Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Another Basic Point

What change in the individual, what socially acceptable outcome, do we want prison to provide? It is simple enough to cry that prison should be for punishment, but that is to jump ahead of the thought process - what is the purpose of that punishment? Just what process do we want to occur behind the high walls that lurk, unnoticed, in so many cities?
To punish is obviously a legitimate purpose, at least if the aim of that punishment was socially positive. Or do we want to hurt our fellow Man in a blind spasm of revenge for the offence he committed against us? Do we want to inflict punishment solely as an end in itself? Or do we endow that punishment with a purpose, be it reformatory, rehabilitative, or transformative?
Punishment for its own sake, a socially agreed and rather more sophisticated version of a childlike "he hit me so I hit him back" is, I contend, unworthy of us as adult human beings and as a society.
If we must inflict suffering on fellow Men, let that suffering have some legitimate social purpose in its agenda. Hurting in retaliation merely gives us temporary satisfaction and that obscures the fact that such hurt may actually cause more social harm, harm that far outweighs the original transgression.
If you are persuaded by this line of reasoning, then we find ourselves in deeply difficult territory. What is it that we want punishment to do? If we want imprisonment to do more than be painful or destructive (to both the prisoner and society) then we need to find some positive purpose within it.
At the basest level, it is oft claimed that throwing a crim into the slammer puts a brake upon his ability to commit crime. Senior politicians of all parties will cheerfully make this wild claim and I cannot stress strongly enough that it is a lie. Not a malicious lie, granted, more based in ignorance than malice, but it is a lie even so.
The crime rates within prison are astonishingly high. In fairness, this reality takes some effort to uncover as figures are not collected for "crimes committed in prison". The truth of the matter is dispersed across several sources of information beginning with disciplinary proceedings. Some of these are analogous to crimes, some are purely prison offences. Other sources include medical data (for head injuries in particular) and survey data from researchers and the Inspectorate. The sum total of knowledge, then, about crime rates in prison is quite weighty. Amongst other matters, it reveals that young prisoners - under 18 - have a 1 in 10 chance of being assaulted each and every month.
Putting criminals in prison does not cut crime, it displaces it. So what, you may cry? These are just crims after all, it is their just deserts to become victims themselves. As a populist, late night in the pub reaction I will give that space. As a serious point, though, I have only on response. And that is to beg you to be cautious of a principle which reduces the right of people with criminal records to live free from fear of crime. With several millions of people convicted of motoring offences - yes, crimes one and all - then the chances are you could be inviting the local burglar into your home. After all, you criminal, its only what you deserve isn't it...?
If reducing crime is not one of prison's strongest claims to positivity, then what else can be offered? To what end do we subject people to incarceration? Do we want to reform people, to turn them away from crime? Or do we not care about the results, all that we really desire is the satisfaction from comes from hurting those who hurt us?
Are we really that stupid?

1 comment:

  1. The trouble is that the benefits of any system are almost invisible. A person deterred from committing crime remains invisible to statistics. A person who has a very early diagnosis from a doctor and is easily cured rather than needing a later operation isn't seen taking up a hospital bed. A car fitted with ABS isn't seen not to crash on the slippery road.

    So arguing against prison on the basis that the people in prison are not deterred from crime misses the bigger picture.


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