The Pathos of Politics (113-12) The Purpose of Prison

The Purpose of Prison

The original justification for prison may well have been incapacitation: the removal of an offender from the community. To this extent, prison reduces crime. But extensive research in different countries fails to correlate increasing the rate of imprisonment with reducing the rate of crime.

Further, the effect in modern application is often more excessive than it is significant. Incorrigible outliers aside, male proclivity to violence is a function of biology: flourishing in early manhood, then waning in the early 30s until largely extinguished around 35.

It is difficult to attribute prison with a deterrent effect, especially considering the massive numbers that languish within their walls in this day and age. The threat of incarceration may deter some, while in others it simply confirms criminal identity.

No punishment has ever possessed enough power of deterrence to prevent the commission of crimes. On the contrary, whatever the punishment, once a specific crime has appeared for the first time, its reappearance is more likely than its initial emergence could ever have been. ~ Hannah Arendt

Sadly, one sure statement may be made about requital: whatever practices are followed by a society at any time, a majority of the citizenry feel them too lenient. Criminal acts are matched by a brutal lack of empathy in the hearts of the populace, especially those with a religiously righteous bent. Sanctimony is easier than compassion.

A just and necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation. ~ Pope Francis in 2015

More folk than just the Pope find it eminently sensible that the duration of punishment be a period of reformation. But prison simply does not fulfill that essential function at any level: psychologically, socially, or educationally. Incarceration cannot reform; it can only institutionalize and embitter.

It is hard to train for freedom in a cage. ~ New Zealander criminologist Norval Morris & David Rothman

The social justification for retribution in the form of imprisonment is that, in its absence, wronged individuals are prone to extract disproportionate revenge. Such vigilantism runs counter to the state’s interest in monopolizing violence. This has nothing to do with justice.

Talionic law originated as a restraint on punishment; best understood not as “an eye for an eye,” but as “only an eye for an eye.” The appropriate quantum of punishment is not easily assessed.

If suffering is the retributive goal, then prison is by far the most expensive option. The corporeal punishments common in medieval times were more immediate, better suited to the purpose, and considerably cheaper.

Economic crimes are largely the product of an inequitable society. If an unjust regime is to dish out further injustice to those deemed undeserving of a decent living, bring back indentured servitude for economic crimes when the offender cannot afford the fine for his transgression; quite fitting for an economic regime based on a ruthless market system.

Scandinavian countries run their prisons as a “factory with a fence,” as described approvingly by a US supreme court chief justice. There is a grim history of profiting off prison labor, from the chain gangs of the antebellum South to the labor camps in contemporary China.

In the quarries and salt mines of the ancient world, on the galleys plying the Mediterranean, to the Soviet gulags, prisoners were slave labor, worked to death. Nowhere was this brutal purpose more effectively realized than in Nazi concentration camps, with the mendacious motto “Work Makes You Free.”

The state profiting from crime is nothing more than a mockery of retributive justice. There is nothing just in slavery, which is what prison labor is.

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The rhetoric of imprisonment and the reality of the cage are often in stark contrast. Western societies carry expectations of prison that are unreal and contradictory. ~ Norval Morris & David Rothman

The failure of modern societies to take care of its peoples culminates with the profusion of prisons that dot every country. That crime is tolerated and then punished by extended incarceration damningly demonstrates the cruel inanity of injustice pervading humanity.

Prison embodies the mightiest power that the state exercises over its populace in peacetime. Extensive and prolonged incarceration, as is common, especially in the United States, demonstrates deep-seated moral corruption.

Prisons under authoritarian regimes not only incarcerate criminals, they also serve as silencers of political dissent. The US and other democratic countries do so too, albeit to a lesser extent.

Savagery is hard at work in a criminal justice system where imprisonment is the norm for a substantial minority of the population. Prisons are as logical for criminal justice as capitalism has proven itself to be for maintaining economic equity and environmental quality.