Lee Camp Original Prisoner's Rights

Lee Camp: How to End the U.S. Prison State Quick and Easy

2.3 million people find themselves behind bars in the U.S. Here's the quick way to get that number down to... zero. (Give or take a few.)
“Prisoner, Losing Self.” [Jared Rodriguez / Truthout]

By Lee Camp / Original to ScheerPost

Editor’s Note: This is the second installment of Lee Camp’s analysis of mass incarceration in the U.S. Read the first part here.

A few weeks ago I covered the mind-blowing facts about American prisons that should make anyone and everyone rethink/detest/abhor the entire institution. Now, I want to examine the reasons people find themselves locked up in the largest prison state in the world (the Land of the Free) and see if we can’t decrease the number of inmates to something more reasonable …like, zero. Or one. …One guy who’s a real grade-A asshole.

I’m well aware that many of you are already yelling, “But what about murderers and rapists?!” We’ll get to them in a minute. Keep your pantaloons fastened. Besides, “What about murderers and rapists?!” is a really abnormal thing to yell at something you’re reading. Come to think of it, maybe you’re not fit for society. Maybe we should lock you up. 

First, out of our 2.3 million-person prison population, let’s talk about those not yet convicted. 

According to a 2020 report by PrisonPolicy.org, 470,000 of those held in local American jails have not yet been convicted. This begs the question: what happened to “innocent until proven guilty”? Wasn’t that a thing bored teachers taught us in third grade classes while we secretly focused on trying to flirt with the girl/boy next to us? Clearly the not-yet-guilties need to be released seeing as they haven’t yet been proven to have done anything

Boom! You just released 20% of our prison population. They’re no longer prisoners. Doesn’t that feel good? You just released from bondage nearly half a million human souls. You should feel like the Moses of thought experiments right now. (True, you did it with a little help from me, but I’ll graciously let you take most of the credit.)

Now it gets a little trickier. Next up — drug offenders. Yes, I’m referring to those dastardly 328,000 convicted drug offenders who account for 18% of our swollen prison population. Yet, we shouldn’t have those people locked up because drug problems are a health issue, not a crime issue. Furthermore, prisons really only have two main goals — either rehabilitation or punishment. If rehabilitation is your directive, then drug offenders should be sent to rehab centers, not cages. If punishment is your goal, then drug offenders don’t need to be punished because they’re already being punished. Many say  they’re harming themselves with drugs. We don’t need to harm them more. Doing so is akin to walking up to a cutter and exclaiming, “Cutting yourself is terrible! To teach you a lesson, I’m gonna spray lemon juice on you.” 

At this point some people blurt out, “But drug users do harm to others! They steal and break stuff.” Well, even if that were true, those activities are illegal. It’s illegal to steal — so, sure, arrest them for the stealing. We don’t need to double arrest them. And if they aren’t committing other crimes, then we shouldn’t arrest them for peacefully harming themselves. Isn’t that the right of any American — to peacefully harm ourselves? That’s half the reason I get up in the morning. I can’t wait to find new ways to harm myself. Today maybe it’ll be whiskey and partaking in an amateur rugby match. Tomorrow perhaps cocaine, bungee jumping, and unprotected sex (at the same time!) 

To go back to the whole “drug addicts steal” idea for a second, ask yourself: Do they steal more than the thieves on Wall Street? Of course not. But investment bankers aren’t arrested for gambling on people’s mortgages.  

Inmate 1:  What’d the cops bust ya for?

Inmate 2:  Eh, I had 100 subprime mortgages hidden up my rectum.

Next, some people will argue, “Well, drug doers hurt the social fabric. They ruin our community.” Even if that were true, all kinds of people hurt the social fabric much more than someone on drugs — polluters, bankers, lobbyists, bad drivers, dudes with no necks playin’ Creed real loud — the list goes on. But we don’t arrest them for any of those things unless they commit some other crime. So the same should be true for drug use.

Alright, so we just freed all the drug users from jail and sentenced them to a rehabilitation plan instead. Then that leaves the drug dealers. 

Well, if drugs were decriminalized, then drug dealing would not be the brutal activity it is. Besides, what’s the most harmful drug in the country by amount of damage done? Alcohol. Therefore, one could argue, the most harmful drug dealers are those serving alcohol. But — here’s the thing, fair reader — I’m a fan of alcohol, and I’m a fan of anyone who sells it to me. Those people are my friends. So on behalf of them, I proclaim, “Drug dealers are good people!” 

So all those non-violent drug offenders must be freed. At this point, we’ve released 34% of America’s prisoners. (Gee willikers, at this rate, when we’re through, the U.S. won’t even be one of the world’s greatest human rights abusers. Then what will we put on our souvenir mugs?)

Next up: Non-violent property crimes — burglary, robbery, theft, and fraud . Essentially the stuff teens do on a good, fun Saturday night. Let’s be honest — burglary, theft, and fraud is simply the American way. The entirety of Wall Street is based on it. In fact, it’s an open secret that the stock market is the dictionary definition of a Ponzi Scheme. It’s a giant fraud to extract wealth from the not-so rich and give it to the already very rich. Then of course there’s the trillions in tax havens, trillions of dollars of wage-theft, the sweetheart deals, insider trading, funny math, tax loopholes, greased palms, shell companies, exaggerated numbers, golden parachutes, and probably some golden showers, too. The “property criminals” or “street criminals” in prison constitute a rounding error compared to the breathtaking theft that goes on by the rich — most of it legally (made legal by corrupt legislatures over the years).

Hell, even the police in this country steal more from people nowadays than burglars do. It’s time to accept that being a thieving bastard is simply the American way. Or, if you’re not okay with that, then maybe one should ponder the fact that if we ended inequality by changing our socioeconomic system, there would be little to no theft. 

Point is — Shazam! — that’s another 446,000 prisoners we just released.

And yes, we can still have some punishment for an asshole who breaks into your apartment and takes your signed poster of Jackass: The Movie. We can force those people to sponge bathe the elderly or clean out the sewer pipes or take Dick Cheney for his daily stroll around the block to murder a puppy. (One must remain active in retirement.)

Okay, we only have one million prisoners left. This is going spectacularly well.

There’s 44,000 juveniles locked up — almost none of them for truly awful behavior. 61% of underage prisoners are in jail for truancy, or things like being “ungovernable” (whatever that means), running away, or small crimes like vandalism. The U.S. is one of the few countries that even locks up kids for any real amount of time. So let’s get a grip on ourselves and stop that shit. Yes, we could still have places that troubled youth go to for help, but it doesn’t need to be a goddamn prison. 

If we really want to call ourselves adults, we must let the children go free.

Next, the U.S. has somewhere around 60,000 people locked up in immigration detention facilities, which is fucking ridiculous (technical terminology). Locking people up because they crossed a line in a field that you told them not to? What are you twelve? Are we playing tag? Is the floor lava? Grow up.

Not to mention we wouldn’t have so many immigrants if we didn’t destroy their home countries with CIA coups and economic warfare. So if we stopped that behavior, then we wouldn’t have nearly this number of refugees and migrants. And if we don’t cease our belligerent destructive activities, then it only makes sense for the U.S. to take in those fleeing our mass destruction. 

Between the juveniles and the immigrants, we’re down to only 900,000 prisoners left.

Next: The 266,000 imprisoned for “public order” crimes. As AttorneysOnDemand.net so succinctingly puts it, “Public order crimes are actions that do not conform to society’s general ideas of normal social behavior and moral values.”

Right off the bat, I can tell this is a load of bunk because what the hell are “normal social behaviors”? I find a lot of normal social behaviors awful — like putting little shoes on your tiny dog or spitting out chewing tobacco in public or owning three cars and a McMansion with a giant yard that requires 11 billion gallons of fresh water every day to keep it greener than the Jolly Green Giant’s ass or the animal torture that goes into creating the meat for a Taco Bell mystery meat Dorito Loco Taco. There’s loads of stuff categorized as “normal social behavior” that’s reprehensible, nauseating, or repulsive. In the past slavery was a normal behavior, genocide against indigenous peoples was a normal and sometimes rewarded behavior. So was slapping children across the face because they looked at you funny or marrying off your 13-year-old daughter to a strange man in exchange for a couple of goats or locking your wife in a kitchen for 10 to 20 years. Those were all normal social behaviors at one time. I don’t think I like normal social behavior

Nowadays, most public order crimes (other than drug use) stem from prostitution, public drunkenness, and paraphilia. On any given night in America, scores of people are publicly drunk to some extent — it should only become criminal when they do something bad. But then, that’s the crime. If they beat someone up or stab a guy, that’s the crime — not the drunkenness. So you can get rid of that law against public drunkenness. We don’t need it.

Prostitution is often a deal between two consenting adults. Legalize it, make sure it’s not abusive, and then everyone benefits. I’m not saying we need to have it readily available out in the middle of the public jungle gym on a Sunday afternoon. Put it somewhere people don’t have to stare at it with their kids on the way home from the ballpark. You know, put it inside a Segway rental shop — no one’s going in there.

Then  there’s paraphilia, or unusual sexual behavior like voyeurism or masturbating in public. First of all, for the truly strange, mental health care is needed — not a jail cell. If you’re caught humping a post office box that you dressed up like Richard Nixon, then prison is not gonna help you. You need a whole team of counselors instead. And if you’re jackin’ off in public, then, again, you could use someone to talk to, but also, as long as you aren’t leaving puddles around, it’s not exactly a huge problem. In fact, a few years ago a Swedish court ruled that it is indeed legal to masturbate in public as long as it’s not directed at someone specific. So there you have it. Just don’t aim the damn thing at anyone.

Alright, we just canceled the “public order” crimes. And for those that should remain crimes (like sexual harassment), how about the perpetrators pay fines, or do shitty community service, like cleaning out the elephant cages at the zoo? There’s also electronic monitoring bracelets to make sure people stay within a certain area (if you truly need to keep tabs on them).

So we’re down to 680,000 inmates. Basically all that remains are violent crimes. Well, let’s put the murderers and rapists aside for a second. We’re looking at 315,000 inmates who are in for violence that isn’t murder, rape, or sexual assault — meaning they’re in for standard assault. 

Sure, there should be punishments for fighting and any form of  and domestic violence, and I won’t deny that assault can be a serious thing. But when you lock someone up for years for punching a guy in a bar brawl, you just turn him into a more efficient, angrier dickhead. You basically sent him to criminal university. You’ve actually torn the social fabric more than the “criminal” did by punching someone. Sure, there should be punishments for assault. Maybe it’s a really boring anger management facility. Get creative with it. But locking people up does not have to be the default answer.

Boom! Just like that, we’re down to only 365,000 prisoners remaining. (Don’t you feel good about yourself?) Even if we left the murderers and rapists in the prisons, we’d only have 16% of the original 2.3 million American prisoners. 

The next step is to decrease the insane sentences so even violent criminals receive rehabilitation rather than solitary confinement for 60 years. Pretty soon the U.S. would have the same number of prisoners as — wait for it — other countries. Wouldn’t that be crazy? Americans would be able to view ourselves like adults in the room, just like Iran or Egypt — rather than having ten times more prisoners than them. And we wouldn’t need large-scale penitentiaries because, assuming we had roughly 100,000 prisoners left, we could send a few to each city in the United States. The U.S. has 20,000 cities — so that’s only five prisoners per city. One little house in each town. That’s it. That’s all. One adorable tiny house with a few murderers and a rapist locked up in it. A couple of ’em would probably kill each other — then you’d only have two murderers and a rapist in a wee petite house in every city. 

Prison abolition is truly not a crazy idea. It should be a real goal of an evolved species (if such a thing ever shows up on Earth). If prison aboltion is not a goal, it shows we’re no better than the plantation owners who claimed slavery was just the only way things could work. But a lot of people knew that wasn’t true even when slavery was commonplace. And right now, a lot of people know our prison system is a crime against humanity. We could easily abolish prisons if we just thought outside of our social engineering. We could one day see a world with no bars, and no cages. 

… Except for Jeff Bezos — that unimaginable asshole needs to be immediately locked up.

Lee Camp
Lee Camp

Lee Camp is the host of the hit comedy news show “Redacted Tonight.” His new book “Bullet Points and Punch Lines” is available at LeeCampBook.com and his stand-up comedy special can be streamed for free at LeeCampAmerican.com.


  1. Maybe it’s age, but I’m getting bored of these pieces telling how things can be done with the problem being that they’re discussing life in a parallel universe. If one’s writing a piece like this, its pretty essential to note how one gets to a point where the decisions referenced by Camp can, you know, actually be implemented. In this nation at this time, they’re all DOA except for the reduction of pre-trial detainees. (There’s actually a rationale for pre-trial detention, one, like everything in our modern society, overly abused.)
    In addition to that humongous and not unimportant black hole in the argument, same is not helped by Camp’s trademark sarcasm and smugness. It’s not that I’m not amused by the humor but it doesn’t help his argument, such as it is.

    1. After reading Camp’s devastatingly funny & shockingly informative essay , I no longer believe that people found guilty of writing awkwardly meandering, or merely clunky arguments should be put in jail.
      And I mean right now ,right here from ‘C’ to shining ‘C’, under one ENORMO-CORP nation ( thanks, Barry Crimmins for that handy epithet ! ) w/ Lemon Pledge for all & Geezus.
      Sure, the sudden surge of MILLIONS of empty prison cells we’re about to undergo around here once Camp’s visionary scheme is enacted is bound to be kinda’ scary !
      There’s gonna’ be a ton of echoes & a glut of stainless steel toilets with no lids for one thing.
      Sure…there will be plenty of room available to disappear a couple of shoddy ‘comment authors’ behind bars so they can pay their debt to society’s readers.
      Tempting, but it just wouldn’t be right according to Mr. Camp’s common sense rules. And with no prison laundries to work in, how are they supposed to learn an honest trade , anyway ?

      – trying to change, JJ ( Detroit, near Canada )

    2. And what exactly is your plan? You seem more concerned about Lee’s essay than about people being locked up.
      Choke on a dry turd troll, with thoughts and prayers of course.

  2. Business owners commit wage theft, therefore lock up all business owners. Common sense really.

  3. “Alright, so we just freed all the drug users from jail and sentenced them to a rehabilitation plan instead.”

    One might also point out that rehab plans and facilities might be expensive. But nowhere near as expensive as jail, so we’ve made the world a better place and saved some money at the same time. Awesome sauce!

    1. Not really. Consider the amount of money that families spend on commissary and phone calls weekly….or maybe you don’t even know? Wouldn’t you rather see rehab centers that employ actual people with college degrees who are probably still in debt up to their eyeballs? Do you honestly believe drug addicted individuals have any chance of changing their lives behind walls where you are stripped of all your dignity?

      1. College degrees are bullshit. You learn such things as AA, which has been proven useless-it requires constantly telling yourself that you will always be addicted, and are defeated already. In addition, it includes the worship of God, who is of course, Satan disguised as good. I have learned drugs in an institution and in that same institution, have rid myself of them. The process included much accusations against me, repeated sexual violations of me (unwanted sex imposed on me), separation from all my acquaintances for almost two years, people not one percent my righteousness bullying me, being assaulted on the regular by men half my age (about 60) and twice my size. I conquered. Put me in with wolves and I come out as the leader of the pack. Overcoming great obstacles is one way to overcome addiction- having some pride. Sometimes being stripped of your dignity is what it takes to give you incentive to grab it back despite all odds. You have no concept of what you are talking about. THe real solution to incarceration is to impose a sentence of restitution of the guilty to repay or recover the one harmed. Prison is useless, nobody is “Corrected” and lives are ruined, and victims are not restored their property or whatever is lost. This is not rocket science, and the prison system is fully aware of its shortcomings, but the profit is too good to enable correction of a system based on wrong. My books ANGRY LOUD AND CLEAR TRUTH, THE UNTOLD NATURE OF CHRISTIANITY EXPOSING THE MONEY MACHINE

      2. Ummm…not sure what you’re trying to say. Did you read the part about

        “But nowhere near as expensive as jails, so we’ve made the world a better place and saved some money at the same time.”

        Translation: Rehab centers (even if they are expensive) would be better than jails (which would be more expensive and not as helpful as rehab centers).

        Does that make it more clear?

  4. Wonderful follow up to your first Article Lee! Thank you for addressing this issue with humour and such pure compassion as so many stuck in prison and forgotten are good people to who have made unfortunate mistakes, misjudgements, or come from tragic circumstances. You might add that the violent law enforcement agents in fact who psychopathically beat Black Lives Matters demonstrators last year or who continue to perpetrate state sanctioned violence against black people might be the ones that need to do some serious time, then they could join the boring anger management classes you mention before they’re released. Those demonstrations last year and the police response revealed just how many sick, garden variety psychopaths are attracted to law enforcement! Makes one again ask who are the real criminals?

  5. The Prison System serves a purpose and those who rule use it ruthlessly to maintain their control and keep those who have not, coward. I suspect it’s use will be greatly expanded over the coming years, and not just because it has become a great new profit center for the Corporates.

    Ignorance is Strength, War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery.

    Orwell nailed it. Think about it, every single dynamic in play by those who control this country can be directly and easily placed within one of these three statements….War, Policing, Work, Education, Propaganda, Entertainment, all of it now totally directed toward making and keeping you a compliant, hard working and obedient slave….

  6. I am strongly anti police, but disagree with your reasoning. Let the small thieves go because the big ones get away with it? Pretty terrible reasoning. My suggestion is for the small ones, restitution, they need to repay what they took fourfold, and the big thieves, wall street, pharmaceuticals, etc.. need real punishment- major=like confiscate every penny and possession. Make them janitors for life. My blueprint for an ideal civilization of self-sustaining agricultural communitis as submitted in the conclusion of ANGRY LOUD AND CLEAR TRUTH is a way to stop all crime, through a whole new way of life, and would restore humanity to humankind, as well as closing the gates of hell. Nobody would be in a criminal mind-frame- the mental and physical health would be great from youth.

  7. Thank you for bringing up this topic, Lee. I first got into this prison abolation issue through reading Angela Davis. We need to work towards a goal of decarceration in America, and aim for rehibilitation of troubled folks in society.

  8. 210528Fr

    Mr. Camp,
    This was one of your most intelligent, well-thought presentations and very important. Asset forfeiture is a crime against the Constitution and the “innocent until proven guilty” principle, which you mentioned. I agree with about 90% of your statements.
    The statements I disagree with can be discussed in the future, after a few other problems in our society are corrected, such as the corrupted voting systems and people supporting them.
    Best Wishes,
    Charles Labianco

  9. It is mostly the fault of politicians who want to appear “tough on crime” rather than be accused of being weak on criminals. They do not have to appear wise or humane, just strong on “law and order” to be electable, and this especially includes women pols who have to appear tougher than men to even be considered for a campaign. Fear motivates people to vote.

  10. How much unnecessary, costly, and counter-productive incarceration could be eliminated by abolishing the DEA and every local DEA-funded Drug Task Force? During the last Presidential campaign, did anyone here Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren or any of the other candidates calling for the elimination of the DEA? Where are all the “Progressive” “Liberals” when it comes to getting rid of the fear-mongering, racist, worse than worthless DEA?

  11. Funny, and well written, I’ll give you that.
    And yes drugs should absolutely be legalized, and yes there are a litany of minor offenses that should be less time. To think that the guy that sexually assaulted my daughter is going to be reprimanded to anger management classes is about as naive as thinking that David Frum is now a liberal.

    You haven’t mentioned deterrent in this article once, yes punitive and restitution are parts of criminal justice, but deterrent is actually the most important part of the equation, and yes basically legalizing burglary would cause a skyrocketing amount of homes, cars and businesses to be broken into, like, tomorrow.

    Was an interesting albeit juvenile stab at it, and I appreciate the data and numbers in the article, but let’s just focus on one major reform, legalize all drugs and prostitution, that would be a glorious step forward.

  12. Consider list of wrongful convictions in the United States. Mind also the many bad defended at court. And consider as well the many suffering from Public Opinion.

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