Prison and Crime

I don’t think prisons do much to reduce criminal behaviour beyond the fact that the inmates are temporarily off the street. In the USA this argument is used to justify extremely long sentences and the three strikes and you’re out laws. This is in one sense both a defeatist and hysterical approach. It also is extremely cruel and wasteful of human lives and resources. The current American experiment with draconian penalties, especially as regards sex and porn offences, is similar to that of the English in the 18th Century where children were hanged for petty theft. Now as then it largely depends on hyped up moral outrage. Laws in English speaking electoral democracies are increasingly made on the basis of moral outrage rather than sober analysis of the problems they supposedly address. Society seems to have remarkably little concern about the extreme cruelty inflicted on those men caught up in it. Draconian laws and penalties have created interlocking vested interests and nowadays we have psychotherapists to assuage any qualms in the public consciousness. They’re “experts” and the public goes along with their pronouncements, just as they used to with assorted priests. They advise princes, sell indulgences and enrich themselves. “Science”, moral outrage and profits miraculously coincide to uphold and perpetuate draconian laws and penalties.

Rehabilitation is something that can best happen outside prisons although having captive subjects free of drugs, alcohol and tempting situations is often, not always, an advantage. For many developing self control will help them lead non criminal lives. The crimes that “substance dependent” criminals commit are primarily economic ones. What they want is money, not to physically harm people. Non violent crime is generally to be preferred over violent crime. I think what places like Ford Mountain do accomplish is to encourage a more responsible criminal culture and to develop more acceptable standards of criminal behaviour: “Good” rather than “bad” criminal behaviour. Inmates can be as righteous as anyone and it’s not just the “last resort of scoundrels”. Just as it may be argued that we are better off with an enlightened dictatorship rather than an unenlightened one, so it may be that we are better off with good criminals than bad ones. They are likely to be less violent, more sensitive in their choice of victims and commit their crimes more efficiently. Laws that increase penalties for the use of guns or violence in the commission of crimes encourage less dangerous criminality.

While I certainly believe that courts should show a certain leniency towards young offenders, I also think young people should be treated with the utmost due process. Guilty or not they should have the full protection of the presumption of innocence, something that juvenile courts from their inception have not respected. A charge against a young person should be regarded as an opportunity to instruct that person in the “majesty of the law”. Young people often have strongly held concepts of fairness and these should be respected and not be violated. Concepts of fairness and proportionality have been eroded with the contemporary rule of moral outrage.

Acquittal of a guilty person can reform him (a close call) perhaps more effectively than a conviction. (While an awkward subject to research, I believe there is some evidence of this. How do the recidivism rates of those “let off” compare to those subjected to the incarceration experience?) The object of the criminal justice system should not be to convict as much as to ensure that the person charged refrains from similar behaviour in the future. Vested interests and electoral democracy favour a tough law and order approach.

The debate about what prisons can and can’t do has been around since the beginning of the use of incarceration as the standard punishment two centuries ago as Michael Foucault points out in Punishment and Discipline. Progressive reformers and randywhite types have been around since the beginning.

Perhaps you could define punishment not from intent but by effect: The things that inmates don’t like. Or do? This would vary by inmate. Looking at jail as punishment, one thing I personally don’t like is arbitrariness, and the stupidity that usually accompanies it. No doubt part of the reason is that I can’t do anything about it. I sometimes forgot I was in jail. For example, my job, effectively running the recycling shop, led me to arrange and organize things for something to do as well as to increase efficiency. I knew some of the things others might need and set them aside; certain kinds of boxes, reusable sheet plastic and material suitable for packing for example. Then one afternoon when I am away a guard says clean everything out because the electricians are going to do some wiring, and a gung ho inmate tosses out all the things I’d carefully arranged, and the electricians don’t need the space for another week. Arbitrariness may not trouble most inmates who do not question the order of things. They make good inmates, and probably good criminals too. I had.

another reminder of the absurdity of this place, and I suppose of authoritarian regimes generally, when one rainy Saturday I noticed a pile of cardboard boxes behind the Kitchen getting wet and started to move them to the nearby recycling shed. Part of my job is to pick up empty boxes, take them to the recycling shed, flatten them and bind them in bundles. Mine is defined as a five day a week job. Anyway, as I went to retrieve them I got stopped by a guard, Mr. Fenson I believe, for going out of bounds. I explained my “mission”. He said that I should not do this out of working hours although he could see it made common sense to do so. Henceforth I let weekend boxes get soggy.

The unit where one of my tablemates lives lost their fridge for two weeks when contraband, margarine and cheese slices, were found in it; an example of collective punishment. No food may be removed from the Kitchen. Everything served must be eaten there which means that people in the rear of the line up must gobble down everything quickly; nothing can be saved for later on. I once just managed to prevent my unit from losing their fridge when the guy I gave my diabetic snack sandwich to put in the fridge. I convinced Mr. Gamme that I had done it. At FRCC much could be and was saved for later on. Many inmates at Ford Mountain cook noodles, rice, Kraft dinners and other food they can buy through the canteen in the evenings. Many are perpetually hungry. They can buy and make coffee and tea, and milk and whitener, but they can’t buy sugar out of concern for illegal brewing so there’s a great incentive for them to sneak minipacks of sugar out of the Kitchen. Being the victim of pettiness, and stupidity can be punishment for those who don’t adapt to it.


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