On prisons

There has been a great deal of talk about prisons of late. But rather than get into a debate about who should run our prisons, the state or private enterprise, I think it worth asking why send people to prison in the first place? At the very least, prison involves the intentional infliction of some degree of suffering upon someone together with the removal of their human right to liberty and free movement. How can we morally justify such action? And how effective is it?

In very broad terms there are two main approaches to justifying punishing someone through imprisonment, a backward looking approach, one that focuses on the ‘crime’ committed, and a forward looking one that focuses on the future behaviour of the ‘criminal’.

The oldest, the most traditional approach, is that of retribution, the idea that a person committing a crime should receive their ‘just deserts’, that somehow the punishment should fit the crime, and that the criminal should suffer to the same extent as their victim. There are too many problems with this ‘an eye for an eye’ approach to punishment for me to discuss in a short blog, but, in extreme summary: at a logical level, it is difficult, if not impossible, to balance the crime with the punishment (particularly if the punishment you want to inflict is prison); and, at an ethical level, once the ‘appropriate’ degree of suffering has been inflicted, you surely have to ask ‘what has been achieved’ other than causing more suffering?

A second aspect to the backward looking approach, a more modern take on the above, is that of grievance satisfaction. This is the idea that offenders must pay their debt to society, and that the justification of the punishment lies in the satisfaction it brings to others; it satisfies the grievances of both the victim and their family, and those of the wider society. I am not convinced that this attempt to justify punishment can be sustained. The ‘satisfaction’ of knowing that someone is locked-up is surely mitigated by both the cost of doing so and the longer term harm generated by psychologically damaging the prisoner even further than they possibly already were before releasing them back into society. Having said that, I do think that some forms of ‘restorative justice’, where the offender meets their victim, understands their suffering, and attempts to ‘make amends’, can prove effective – but not through the prison system.

The forward looking approaches aim to prevent crime from happening in the future. And it’s here that a very limited justification for imprisonment can be found – and I do mean very limited. If a person is found to be a serious risk to either themselves or to other people it may be that the only option is prison – that this person is confined to some form of institution until such time when it is assessed that that risk has passed. This is the only time when I think imprisonment can be justified.

The other ‘forward looking’ justifications for imprisonment do more harm than good and, in general, make re-offending more likely. One of these justifications is that prison will act as a deterrence to future offending – that the time spent and suffering received in prison will encourage the offender either to see ‘the error of their ways’ or will be such an unpleasant experience that they will not want to suffer it again. I can’t of course say that this has never happened, but I’m convinced that the tougher the regime in prison, the greater the extent to which the prisoner has to adapt to, and survive in, life in the company of other offenders, and the greater the extent to which he (and it usually is a ‘he’) becomes an offender.

Prison, of course, if often cited as an opportunity for an offender to be rehabilitated, to receive some training or education that will improve their life on the outside and make offending less likely. Yes, training and education, together with various forms of ‘therapy’, may well be of huge benefit, but these should be done on the ‘outside’, not in the concentrated criminal atmosphere of a prison regime. With the possible exception of a few people who pose a serious risk to either themselves or others, I can see no justification at all in locking people up.

Whilst I accept that arguments can be made as to why certain offenders should suffer their loss of freedom, it is very difficult to actually rationalise just to what extent their sentence matches their crime, but worse, I think that in doing so society makes them much more likely to commit further offences in the future. If we are serious about reducing crime in this country, I suggest that we consider redirecting the money that is currently spent producing criminals in our prison system towards improving the lives of the people and their families who are largely responsible for the majority of crimes in the first place.