Thursday, July 22, 2010

Less is More

One of my peers surprised me by making the following suggestion. He claims that it is the first couple of weeks in prison that provide the 'shock' factor. The noise, uncertainty, confusion... after two weeks, people begin to acclimatise, the shock wears off.

So his scheme is to put people inside for 2 weeks. Long enough to shock them but not so long that their social capital dissipates. If your wife runs off in those two weeks, let’s face it, the relationship was not going well. And with a bit of fancy footwork, you could even get away with this short absence without your employer working out you're in the nick.

At the end of those two weeks - in a crappy, overcrowded local nick - only then do you begin your Community punishment. The threat of returning to prison for non-compliance remains for the duration.

God forbid that I should ever advocate prison for anyone, but I think this man might actually be onto something.


  1. I think it was Robert Martinson, the Nothing Works man, who concluded that 'scared straight' tactics don't work, but that each person convicted needs to be addressed by range of 'remedial' treatments tailor made for that person. There are no quick fixes.

    Actually, addressing convicted people as unique, not 'one of them' (they're all the same), would seem to be a necessary first step. I'd have thought that a first reaction to being imprisoned might be, 'Right, if this is what they think of me, if this is what they think I'm worth, I accept the verdict; social exile, here I come, there's no way back.'

    Any sort of retribution may assuage the feelings of 'victims' but stands in danger of provoking a defiant response and an altogether unhelpful (from society's point of view) self-image.

    I think.

  2. That's interesting, you seem to be arguing against yourself in this one! (Never necessarily a bad thing, I often have internal arguments with myself just to make sure my values hold water).

    The problem is that this approach does nothing to address the issues surrounding the reasons people commit crimes in the first place, like illiteracy and drug dependency.

    Also, you've rightly explained the need for a support network for people when they come out of prison and how that gives them a better chance of not re-offending. I wonder if sometimes a person goes into prison with no network (which may be part of the reason they offended in the first place) but through time spent making connections with people like the Quakers they become part of a support network they didn't have in the beginning. Two weeks in prison for those people would leave them no better off that they were when they went in so it might be that a longer prison sentence is appropriate for a few for very different (more humane) reasons that societies desire for it's vengeful 'pound of flesh'. what Charles said ;).

  3. I think your man is wrong here, and is barking up the wrong tree.

    It is still absolutely necessary to look at the causes of crime, as Gaina has said.

    Indeed something that the last government made out they were keen on but they completely lied about. Instead they blamed the individual and psychologically tested people to the hilt; all the things you outlined in your last post.

    I don't think you have to give anyone any ideas about the best ways to lock up and punish people, instead, concentrate on pointing out constantly the shortcomings of the present system, the grave injustices committed by the criminal justice system, and the general root causes of common crime.

    If its ever demanded of you to give your ideas about alternative ways of punishing people, I would just say that you are not in the business of doing that and if they don't like that for an answer, tough.

  4. Hmmmm. Interesting post, interesting comments. I don't hold a strong opinion on this one, it is a sufficiently interesting idea and sufficiently easy to try that I think I would just instigate a small trial and see what happens. We don't know enough to predict whether this would work or not as things stand, so let's give it a go and increase our knowledge.

    Charles may be right that "scared straight" tactics don't work, but this isn't quite the same thing. This isn't a short overnight stay in a prison to see what it is like and talk to some inmates; this is a short but genuine sentence and that may make a difference psychologically. I'm not usually an advocate for making sentences longer, but extending it to a month, or even two, might actually help because it gives an opportunity for the shock to wear off and the boredom to set in, and that may be jus as important. The knowledge that this is going to continue for some a long time is important to the feeling of shock, and knowing it will be over in two weeks may insulate the person from some of those feelings.

    As Sophie says, however, it is always necessary to look after the causes of crime and, as you yourself have argued on any number of occasions, the support network on release is crucial. This could only ever work if all of those things wer in place as well. That's another difference between this and "scared straight", I think. Fear may help, but it is certainly not enough.

    I could design a suitable trial in 5 minutes and get it up and running in as many months, the problem is, the results wouldn't be in for years, maybe decades. That means there's no incentive for any government to fund that research, as they'll probably not be in power to reep the rewards. Stupid chuffing politics.


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