Thursday, December 27, 2018

The Gulags Were Less Harsh Than American Prisons

     Contrary to what we have been told, gulags are a humane alternative to the American criminal justice system, which is based on punishment instead of rehabilitation, restoration, reintegration into society, and learning skills.
     The term "Gulag" is an acronym for Glavnoe Upravlenie ispravitel'no-trudovykh LAGerei, which translates to Main Administration of (corrective) Labor camps. That was the name of the Soviet bureaucracy which operated the prison labor camps, and penal colonies, that existed under the Soviet system.
     As many as 1.5 or 2 million people were imprisoned in the gulags at any one given time. While the gulags were known for being forced-labor camps, I believe that some elements of the system were desirable, and thus, should be retained, while rejecting the element of forced labor.

     First off, what were the benefits of the gulag system? For one, it helps eliminate long sentences.
     While it may seem ridiculous, at first glance, to claim such a thing, since many prisoners toiled in the labor camps for years, prisoners did not serve any longer than 10 years. This is more than you can say for the American system (in which life sentences can be given), or even the Norwegian system (which can incarcerate an individual for no longer than 21 years).
     The idea of the gulag system having a ten-year limit, was that if a ten-year sentence was not going to rehabilitate a prisoner, then a longer sentence wouldn't be likely to achieve that goal either. Of course, killing prisoners after 10 years is cruel; however, it would arguably give the prisoners “incentive” to behave themselves (although, in truth, it is a threat, not a truly positive incentive).
     The fact that many prisoners served long sentences, should help account for the many deaths in the gulags. The fact that gulag prisoners were living in the cold of Siberia, and were exposed to the harsh elements of that climate – a situation which is difficult to survive whether you're a prisoner or not – ought to help explain why many of the deaths “from gulags” were really just deaths “in gulags”.
     Additionally, the numbers of people who died in the gulags have been routinely over-estimated by scholars. While author and security analysis consultant John Heidenrich puts that number at 12 million, various other reliable estimates put the number of gulag prisoners who died in the camps at only 2.3 million.

     Another benefit of the gulag system is that it was arguably less cruel to prisoners who have families than the American prison system is.
     Also, some gulag prisoners were even allowed to move their families to the places where they were being detained. Although this statement could be construed to excuse slave plantations, or the imprisonment of whole families, it could also be argued that allowing families to move to places of detention is more humane; at least as far as the prisoner is concerned.
     Also, in comparison to how American prisoners serving long sentences are treated, with their privileges to see their families limited. It could even be said that many American fathers, who have committed no crime other than to be divorcees, have less of a right of visitation than did those gulag prisoners whom were allowed to live with their families.

     Another advantage of the gulag system – or, for that matter, any prison, or system of prison labor camps – is that it accomplishes the bare minimum of how to deal with dangerous criminals: take away their freedom in some way, while secluding them far away from anyone they might hurt, until it can be shown that they are no longer a danger to others, and have been rehabilitated.
     Although spreading prisoners out arguably puts prisoners “right in my backyard”, the case can also be made that spreading prisoners out helps eliminate the problems associated with the overcrowding of prisons. Namely, the possibility of prisoners attacking or raping each other, and the risk of outbreaks of contagious disease.

     Yet another advantage of the gulag system is that the prisoners provide for themselves through working. While it is true that, in American prisons, prisoners acquire skills and education, but their labor is also exploited for surplus profit. Some states even have no minimum wage for prison labor, or a minimum wage of only several cents per hour.
     Prison labor should not be exploited for the profit of others. But a prisoner cannot be reintegrated into society until he has acquired the skills and education necessary to become independent and self-sustaining. That is what is necessary for prisoners to provide for themselves while in prison, so that taxpayers do not have to foot the bill to keep potentially violent criminals alive; and that is what is necessary for prisoners to provide for themselves when released from prison.

     The gulag system, as bad as its reputation was, served a purpose. It got criminals far away from people they might harm. The limited sentences, and the dispersed nature of the prisons, prevented overcrowding, and the problems associated with it.
     It is possible to have prisoners provide for themselves, without either working them to death, or giving them too much freedom. If prisoners must work, then they should be adequately compensated, and those who prefer to work outside in the fresh air should be given that opportunity.
     If you remove the forced labor from the equation, the gulags - rather than being a horror story and a warning about what our prison system could become – could serve as an example for how the American prison system could be improved.
     Although this may sound cruel, or indifferent to the horrors suffered by gulag prisoners, I maintain that if the U.S. were to adopt the positive aspects of the gulag system – by reducing a sentence to a mere factual deprivation of freedom – then it could make its own prison system less cruel.

     Additionally, if the U.S. did so, it would be better able to easily shift its focus from a punishment- and suppression- based model criminal justice - working prisoners like beasts, and treating them as if they are certain to offend again - to one based on restoring the status of the wronged person(s), and rehabilitating criminals.



Post-Script
     In 2013, the U.S. incarceration rate was 716 per 100,000, and it peaked in 2008 around 1,000 per 100,000. Despite the mass incarceration of some 110,000 Japanese-American citizens during World War II, the incarceration rate for the U.S. never exceeded 140 per 100,000 during the war.
     The Soviet Union, on the other hand - if we assume that no more than 1,500,000 were in gulags at any one time - can claim only a maximum 800 incarcerated per 100,000.

     The U.S.S.R. under Stalin cannot boast lower incarceration rates than the U.S.; these rates were similar, and comparable; not wildly dissimilar in a way that should show favor of either power. The similar incarceration rates should not reflect negatively on either government any more than the other.
     That being said, though, I think it would be fair to try to argue that, if two countries have similar incarceration rates, then if one treats its inmates more humanely, then that country would logically be the one with the less harsh prison system.



Written on December 27th, 2018
Published on December 27th, 2018
Edited and Expanded on January 4th, 2019
Edited on January 6th and February 14th, 2019
Post-Script Written and Added on January 6th, 2019

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