Being a big science fiction buff as well as a Generation Xer, one of my favorite movies of all time is a cult-classic among my kind…director John Carpenter’s 1981 “Escape From New York.”
For the culturally-deprived among you, this classic flick is set in the then-future of 1997, a time when the crime rate in the US had reached 400%, and drastic measures were called for to address the ballooning level of nationwide lawlessness. In the dark world in which the movie takes place, the proposed solution to the runaway crime rate was to transform the island of Manhattan into an inescapable prison, surrounded by 20-foot walls, mined bridges, and guard towers and speed boats encircling the island’s parameter, manned by crack paramilitary troops with orders to shoot-to-kill. The country’s worst criminal elements were sent to the Manhattan Island Facility with the understanding that once they went in, they didn’t come out…a lifetime banishment. Inside, the criminals were allowed to create the world they wanted…a world where the only law was survivor of the fittest.
To me, this movie provided what I have always thought to be an idea solution to the tide of crime and lawless which makes many cities great places to visit, but not live. Why not give them a taste of their own medicine so to speak. Give the criminals what they want; a society without the laws and rules order they so easily chose to disregard anyway. Why not put them in a place where they are allowed to roam free, without rules, without authority of any kind, save that which they themselves craft. Since they chose to prey on anyone they deem prey-worthy and/or easy-pickings, let’s put the worst of them in a place where they take the same chances that many of us take whenever we are simply trying to live our lives day-by-day, a place where they themselves can be either predator or prey among their own kind. In short, let’s outsource the day-to-day maintenance and operation of our prisons to those who know the system the best, the prisoners themselves.
Alcatraz Island provides a great example for this novel approach to crime and punishment. Our government could reopen the former prison, but under an operational scheme radically different from the way it operated under in its heyday. Here’s how the new regime would operate. Provide the facility with electric power, heat, running water and other related necessary functions. However, there should be no guards, no warden, no maintenance crews, no administrative personnel…no direct responsibilities of any kind. Then, give the prisoners free rein of the entire island. The day-to-day functions of the facilities are theirs to maintain. On the first of every month, a helicopter would drop maintenance supplies, food, toiletries, and other essentials to be doled out by whatever would come to pass as authority among the prisoners.
Under this new system, the prisoners would be allowed to create and maintain the society that they want, complete with a prison-based social pecking order, a chance to participate in whatever passes for government on the island, the freedom of association, the chance to engage in same-sex marriage, and the chance to pray to whatever deity they will no doubt wish to express their regret for committing one crime too many to. There would be no direct government violations of the prisoners’ civil liberties. And our society would be provided with the opportunity to abolish the death penalty—a system that clearly has no deterrent value—for this new system, which clearly would deter many would-be bad boys by virtue of the power of imagination alone. The prohibitive effect would be analogous to two kids preparing to fight on a school playground, knowing that an adult is probably within earshot to break up any potential rumble; criminals knowing that they could end up in facility where they would be allowed to fight and survive under what could be considered gladiatorial conditions would be more reluctant to engage behavior which may find them in said situation in the first place. The only law would be survival of the fittest.
There would be many potential advantages to doing this. First, the fear of being sentenced to spend what would surely be an abbreviated life to this facility would eliminate the pride that most criminals have in going to prison. The power and influence of the “no snitching” code among criminals would be rendered moot, considering there would be no traditional authority on the island to inform criminal activity to, and fewer who would care if anyone did. And hinting on an aforementioned notion, the horror stories about life on The Rock would border on legend, scaring any lesser criminal with the slightest hope of rehabilitation feces-less at the prospect of being sent to such a place. Any real expense would be limited to simply keeping the prisoners within the facility. In the case of Alcatraz, expense would be manifested in the form of boats encircling the island, manned with sharpshooters whose orders are to prove that the human body becomes less buoyant when it’s riddled with holes during a water escape attempt.
This could be a model for every major incarceration facility in the country, with the only real expense limited to ensuring that each criminal society within stays there.
Naturally the logistics of such a scheme are open to being tweaked based on feasibility. Maybe the prisoners could be made to wear tamperproof collars of bracelets, which would keep track of their location, as well as their life signs. Maybe sensor nets of could be employed to limit the possibility of escape. But ideally, walls would be reinforced through by way of their physical height and thickness, and each facility itself would be isolated miles from the nearest major population center. And thanks to the geography of America, there are many possible locations to isolate such facilities, such as barrier islands, deep forest, and other distant locales (I’m thinking along the lines of interior Alaska).
Sure, it’s not a perfect solution to the problem of the diehard criminal elements walking among us. And this idea probably has no chance of becoming reality, but I can dream, can’t I?