Recent events, both locally and internationally, have turned my attention to the concept of prison and jail. Not to specific ones, just to the overall construct as a part of human society.
Prisons exist in every society and culture across all of human history. Even today, I would imagine you would be hard-pressed to find a nation or even a community that did not have a prison of some sort. My question is, what are they for?
(Before going further, I want to acknowledge the existence of for-profit prisons but remove them from discussion. A societal industry based around what is essentially slavery is a whole other discussion to be had. It needs to be had, for sure, but it’s a topic and factor for another time)
A person is sent to prison after committing a crime, which is some sort of egregious societal transgression. Fair enough. Laws exist for a reason and good reasons too. Only the most ardent of anarchists would assert a truly lawless community as an ideal. But what is the prison supposed to do in response to the crime?
It seems three possible answers:
1 – the time in prison is supposed to rehabilitate the prisoner, so that upon release they will not commit crime again.
2 – the time in prison is supposed to repay the victims of the crime and/or society itself for the damage done by the crime.
3 – the time in prison is supposed to remove the criminal element from society.
The problem that I’ve seen is that none of these seem to be the case. The rehabilitative nature of prison is dubious, at best. Whole fields of psychology are devoted to the institutionalization that prisoners undergo during long prison stints. And what constitutes a ‘long’ stint in prison is a lot shorter than one might think.
So if the goal is rehabilitation, why aren’t therapy, rehab and detox, and other forms of cognitive restructuring emphasized?
The repayment to the victims/society theory doesn’t make much sense to me because what is taken from the prisoner cannot be given to the victim. The months and years a prisoner spends in prison cannot somehow be added to the victim, like some sort of life transfer.
So the ‘repayment’ seems to be more about removing from the prisoner an amount of time equal to the crime committed. But this too is flawed. Even if we could assign a reasonable time-based debt system, we are still answering one loss with another loss. That isn’t justice; that’s revenge.
The third scenario is about the removal of the criminal element from society. Not a bad idea, I suppose, but that seems to suggest that crime is somehow a genetic factor, or some other similarly innate characteristic that, if removed, perhaps society will be free of all crime. Psychology and criminology both do not support this theory.
But even if they did, why release the prisoners? If they are tarnished by some criminal factor, why not remove any and all criminals permanently from society? Why ever let them return? And if they can somehow recover, that goes back to the first suggestion about rehabilitation.
What I keep coming back to is that I just don’t know what role prisons are supposed to play. I don’t know what prisons are supposed to do. I don’t have an answer, and scholars far more versed than I wrestle with this question even today. But given that prison is one of the corner stones of society – any society and every society – this seems an important question to answer.
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I want to apologize for the late update. I’ve been on the road a lot since Anime Mid-Atlantic and it’s been hard to line up both the time and opportunity to update.
Please stay tuned this week as I’m currently working with my publisher on a special offer relating to Rhest for the Wicked. I hope to have more info in the next day or two.