and is found to owe $20,000 for restitution, court costs, and costs of capture. Presumably, this criminal is broke so he won’t be able to pay it back. The criminal, because of his own violent actions, would have no right to object to the victim from using force to acquire this restitution. Basically, the criminal is at the mercy of his victim. Even though the victim would be obligated to use the least amount of force necessary to acquire this restitution, it would probably be in the benefit of the criminal to negotiate favorable terms in paying back what is owed.
Possibly, if the debt is small enough and the criminal seems trustworthy enough (maybe he’s a teenager who is on track to have a productive life, but just made one mistake hanging with the wrong crowd), both sides might just agree to let the criminal go free so long as he agrees to pay a monthly payment until his debt is gone.
More than likely, this won’t be the case. We can assume that the criminal would want to pay back his debt as soon as possible in order to be free. We can also assume the criminal wants to be as safe and comfortable as possible while paying off this debt. So why wouldn’t both sides work together in order to find a solution? Based on whatever skills the criminal may have, there could be many competing prisons that would utilize his labor to pay for keeping him locked up, while at the same time paying off the debt the criminal owes.
Some prisons may even offer programs to teach new skills to prisoners. This would attract more prisoners, allow the prison to make more profit, and allow the prisoner to pay off his debt sooner. This has the added benefit of giving the prisoner a new skill he could utilize to make a living once he’s free.
Prisons would also compete based on safety and comfort. The victim may not care much about this, but if the goal is to get restitution back as soon as possible, and get it back in a way that would involve little or no extra force (which could become costly and dangerous for all sides involved,) there would have to be some incentives for the criminal to want to voluntarily agree to go to a prison.
Will it always go down this easy? Of course not! Some criminals may agree to go to voluntary prisons, only to refuse to work or even purposely sabotage their work. Others simply won’t agree to work to pay back their victims. Violent criminals are often irrational or just downright evil. They have no concern for their own safety, their own life, or the lives of the people they hurt. How will they be dealt with?
When considering how a prison full of people who have no desire to work off their debt will be funded, the first thought that comes to mind is some kind of forced labor system. However, I’m not convinced that such a system could be profitable.
We’re talking about the most violent and deranged people on the planet here. If they are forced to work in some kind of factory, they would have access to any number of objects that could be used as deadly weapons against their captors. The costs of constantly monitoring, housing, and generally keeping such a business going would far out way the benefits of free labor.
The same goes for any kind of agricultural based forced labor camp. The costs of keeping these prisoners working and overseeing their every move would be astronomical compared to simply hiring some migrant workers who show up voluntarily, accept meager wages, and go on about their way.
Plus, the idea of forcing someone into slavery, no matter how evil his deeds, is something that people would widely view as wrong. This could lead to people refusing to do business with forced labor prisons, thus making them even more unprofitable.
With forced labor out of the question, what options do we have left?
One way is charity. There’s not many people alive who wouldn’t want the most deranged and evil people removed from their world. With this overwhelming demand to see violent people locked away, we can imagine the market satisfying this demand with prisons funded through charity. The bulk of this charity would probably come from businesses and individuals who benefit most from seeing violent people locked away somewhere. Insurance companies and security companies immediately come to mind.
Another way for an involuntary prison to turn a profit without forced labor is by turning it into some kind of tourist attraction. There is an almost endless fascination the general public has with evil people. TV shows, movies, and documentaries are made every year showcasing crimes and the people who commit them. Perhaps there could be a demand for some kind of tourist attraction called “Violent Criminal World.”
You could pay to see the worst of the worst up close and personal.
Another somewhat related idea is for an involuntary prison to have its own reality TV show. They could produce and sell there own show based on the everyday happenings of the prison. There could even be a market for people to pay for access to a 24/7 live stream of every camera in the prison.
A percentage of the profits from these ventures could then be dispersed out to the victims of the criminals locked up.
These are just a few ideas. The beauty of a free market system is that absent of a government forced monopoly, there’s no limit to what entrepreneurs will come up with. In order to meet the significant demand to keep violent criminals away from non-violent people, we can expect a plethora of options available to the victims of violent criminals.
Quick Overview of a Private Criminal Justice System
For an in depth overview of these topics, I’ll link to the individual posts below. But I’ll try to give a quick summary of what would occur after a crime has taken place in a stateless society.
So you’re a victim of a violent crime. A criminal broke into your house, stole valuables, and injured you in the process. Perhaps they hit you several times and tied you up. In a free market, we could get insurance that not only covers our property, but covers our body as well. You can then file a claim with your insurance company for all damages resulting from this crime.
When the insurance company pays your claim, they’ve now bought the right to go after this criminal and recover the damages. They are now incentivized to solve this crime and apprehend this criminal in order to recoup their losses. Most likely, they would offer a bounty to anyone who can put enough evidence together in order to secure a conviction in a court that is widely viewed as reputable.
If and when they are able to apprehend the criminal and get enough evidence to secure a conviction, they could then negotiate with the criminal on the best way for him to pay back all the damages, court costs, and costs of capture.
If the criminal is willing, they could agree to a voluntary prison stay until the debt is paid. If the prisoner is unwilling to negotiate or work, then they could go the involuntary prison route. Perhaps the involuntary prison company could just pay the insurance company a one time, upfront fee for the right to have the prisoner in their custody. Or more likely, they’d probably agree to pay a percentage of profits to have him in their prison until the debt is paid.
With competition for prisoners, the invisible hand of the market would steer the outcome toward maximum benefit of all parties, including the criminal. This would insure that restitution would be paid back as quickly as possible and that prisoners wouldn’t be locked up for longer than they would have to be. Only the truly heinous criminals would rack up enough damages to be locked away for life. Other criminals, by working off their debt and possibly learning new skills in the process, would have an opportunity at true rehabilitation.
As always, we can never know exactly how things will shake out after the government monopoly is finally dissolved. There will never be a perfect system. Even in a stateless system there can be no guarantee that all criminals will be brought to justice. There can be no guarantee that there will never be an innocent person locked up. However, without a monopoly of powerful people in charge, any mistake or corrupt actor at any level of the criminal justice system will not have immunity from prosecution as the prosecutors, judges, politicians, and police officers enjoy today. This alone will ensure much fairer and equitable results. That along with unfettered competition will give us the most just and fair system mankind has ever seen.
For further reading on Criminal Justice without the State from Mike Tront:
7/20/2016 – A Private Criminal Justice System
8/11/2016 – Crime Solving, Libertarian Style
8/03/2017 – Libertarian Courts In a Stateless Society