Wednesday, September 2, 2009

More Punishment, Please

The issue of prisoners having TV's in cells is merely a symptom of the incoherent and ignorant nature of the debate around imprisonment and punishment. No one leads a debate; rather, there are a host of bleating constituencies which press upon Government to fulfil some specific agenda. Government itself long ago abandoned any pretence at informing or educating society in the technicalities and proprieties of punishment, preferring to defer to the latest media campaign.

Whilst every other aspect of government policy is recognised as being complex and specialist, penology is treated as if it is simplicity itself: Press Button A, and the result is Outcome B. But prisons aren’t vending machines. Like other policy areas, prisons are deeply complex and few have sufficient information or insight to offer any but the most asinine of opinions. But whilst most of us would hesitate to speak about, say, fiscal policy, any village idiot feels qualified to offer suggestions on how to punish prisoners. And listening to these idiots leads us to a startling outcome.

The result is a shambles, that no one is happy with the current state of affairs. Not victims, not prisoners, not the media, not the staff unions, and not the general public. This is a testament to remarkable ineptitude on a massive scale. On the policy level, it is the equivalent of Government failing to supply clean water, keep the lights burning, or keep the nation vaguely solvent. Incredible.

First principles, then. What is the purpose of imprisonment? Only when there is a social consensus on this can we move forward and

meddle with the minutiae of how prisons are run. To punish is often top of the populist wish-list, but this must be probed further. Punishment to what end, to what purpose? Because it is possible (and likely) to inflict a regime which ultimately results in a high rate of future offending. Should we advocate a system of punishment which causes more social harm than the crime we are punishing...?


  1. i am not sure that killers should be offering their views on criminal justice.

  2. What else are they supposed to offer their views on then? The X-Factor or something like that? Or maybe Jack Straw's interest in oil? I do mean castor oil by the way, because I believe the stuff tends to work the bowels marvellously, so hopefully it may just stop the crap from coming out of his mouth for a change. (Pardon my delectable French!)

  3. Sees to me that loss of liberty is the punishment. There's no point in making it a particularly brutal experience (am thinking more spartan than luxurious so don't get your hopes up).

    What is more important is that a lot of crime and, in particular, recidivism is due to people who have missed out on education or social opportunities: when they are locked up in prison it would seem that there is a perfect opportunity to try and rectify this problem.

    That way prison is doing something socially useful as well as just keeping people off the streets (and the unemployment records)

  4. To the first poster:
    It seems to me they'd know more about it than most!

  5. "What is the purpose of imprisonment?" - good question. So, go for it - tell us what you think.