On Monday, FTX co-founder and former CEO Sam Bankman-Fried dropped his objections to extradition to the United States to face criminal fraud charges. His decision clears the way for an eventual trial or guilty plea. It also might be a product of the harsh conditions at the Fox Hill prison in the Bahamas, where Bankman-Fried had been detained. A U.S. State Department report last year observed that prisoners and pre-trial detainees at the facility
reported infrequent access to nutritious meals and long delays between daily meals. . . . Inmates removed human waste by bucket. Prisoners complained of the lack of beds and bedding. Some inmates developed bedsores from lying on bare ground. Sanitation was a general problem, and cells were infested with rats, maggots, and insects.
Bankman-Fried’s still unfolding legal odyssey will likely be remembered as a cautionary tale about financial speculation, the risks of under-regulated markets, and hubris. But his brief stay in a Bahamian prison described by a former warden as “not fit for humanity” can also serve as an occasion for reflecting on broader flaws in the criminal justice systems of the Bahamas and the United States.
Jail and Prison Conditions in the Bahamas and the United States
Like the United States, the Bahamas has a high rate of imprisonment. The U.S. is the global “champion,” imprisoning a higher percentage of its population than any other country. The Bahamas ranks thirteenth, with other Caribbean nations taking many of the other top spots.
Mass incarceration entails several linked pathologies: unduly long sentences that take their toll on the people imprisoned and their loved ones; unjust imprisonment for crimes that could be addressed through less restrictive means; prison overcrowding; long periods of pre-trial detention; and harsh conditions in prisons and jails. That last phenomenon is in large part a consequence of the others: with a surfeit of detainees, jail and prison budgets are stretched too thin for staff to attend to the needs of the people in their charge.
However, indifference to the wellbeing of prisoners and pre-trial detainees is not simply a side effect of resource constraints caused by over-incarceration. In some respects, it is intended.
Consider that, even as most of polite society has come to understand that sexual assault is no laughing matter, jokes about rape in prison remain common. The good news is that in 2003 Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act. The bad news—as reflected in data collected by the Bureau of Justice Statistics—is that thousands of prisoners and detainees are victims of sexual assaults each year. And to be clear: these incidents are not simply the unintended consequence of under-staffing; many prison rapes are either perpetrated or tolerated by guards as a means of exercising control over incarcerated persons.
Explaining (But Certainly Not Justifying) Lack of Empathy
Why would otherwise decent people approve of sexual assault or malnutrition as an acceptable fate for anybody? People in prison deserve their misfortune as a punishment for their crimes, the logic goes.
Yet even if this view were defensible with respect to prisoners who have been convicted of serious crimes, it can hardly justify misery inflicted on pre-trial detainees who—in liberal democratic countries like the United States and the Bahamas—are supposed to be presumed innocent. So far this year, nineteen pre-trial detainees have died in New York City’s jails alone. Some of those people might have died anyway, but surely the hopelessness engendered by Rikers Island and other facilities played a role in some of the deaths, which include suicides. And many of those who survive prolonged pre-trial detention have their lives ruined, even if they are ultimately acquitted or see the charges against them dropped.
Meanwhile, of course, even people who have been convicted of crimes do not deserve to be raped, starved, bitten by rats, or infested by maggots as a punishment. Such a fate would undoubtedly be deemed unconstitutionally cruel and unusual if a judge included it as part of a sentence. People content to allow such horrors to occur must assume that it does not affect them.
And for elites, that assumption is probably a fair prediction.
Bankman-Fried chose to headquarter FTX in the Bahamas because, in addition to being a tropical paradise, it has a robust financial sector and corporate-friendly laws. The harsh conditions of its Fox Hill prison might thus seem anomalous for a relatively prosperous country. However, the Bahamas has the highest level of income inequality among nations of the Caribbean. In the Bahamas, as in the United States, the participants in high finance are generally not the ones ending up in rat-infested prisons.
Yet Bankman-Fried was (and perhaps for now remains) at the uppermost level of the wealth distribution. If elites are not much concerned about prison conditions because they do not empathize with the typical person who ends up imprisoned, why do they not recognize in Bankman-Fried a peer for whom they feel at least selective empathy? The short answer appears to be schadenfreude—taking satisfaction in the misfortune of another, especially one who seemed just a bit too fortunate.
Schadenfreude is an all-too-common human emotion. I confess to feeling a bit of it myself in Bankman-Fried’s case. Having consistently maintained that cryptocurrency was a speculative bubble without even the pleasant appearance or scent of tulips, I admit to at least a soupçon of satisfaction at watching the bubble burst and witnessing one of the main agents of its inflation receive his comeuppance. Even so, that’s a far cry from wishing or even joking about anyone being sexually assaulted in prison.
In the end, “Bankman-Fried’s swift fall from hero to villain” may be best explained by the almost-visceral hatred people have for con artists. An ordinary thief takes only your property. A con artist takes your property, betrays your trust, and leaves you feeling a fool. According to the indictment filed against Bankman-Fried, Bankman-Fried was no ordinary thief and certainly was not the starry-eyed do-gooder whiz kid who got in over his head. Rather, the government alleges that Bankman-Fried only ever posed at being an altruistic vegan attempting to earn billions so that he could serve the needy, when in fact he set out to defraud investors and customers.
Thus, the desire to see Bankman-Fried brought to justice—even the wish to see him suffer—is understandable. Still, in neither his case nor in the case of the hundreds of thousands of other people ensnared in the criminal justice system is the scale of suffering meted out by our jails and prisons justifiable.