Tuesday, April 10, 2012

A Basic Point

Any discussion about imprisonment, if it is to avoid the descent into blather, has to be rooted in some firm conceptual soil. Need I say, it just isn't?
Perhaps we should return to address the core issue - what is the purpose of imprisonment? Just what is it that society - including criminals and victims - wants to happen through the use of imprisonment?
Oh, I know there are the textbook responses to this question. Prison is meant to punish, to rehabilitate and act as a deterrent.  We resolutely avoid the difficult issues, though, leaving prison as a dumping ground for the wasters as well as the wicked, a non-optional refuge for the dispossessed, the desperate and the mentally ill. If we designed the system from scratch, according to firmly rooted principles, I'm sure that we would not happily accept the result if it mirrored the present situation.
This is absurd, and an indictment on all of those who pipe up about prison in public but who wilfully shy away from grappling with harsh truths. The first, for me, is to accept that imprisonment often causes more social damage than the crime the prisoner committed.
Prison eagerly grasps the miscreant and locks him away from societies disinterested gaze. That is not contested or denied. What is deliberately avoided are the secondary consequences of this. The prisoner will lose his job. He may lose his home, his wife and his children. At the end of his sentence, having being stripped of all that brought meaning to his existence, he is then vomited back into a hostile society with a few quid and a plastic sack of belongings helpfully emblazoned "HM Prison Service".
Is this what we want or expect from the use of prison? If a judge stood in the dock and actually read out the full breadth of the consequences of a prison sentence, would we at last begin to wonder if that cost was disproportionate to the crime committed. And wonder if there was not some more sensible response to crime.


  1. I once spoke to a (US) defence lawyer about how to act during a sentencing hearing. He said the best he could do for his client was to try and get the Judge to say the defendants first name. Because then the Judge was unlikely to sleep at night if he was sent to jail, and would only do so if he really felt that prison was the necassary and valid option.

    This is one reason why I dislike using the term "prisoner" when discussing Human Rights in the prison context. It is much easier to deny rights to a prisoner or criminal than it is to deny rights to a person who is in prison. Or to deny rights to a Muslim terrorist than it is to a person of Islamic faith accused of terrorism.

  2. I think there are usually better ways than prison. However, I would say that your three reasons - "Prison is meant to punish, to rehabilitate and act as a deterrent" - are only from the prisoner's point of view. There's also the out-of-circulation reason, which is from everyone else's, aka the "public's" point of view.

    If we discussed, and could agree on, an order of priorities for those four reasons, then perhaps we could arrive at a more sensible policy for imprisonment. Mine would be:

    Out of circulation (how much damage/risk a single person represents to the polity)
    Rehabilitation (what reduction of damage/risk is possible for a single person against the polity)
    Deterrent (largely overblown as a reason to my mind)
    Punishment (largely pointless)

  3. The typical 5 are;

    Incapacitation (can't commit whilst in prison)
    Deterrence (deter others from illegal acts)
    Restitution (make victim feel better)
    Retribution (repay harm done to Society)

    They all do have a role. I know Ben hates the idea of deterrence, but I disagree. I have been in situations were the only way to avoid a fight (which for the record I think I would have won) was to say "I know your face, your name, your address, you hit me, I will report it, there is a witness, you will lose your job and any hope of that nice dream career I know you have." At some level, deterrence has uses.

    Incapacitation is dependent on the person and the reason for the crime. There are some people who are simply too dangerous to be on the streets. This should be combined with rehabilitation however. I have also seen a judge make the very sensible comment "If I send you down, the victims of your petty theft might get a few months break. If I send you to drug rehab, we might fix you forever."

    Restitution in some cases can be achieved by imprisoning someone. I think a Rape victim is much better off being given that time to recover knowing that her/his attacker is not walking the streets. However, at the same time, it is a bad joke to suggest Prison time makes up for the harm done to the victim, and other things such as required charity work are possibly more important.

    Retribution is similar to restitution. To an extent I agree here, people should be punished for bad actions. However, this should not be in excess of the action. Going to prison for six months for a 10 thousand pound crime costs society 20 thousand pounds in taxes, and if it costs the person their job and the opportunity to earn for six months, may cost them more than the 10 thousand theft. At the same time, there are times when this is too low, such as scrap metal thieves fined less than the value of the items they stole (referring to a case a while back when musical instruments were stolen).

    Rehabilitation is an obviously good thing for reasons I don't think need explaining.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.