Punishment and Suffering

How do inmates suffer? Certainly not equally from the same sentence. I’ m sure there’s negative suffering in many cases. The amount or quantity of punishment that a sentence inflicts depends more on how it is taken, adapted to, or endured than it does on its duration and severity. Jail is a very hard experience for those who are depressed (more than usual) or who have trouble adapting. Adapting subverts the punitive side of incarceration and makes the job of the guards and administration easier. If we want to pursue equality of punishment for the same crime, we should to be fair, give the resilient, naturally cheerful, and also those who can obtain some martyrish or masochistic satisfaction from jail, much harsher penalties. Think of the shrinks it could employ!

Ah, but the punishment is not for the offender, but for the moral satisfaction of society, the jollies the Righteous receive from denunciation and closure. This is the payoff. I explored this theme in my recent transgressive novel, BLOOD & SEMEN where those judged guilty are turned over to afflicted ‘survivors’ for bloody punishments. The public stoning of adulterers (by those offended by such behaviour) is one example. Punishments could also be for the victim, perhaps proportional to their suffering: Two eyes for one eye? Five years for each fondled breast? Where a child may conceivably have been traumatized no sentence is too harsh even if the boy really enjoyed the blowjobs at the time. Often in such cases it’s the community’s presumed sense of decency that has been violated, not the young ‘victim’ which makes child sex crimes particularly heinous. It is commonly the case in non traditional crimes for penalties to be harsh to educate the public that these are indeed heinous crimes. How else would the public know, or be convinced? That is a big reason why heresy in theocracies and anti-state activities in totalitarian countries often meant death. It also helps explain the draconian penalties for child pornography in many American states. This is the proof of the evil of child pornography. Demonization is useful in promoting new crimes and for unprovoked attacks on countries. The problem was that almost all the material now deemed kiddieporn was commonly seen as merely ‘naughty’ in most people’s minds a few decades ago. How were people be persuaded that it is now a powerful Evil force endowed with mystical mindbending powers? Part of the reason is the severe penalties and the compliant minds which without thinking start filing things in different mental categories.

Sometimes I think inmates should suffer, or at least appear to for the moral satisfaction of the Righteous. The old Fijian I work with, Sidney, goes for his parole hearing next week. He had a problem with taking a program. He didn’ t lack communication skills, he wasn’ t a sex offender, a school dropout or a drug addict. He didn’ t fit into the programs offered. He does, however, drink moderately I understand, and perhaps fortuitously he picked up an impaired driving charge some years ago. So he took the Substance Abuse Management program. He can see no relevance but he hopes it satisfies the parole board. I have studied two of the SAM program’s workbooks, and it targets hard core junkies and crackies. I hope the situation is not as stupid as it sounds.

Sidney has worked in law offices for many years and has some smarts as well, and I suspect an innate deviousness. He, like others, anticipates the questions that members of the parole board will likely ask. I’ ve heard a number. One possible question he’s heard is how imprisonment has affected you, punished you. Has it made you aware and remorseful? The question of the benefits from participation in programs is separate. Sidney has suffered, he’s a minor family patriarch and he misses his wife and children and phones them every evening. His grandson wants to know when he’s going to come back from his business trip to Calgary.

Having seen things from below or inside, the legal judicial concepts of sentencing seem unreal. They only make sense in the context of their arbitrary assumptions which is the basis of popular and media wisdom. One of them is simply assuming that criminals are deviant. The other is that they share but reject their rationality. There are various ways of expressing it. I think it is probably accurate to say that no judge sentencing a man or woman to jail in Canada (or US/UK/AU) has ever experienced incarceration themselves. Unless pardoned they wouldn’ t be eligible. Judges who gave flogging sentences were much more likely to have experienced that penalty, in school or the military for example, and be more realistic about its impact on offenders. Perhaps we should have inmates lecture judges on what the effects of incarceration are? Or hire a bunch of sociologists?

We could also ask victims how they expect offenders to suffer from incarceration. Most wouldn’ t care although a few might prefer to offer juicy details. Would they be more understanding and kinder than our judges? Perhaps virtual games could be developed where victims could dismember their virtual assailants in three dimensional holography with realistic blood. Or maybe have randywhite type politicos give talks to the men in jail about what they expect from sentencing. "No more mollycoddling, no colour TV, no video games and no more teaspoonfuls of plum pudding with Christmas dinner." I never heard the latter but to the Righteous our job is to suffer. Mind you some would love to forgive us after we’ re saved. It may be difficult to find the proper means of bringing inmates and their ideological enemies together. Prison policies are always confused and simplistic diatribes, we should keep it that way.

I wondered about the punishment of jail when a couple of new arrivals were welcomed at coffee break. It was like a homecoming. "Couldn’ t stay away, eh?" It’s no secret among the inmates that some men more of less deliberately return. Winter, when it’s cold outside is a favourite time. They may hope after they’ re busted, that they’ ll soon end up at Ford Mountain where they feel comfortable. The attraction is more the ambience than any mollycoddling or luxuries in the sense that the randywhites of the world have railed against, such as colour TV. In fact I heard a tale that some years ago one jail felt obliged to replace their colour TVs with black and white models which even then cost more. The problem with making things harsher from an outside perspective is, one, the adaptability of the inmates, it’s only as bad as you allow it to be, if you remain in good spirits and have the right attitude even restrictive regimes become tolerable.

The second is that in any prison situation hierarchies naturally develop, and one’s place and advancement in the hierarchy has a great effect on one’s overall satisfaction. This is probably truer in federal institutions with longer sentences and slower turnovers. Harsh regimes may encourage stronger hierarchies. Hierarchies under adverse conditions mean that some people win or prosper in their situation. Traditional crime repeaters or recidivists, the ones society may most want to reform, have considerable status in jail and generally high positions in the inmate hierarchy. I think jails would have to be a lot harsher to have much effect on discouraging people from using them. One inmate I met thought that periodic stints in jail helped people to live longer. And commit more crimes in total maybe? I wondered. I think this is true, and a valid function of our jails. We should treat ex-cons on the street decently.

Society should find ways to weaken the criminal culture even at the cost of appearing soft on crime. Jail can serve as a boozeless, relatively drugless, womanless, structured environment: An R&R facility of sorts for portions of the criminal underclass. Decriminalizing retailing and possession of all street drugs would be a good place to start. So many other things become possible.


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