Prison is hell. Which is fine, as prisons were initially designed to be a little sample, in this life, of what the sinner finds in the next. Hell and jail are key to retributive justice: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth.
Retributive justice aims at nothing but punishment, explicitly as a deterrent to future criminals. Prisoners are deemed deserving of it and of whatever may happen to them inside, just like in a divinely mandated hell. Potential perpetrators are supposed to fear it and, if lucky enough to stay in for a relatively brief period, be well behaved taxpayers when they are let out.
Does it work? Well, all the stats show that crime, especially murder, is in long-term decline. The line wobbles a bit, but the amplitude and the duration of peaks are both shrinking.
The stats also show that pure retributive justice has been falling out of fashion for decades. The adoption of some restorative and rehabilitative flavours, into most justice systems, is strongly correlated with falling criminality.
Most countries have been working to make prisons more humane, to deny them as breeding ground for gangs; to keep prisoners busy studying and learning trades; to keep at least some connections with the world outside, to which inmates are expected to return.
Mostly, though, incarceration remains business as usual — only better quality. The fact that such better quality matters, that even a marginal improvement on conditions reduces recidivism, should be a clear sign that business must be unusual.
The real reform will happen when we let go of religious concepts of crime and punishment.
We now follow the ancient dogma of “defy the dogmatic principles of [ the Law / the Holy Book / the Great One’s teachings / the Customs of the Ancients / the Party / the Ideology / our Manifest Destiny ] and you will be punished”. Punishment to be in this life, the supposed next one, or both. Most dogmatists prefer both, as they are actually not so sure about the next.
But why punish, at all? Retributive justice could give way to restorative & rehabilitative justice, where the priorities are the following three, and only the following three:
- Stop the criminal act or, at least, prevent it from happening again;
- Cure the criminal, so that the same person does not commit more crimes, and ceases to be a risk to others;
- Compensate the victims, if not in kind (impossible in cases of murder or permanent harm) at least in principle, so as to give them some comfort, paid by the criminal.
The way to accomplish those priorities is to recognise crime as a mental health issue, bring psychiatrists into the judicial system, evaluate risk from a technical and pragmatic point of view, treat each case as unique.
Close all prisons, and open treatment centres instead.
Make terms flexible, to be determined by the treatment requirements, with the release date to be established by a panel of psychiatrists.
Non-violent offenders to be allowed treatment in open regimes, at the discretion of the psychiatrist in charge.
First, there will have to be some huge public re-education, of course, which would require a little more effort than the mild humanisation so far.
Want a real life example? I’ve seen some change in Brazilian prisons, which have a well-earned bad reputation. Most are still little better than overcrowded, filthy cages, where gang leaders are treated as elite by the other prisoners. Rape, violence, exploitation are routine — some count as initiation rituals in gangs. Every gang has a ‘chapel’ in each prison, ready to red carpet their members, who then prey on the ‘fresh meat’.
The authorities started prison reform, building new, bigger and better penitentiaries. Even though those megajails, too soon, also became overcrowded, first-time offenders begged to be transferred there, as they could have some degree of isolation from the bad guys.
The ‘peepul’ were appalled.
“What, those criminals are now better treated than their victims?”
“We pay taxes to keep those bastards in comfort, three meals a day?”
“Take them out of jail and give them to the Death Squad, that will cure them.”
“The bandits will never reform, just throw away the key.”
“That bastard is a rapist — he will have a warm reception in jail.”
And so on…
The reformers have not given up, though. A new open regime prison in one of the NE states has achieved remarkable success in preventing recidivism and is winning popular support.
So, what is missing?
I was going longwinded on aspects of the autism spectrum, but decided to make it simpler: we must learn detachment, faster than the glacial pace of civilisation now provides.
People with some degree of autism detach certain of their emotions from what they perceive as reality.
When it stops at that stage, they are merely seen as socially frigid.
Things get complicated when their reactions are apparently unrelated or disproportional to what is happening around them.
We can use more social frigidness, without falling prey to catastrophic social overreaction.
Civilisation always brings detachment, in the sense that we forego or delegate revenge, ritualise justice, structure punishment, replace it with education.
We try and get rid of mob rule.
Nevertheless, while we criticise egoism in capitalists, for example, we are extremely egoist when seeking revenge.
It may seem that only in Utopia we could expect people to let go of such a primary instinct as revenge.
Consider, though: our civilisation today, with no torture, no excruciating forms of public execution, no dumping in irons into deep dungeons, our rights to defence and a fair trial, and three meals a day if imprisoned, would have seemed like an impossible Utopia to our ancestors of a mere two hundred years ago. But the change happened so gradually that we think of it as normal.
The crucial correlation of revenge and religion needs to be broken.
As a case in point, Sweden now has one of the highest rates of atheism in the world, and also one of the lowest rates of incarceration — and of crime, overall.
On the other hand, the USA is the country with the highest proportion of its population eating porridge, and it is also one of the most religious — and the most militant at it.
The correlation, worldwide, is quite straight: the more we believe in crime and punishment, the more we punish and the more we offend.
Bear in mind that when I say religion I include state religion — dogmatic ideological regimes, based on unquestionable principles, that routinely punish dissidents, merely for asking questions.
Wherever there is no doubt allowed, there is religion; even if no particular god is named.
The fly in the ointment of retributive justice is that prison is not a deterrent for real criminals. Only amateurs or first-time offenders are scared of prison. In gangs, which already count some 30,000 members in the UK (and probably a million or more in the US), a prison term counts as a rite of passage, a badge of honour. That is why most prisoners bear fresh, blue ink tattoos when they leave prison.
Even with the best conditions, first-time offenders who are forced to mix with hardened criminals, come out scarred for life. Most develop a lifetime resentment against the authorities, especially if they were truly innocent, or got handed too harsh a sentence for their crime.
My point is that there is not too much of a gap between voters accepting better conditions in prison, instead of the folkloric little corner of hell most relish, and they accepting that prison should mean psychiatric hospital.
A real deterrent for psychopaths and sociopaths — which reoffending criminals actually are — is the loony bin. Their distorted personality will fight for its life, for a psychopath’s mind feels it must die to be cured.