The District’s controversial voucher program enables students to choose among bilingual schools, Montessori schools, art schools and schools that teach Latin. Could the choice-through-vouchers approach apply to other arenas? What if, for example, D.C. felons got to choose their prisons?

“Some of the same factors that led early education reformers to suggest school vouchers apply with equal, if not greater, force in the prison context,” Alexander Volokh writes in “Prison Vouchers,” an essay forthcoming in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review.

How might prison vouchers work? Volokh imagines that a “convicted defendant would receive a coupon, good for incarceration for the duration of his term, which he would be required to redeem at a participating prison.” This institution could be public or private — Volokh stresses that “choice is conceptually independent of privatization.”

The author declines “to come down on one side or another” on the question of whether such vouchers would be viable, but his thought experiment could pose an unorthodox solution to the endemic problems with violence, overcrowding and health care that dog corrections programs. “By empowering the prisoners themselves to reward and punish prisons, it would create powerful incentives for prisons to become better — by the prisoners’ own standards,” he writes.

Of course, “the prisoners’ own standards” are exactly what might make prison vouchers unworkable. Would incarcerated gang members choose lock-ups favored by their posses? Would escape artists choose prisons with the sleepiest guards? And what Volokh calls “market success” in a voucher program might not make prisons the undesirable places many think they are supposed to be. “Perhaps the prison becomes a country club,” he writes.

Though Volokh doesn’t specifically discuss the District, prison choice might affect D.C. convicts more than any other prison population. Scattered throughout 98 federal prisons since the complex at Lorton closed in 2001, vouchers could enable prisoners from D.C. to choose a location closer to their families than California or Colorado, where some are currently housed. Then again, if Western prisons offer better meals, gyms and educational programming — or better access to drugs, shivs and escape tunnels — D.C. prisoners might want to stay put. Would the power to choose do them any good?

Volokh remains agnostic. “I do believe that prison vouchers, if enacted, could radically change how prisons work,” he writes. “The question is whether it would be for the better.”

Justin Moyer

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