I've been thinking about two political prisoners in particular lately because they have both been in the news: Chelsea Manning and Leonard Peltier. Manning is looking at a couple decades of imprisonment. Peltier has already served forty years. Setting aside for a moment the particulars of their cases, one thing they have in common is that neither would present any danger to society if freed today. Their retention in custody primarily serves symbolic and political purposes. The main function of these symbolic detentions is to deter dissent. It probably does work to some extent to tamp down the rate of similar offenses and associated dissent, but it does so at great cost.
And then there are all the essentially non-political prisoners, people incarcerated for a great variety of crimes. A great many of those have been locked up for non-violent transgressions. Many are elderly and in ill health like Peltier. The rationale for keeping them locked up for extended periods seems very thin. What portion of the prison population do they represent? Thousands? Hundreds of thousands? A clue is to be found in the facts that the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate of any country and that the 2.2 million people in U.S. prisons represent a 500% increase over the past thirty years. It seems abundantly clear that the whole judicial and penal system needs rethinking.