Why do we have separate men’s and women’s prisons?  You don’t have to envision the alternative for long to have your answer: Co-ed prisons would be a living hell of rape and brutality. Or perhaps I should say: Even more of a living hell of rape and brutality, because that already describes single-sex prisons today.

I’m not raising this issue to ruin Mothers’ Day.  It’s a lead-in to a serious proposal for prison reform.  Once you know how to make prisons even worse, you know how to make them better.  Namely: Reduce the variance of strength and aggression within single-sex prisons by separating prisoners into something like “weight classes.” 

In boxing, heavyweights don’t fight featherweights.  It’s not a fair fight.  But in prison, heavyweights serve their time side-by-side with featherweights.  A simple remedy for rape and brutality, then, is split up prisoners by size and strength.  You could assign the various classes of prisoners to different wings.  Or if that’s too logistically difficult, you could assign each prison a weight class, then reallocate existing prisoners. 

Admittedly, we already have prisons for different kinds of offenses – minimum security, maximum security, and everything in between.  Like separating men and women, this probably makes the prison experience a little less hellish.  But there’s still a long way to go, and my proposal seems like an obvious and cheap improvement over the status quo.

Note: The “weight class system” targets prisoner-on-prisoner abuse.  It has no direct effect on the comparable problem of authority-on-prisoner abuse.  Even there, though, my reform would do some good.  It’s probably easier for a guard to get away with raping a prisoner in an environment where prisoners are raping each other on a regular basis. 

On the surface, it seems like weight classes for prisons should appeal to people from many different ideological standpoints.  Unless you tacitly favor prison rape (perhaps as an extra deterrent in an overly forgiving legal system?), it’s hard to see the downside.  Still, I don’t expect my proposal to sweep the world.  Does anything other than status quo bias stand in its way?