Bryan Caplan  

Weight Classes for Prisons Revisited

Robert Frank and Progressive T... Rodrik Update...
I've learned that I'm not the only person to propose weight classes for prisonsHere's Philip Ellenbogen in the Columbia Journal of Law and Social Problems:
As discussed earlier in this section, a victim of prison rape is often much smaller and weaker than the perpetrator of the violence.  Therefore, while prior violence should certainly be taken into account, the classification system should incorporate the strength and size of the inmate as well. This Note encourages prison officials to continue to use degree of violence as a factor but within that violence classification, to check each inmate for height and weight, and classify each according to a sliding scale, the details of which will be discussed later in this section.
See pp.363-8 in the article for the full discussion.

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COMMENTS (8 to date)
Stephen W. Stanton writes:

Think through the game theory from a criminal's perspective...

Every criminal on trial would try to emaciate himself prior to a possible guilty verdict. This would maximize the chance of getting into an undersized prison.

Once inside, some pushups and protein would restore the criminal to full size, making him a big hungry fish in a pond full of guppies.

Of course, you could have a gladitorial tournament to birfurcate inmates... But the incentive would be to lose.

You could strengthen the incentive to reveal your full fighting capacity by giving the nicest, cushiest prisons the biggest, meanest inmates.

The weaklings would gladly trade some creature comforts to avoid being outmuscled.

David C writes:

Stephen, I disagree. Most criminals aren't anywhere close to rational actors. That usually has a lot to do with why they're in prison. How many prisoners do you think are going to fast before a weigh in just to get put with people weaker than them? I would guess less than 1%.

Mark Bonica writes:

Generally I think there is merit to what you propose. However, as a student of Brazilian and Japanese jiu-jitsu, I have been consistently reminded by my training partners that size and age matter much less than skill. Being young, fast, strong, big, and heavy certainly helps, but skill can trump all of that. If there is one thing the martial arts has taught me, it is to never underestimate the threat presented by any person, regardless of body type.

In "Codes of the Underworld" Diego Gambetta discussed prison violence as arising in part from the difficulty prisoners have in credibly communicating their violence capital without actually engaging in violence to prove it. All things equal, being big is better, but all things are not equal in reality, and skill at violence is very hard to determine from external observation.

Gladiatorial combat could potentially reveal true violence capital, but the incentives would be wrong, since a person would be motivated to conceal his true capital in order to get into a low-violence population where he would be dominant.

larry writes:

A system such as this would be a great improvement over the current system.

Mark Bonica - you are correct that both martial arts training, ferocity, and physical skills can make a 150 lb guy a better fighter than a 200 lb guy (although my guess is few people who go to prison have been willing to devote the years of martial arts instruction and practice necessary to become highly skilled). Bryan's suggestion isn't perfect, but it is an improvement over the current system, one of the few I have seen discussed.

As Bryan mentioned in his previous post, this plan faces formidable political obstacles. About seven or eight years ago a Tampa judge refused to sentence a very small white teenage defendant to prison because she said he would be such an easy target for abuse in prison. This triggered an immediate outcry from two groups. The first group consisted of the tough on crime people. They regard anything that might happen in prison as appropriate punishment for someone convicted of pretty much any crime. The second group objected because part of the judge's likelihood-of-victimization analysis was that the teenager was white. They regarded the judge's action as racially disciminatory.

Ray writes:

I've never put much thought into the topic, but that seems like a great idea.

The idea that prisoners on trial would begin fasting just isn't realistic.

I think the point about the martial arts topic is that some smaller guys would still be able to dominate, which is true, but the weight class scenario is still a far better idea than the current system I think.

Stephen W. Stanton writes:


1. I don't think many prisoners would try to get into prisons with people weaker than them... They'd try to avoid getting into prisons with people bigger than them. (The 8th grade bully will just be another pipsqueak freshman to the high school seniors next year.)

2. Inmates, like most of us, are rational actors for the most part... Like fat people and smokers, they may over-emphasize short term pleasures vs. lifetime happiness. (e.g., they exhibit risk-seeking behavior.)

3. I overstated my point when I said "every inmate: would do X. Even if your 1% number is accurate... It is interesting and signifigant. Some middleweight fighters could dominate the pint-size prisons. (e.g., I personally weigh a lot more than Roy Jones Jr... But I am sure he could kick my butt at will.)

4. It would be an interesting experiement... I predict there would still be physically dominant men in the smaller-men prisons. I'd still expect coalitions and brutality... There are reason to suspect that there would be less of it (ala Bryan's point)... But there are also reasons to suspect that there would be more. There may be a less stable pack structure without a clearly dominant alpha. Much more frequent and viscious status competition.

You sure do think about prison rape a lot, Dr. Caplan.

Dr. Horsemeat writes:

It is worth noting that politicians and prison administrators are not always keen to reduce the danger of inmate sexual assault, since it serves as a means of deterrence and coercion. I have read of a particular prison in which a large, brutal inmate known for his proclivity for homosexual rape was regularly made the cellmate of disruptive, rebellious, or otherwise problematic inmates, for reasons which were well understood throughout the prison.

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