Is There Any Reason to Celebrate Prison Escapees?

If you have even a shred of humanity, the answer is yes. Prisoners Richard Matt and David Sweat have dominated headlines for nearly two weeks after escaping from Dannemora, a maximum security prison in Upstate, New York. One prison employee, Joyce Mitchell, has been accused of providing them assistance in their escape. She too now, has officially made her way onto America’s Most Hated list, replete with her own armchair diagnosis from the media — hybistrophilia — which supposedly makes her sexually aroused by dangerous men. It’s inconceivable to the commentariat that Mitchell may have merely felt some sympathy for two men locked inside cages for the rest of their lives. Neither is there a shortage of talking heads on the nightly news diagnosing Matt and Sweat, telling us how dangerous they must be, and how irrationally and violently they’d behave towards anyone unlucky enough to encounter them.

For once, I’d like someone to appear on one of these programs and say, “I believe Richard Matt and David Sweat would do anything they can to stay out of prison, including keeping a low profile, and possibly cooperating with any help they manage to find on the outside.” That’d really throw the rabid media into a tizzy. Matt and Sweat were rational and sane enough to know that prison is a terrible, no-good place, and that they couldn’t spend another minute there. It’s not impossible that they might try to stay out for as long as they can. At the very least, it would be refreshing for commentators to cease with the false certitude and admit that they have no idea how the escapees will act, because they, the commentators, have no idea what it’s like to endure the horrors of prison life.

I’m glad these men have a respite from prison life, no matter how brief. The sordid institution of prison incarceration is a stain on humanity. For a species that’s used its acquired knowledge to repeatedly create things unimaginable to previous generations, human beings have proven incredibly inept at devising a humane criminal justice system. As Robert Anton Wilson remarked,

Society as we know it is based on torture and death, or the threat of torture and death … although the authorities will never admit that. The cage experience is profoundly punishing to the average human, as to any primate; it is the form of torture our society countenances.

Justifications for incarceration vary, but underlying all of them is a belief that criminals “deserve to be there.” They are getting their just deserts. Paying for their sins. With the rise of the state and its perverted legal codes came the need for prisons. Break the state’s rules and you will be placed behind the state’s bars. Unfortunately, those who have dared to imagine alternative forms of criminal justice have been branded as outcasts and subversives for the threat they represent to state control. Though prison abolition presently seems like an unwinnable battle, civilized people can at least celebrate instances of people avoiding imprisonment, or escaping from it as Richard Matt and David Sweat have managed to do.

The simple-minded media would have you believe that not wanting a criminal caged must mean you endorse the act that landed them there in the first place. This is the type of lazy non-sequitur the American political class and all who support them counter with any time an issue is too difficult for them to grapple with. Folks, we are capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time. We can separate bad criminal acts from the societal response of imprisonment as two different acts, each worthy of judgment. Like Eugene Debs said, “While there is a lower class, I am in it, while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” Rooting for the torture of another human being, no matter what bad act they’ve committed, is no side to take for anyone with an ounce of compassion.

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