The Meaning of Punishment

Unsurprisingly during my first few months in jail I wondered what it was all about. Incarceration is absurd, or a non sequitur as I’ve said before: That is how I think of being here. But why am I here? - For the benefit of the Righteous? What purpose is served by my continuing presence? I think it all ended when the “denunciatory” sentence was announced in the media. That’s when the Righteous public got to taste blood.

Jail is an absurdity certainly, but what else could you make out of it? I had philosophical interludes and asked myself questions such as: What is the punishment of imprisonment? Here I am confined with ninety other, mostly young males spending about five hours a day working, eating well, having a range of recreational opportunities of which I mainly use the well equipped woodworking shop. I think I read that the essence of modern punishment is the loss of freedom. For most here that would be freedom of the street, the street which allows one to select one’s companions and associates, and provides access to booze, drugs and sex. Jail is commodity deprivation for some. Much is made here of the good things, the bounty of jail; the food, warm beds and recreation. There are frequent returnees who are teased and welcomed back Being in jail, perhaps as something that happens from time to time, seems to be accepted fatalistically by many. Those who don’t like it are often people who would be unhappy or depressed anyway, or those who have something; family, girl or affluence to miss. The latter won’t want to come back.

Basically jail is punishment, and time is its principal currency. How do we punish? We give convicts time; so many days, months, years: The time standard of punishment. Sentences are homogenized through the concept of time measured as deprivation of liberty. What the Kingston Pen, FRCC, Ford Mountain and the Club Feds with golf and horseback riding have in common is that time is served, the currency of sentences is redeemed; “debts are repaid to society”, at society’s expense of course.

The Americans amongst others also have a life standard usually preceded by lots of time on death row. Some former British colonies in Southeast Asia and Africa, and some Muslim countries flog convicts, a pain/misery standard. We should perhaps add hard or tedious labour which has been used as an additional punishment. Nineteenth Century English prisons made inmates operate treadmills and pick oakum used at the time in life belts. Inmates were sometimes fed deliberately meagre low protein diets which made them easier to control and which stunted the growth of young offenders. More altruistically, sensory deprivation was employed: in some early penitentiaries. Inmates were not allowed to talk to each other, or read anything other than the Bible in order that they could reflect on their crimes and reform themselves, or more likely go insane. The famous etching done by Gustave Doré in Newgate Goal showing inmates walking in a circle is the best known illustration of this approach. It was made into a painting by Van Gogh. In some penitentiaries inmates were hooded so they couldn’t see each other or have any human contact. This must have delighted the randywhites of the day. I try and imagine this. I think it beats Abu Ghraib hands down.

Time. The meaning that the public imputes to length of sentences as in “He should have got more than five years”, and the time as experienced by the inmate may bear no relationship to each other. For the disappointed commentator it’s a statement of his outrage and presumably his superior morality. For the inmate, the pain and suffering of the sentence, the stuff that the Righteous presumably get their jollies from, depends largely on himself. Of course he may be less able to do anything about the suffering due to mentally disturbed, hateful and Righteous inmates.

There are problems with time as the currency of punishment. When some irate citizen fumes, "He should have got more than two years for whatever", the speaker is probably only trying to quantify the moral outrage he or she feels, or should feel, about the offense, and often with the worst case scenario in mind. As families erode, and adult fraternization with the young declines, children have increasingly become the focus of public concern. In a society of close loving families where children are seen through the eyes of parents and the adults they interact with, rather than through the intervening eyes of often self appointed experts, pedo hysteria would find few supporters.

Moral outrage arises out of ignorance, including the deliberate suppression of facts, and guilt over neglect which is exploited by activists. Harsher sentences are a substitute for empathic involvement. Legislators under pressure, and likely inspired by the zeal of ambitious police officers, various victims’ rights advocates and the Righteous generally, have lobbied for draconian sentences especially in the USA. This has been done with the connivance of therapists and psychocops boasting credentials as shrinks. Sentences reflect the degree of moral outrage that can be induced by populist politics.

I personally did not get off lightly at my sentencing: Mr. Poll with his book of sentencing authorities essentially got what he asked for. It was victory for him. Nine months seemed to be standard for my type of conviction according to those I met in jail. Denunciation was an important consideration in my case; I was high profile and there was a populist demand for it. Can you blame them? I was probably topping Canada’s Most Vilified list for a year or so. And I deserved it because I am me. I am still fortunate. An American friend whom I met while he was awaiting deportation ten years ago ended up receiving two life sentences as a result of an overheard conversation between two twelve year old boys about blowjobs. He is still filing briefs and appeals.

With time as the official currency of punishment somebody has to administer it. While the courts, the media and the public think of time, often rationalized as deprivation of freedom, as punishment, the prison officials who have to deal with the bodies sent to them are not likely to see their jobs as punishing inmates. Their job is to carry out sentences, not letting them escape, and increasingly providing certain programs for designated types of inmates. The guards and the occasional whiteshirt that inmates deal with want things to run smoothly, but of course their way. Some may want to lay their particular personal trips on inmates, but they can still be reasonable about job related things. Despite their power the guards are seldom real pricks.

While there may be sadistic and power tripping guards in prisons, I haven’t encountered any at Ford Mountain and they probably wouldn’t fit in very well anyway. It is in the interests of correctional officials to have contented and compliant inmates. It makes their jobs easier and jail more pleasant. However it could be argued that the more pleasant a jail is, the less effective it is as punishment, and a deterrent. Could be, but I don’t think that’s important. Much, probably most criminal behaviour is connected to things that prisons can’t deal with. I believe there are many criminals, young guys into petty crimes and a criminal culture of sorts, for whom even a place like FMCC is not a deterrent. In fact, I gather it is a good place to pay your criminal culture dues.

There is an apparent conflict of interest between the courts and at least some of the principles of sentencing, and the more practical perspective of correctional authorities, at least in Canada. A rational prison system would use high cost maximum security (and less pleasant) prisons only for those few inmates requiring it. Prison administrators may assume that their role in punishing inmates is purely custodial.

Places like Ford Mountain, which are not punitive beyond the essentials of deprivation of liberty (a consideration that may not be very important to some inmates) and the demands of secure custody probably have a positive effect on inmates even if they do not reduce crime.


Content of this website is released with ‘copyleft’ license, that is you are free to copy, redistribute or use it for your own purposes provided you retain the present copyleft notice including my name and contact information, allowing others to subsequently reuse the material.  Robin Sharpe, crankyman98@gmail.com.