March 13, 2006

The penal system

I read in this morning's paper that jail terms for rape could be shortened and that in some cases those guilty of domestic violence may walk free if they promise to reform, as recommended by the independent Sentencing Guidelines Council.

The reason given for this action is that prison is apparently 'more demanding' now than it has been in the past.

This prompted me to think about another article I read, maybe last week, about the facilities in which prisoners live. This article stated that the exercise facilities provided by many prisons are better than public facilities in local towns. It was also asserted that, in many cases, more money is spent food for prisoners than on food for school children.

Now, I have to admit that I am torn on this issue. The argument in favour of good facilities and educational services in prisons is, of course, that if prisoners improve their education and fitness whilst in the inside and learn to occupy their time productively, they are more likely to have changed lives when they leave and thus less likely to reoffend. This may be true for some, but how large a proportion fall through this net? One of the prisons mentioned in the earlier article had full sports facilities, but they were only used by 10% of the inmates. In some cases the conditions inside may well be far better to those a prisoner is used to when free. Has the change in prison environment taken the punishment out of the penal system?


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  1. Keels over and dies at memories of reading Foucault's 'Discipline and Punish'.

    And in a practical contribution – We know that most criminals come from poor backgrounds and are often under-educated, hooked on drugs or mentally ill. I think the idea of prison as a reform institute is the way it should be with the residual loss of freedom as the punishment element. As much as people might find revenge satisfying it only leads to resentment and reaction from prisoners, and I think the judicial system should be about protecting society not wuthorising bloodlust (or non-bloody equivilent).

    Ok, people will always fall though the net but that's where a system of increasingly harsh sentencing might come in useful to deter them. We simply cannot expect a perfect system which prevents all reoffenders short of executing all criminals which is silly.

    And the jail overcrowding would be better sorted by doing something else with addicts rather than throwing them into drug infested jails to get even further out of control. Less jail for them = more jail space for proper criminals of whom rapists are amongst the worst.

    13 Mar 2006, 23:46

  2. I would ask why punishment should be met with resentment by prisoners when you reason that they are there (in most cases) entirely as a result of their own behaviour? They know the rules and have subverted them, so they should expect to be punished at least in some way.

    I wouldn't say that creating a less hospitable environment is the equivalent of bloodlust. I don't think we're talking torture here, just the suspension of certain 'privaleges'. I'm not suggesting that we could ever reach a situation where ever prisoner is rehabilitated: clearly this is utterly unrealistic. Of course it would be fantastic to give all prisoners the chance to educate themselves, become free of any bad habits and get healthier, but surely there comes a point where the expense is not justified by the results? I don't know what the figures are, but isn't the rate of reoffending ridiculously high, despite current rehabilitation methods? I know it might sound harsh to take this back to economics, but when more is being spent on prisoners than school children and public facilities there seems to be some imbalance.

    It seems somewhat incongruous to me that by giving someone a prison sentence we strip them of their right to vote but, in some cases, are providing them with a better lifestyle than they had before. Should we be treating prisoners as those who have foregone their rights or as those who have increased rights due to their vulnerable nature and risk to society?

    I can see your logic in the argument for increasingly harsh sentencing, but who would dole out the judgement on this?

    14 Mar 2006, 12:43

  3. Visiting Atheist

    I think you might find that few people who are in prison believe they should be there. By definition (generally!), anyone who commits a crime believes they should have more than life has given them and therefore rails at the inequities of life.

    Personally, I think that jail sentences should be longer/harsher, or at least offenders should be made to made to serve out the actual sentences they were given. How many of the prison population are counted twice because they have reoffended within a year of being released early from their sentence? If nothing else, it would reduce repeat offence rates. It has also been made woefully apparent that a liberal approach to crime and punishment doesn't work so it wouldn't hurt to massively overhaul the system, though I doubt anyone would as it would mean admitting that the present system doesn't work. (Indeed the odd thing about our present system is that it suggests that a certain amount of crime is viewed as being OK, which is not completely guaranteed to send the right message, is it?).

    I do find it irritating that prisoners are able to manipulate the system in pursuit of exercising their rights as citizens. Free legal aid when many of us would struggle to afford good quality legal representation… satisfaction of their human rights… decent (bearable) living accomodation in some of the prisons. Of course, overcrowding, slopping out, drug addiction and violence are some of the down sides.

    One question is: should we be rehabilitating people already in prison while sending the message that we're not really going to be too tough on crime so as to give people a second chance, or should we be using prison as a deterrent by way of throwing away the key of those already in there? Neither approach is ideal, to me, but I have no groundbreaking ideas as to what would reverse the current, apparent trend towards increasing lawlessness.

    15 Mar 2006, 11:41

  4. James

    Let's not lose sight of the fact it is called the 'penal system' for a reason. It is there to punish.

    I'm not simply an old fashioned hanger and flogger, and for a start I don't think longer sentences work as a deterrent. To the extent that criminals act rationally, the chances of being caught weigh much more heavily than any anticipated punishment. Most criminals don't act rationally of course; they commit crimes of passion, crimes to pay for drug habits, etc etc. Long term prisoners become institutionalised and the conditions are better than they'd experience on sink estates when free.

    It would be nice if there could be rehabilitation of criminals, though I don't know how successful rehabilitation of rapists has been.

    But some points remain. One is that sentencing works as some deterrence (who wouldn't commit crimes if there was no sentence threatening). Another is that justice as most people understand it requires some measure of punishment, of which deprivation of liberty is often as good as any of the proferred alternatives. And finally, locking people up at least stops them from committing crimes for the duration. That is a good thing, I think most would believe.

    Finally Sarah a personal tribute, which I hope you don't find patronising, for your willingness to express forthright and controversial views. I haven't posted anything about Ellis, mostly because I haven't anything to say that other posters haven't covered, but also partially because the emotive nature of the subject matter makes me suspect reasoned debate will be impossible. Full marks for proving me wrong. By startling contrast, I recently read a review of a book on Amazon.com and got very cross at a ridiculous factual error in the review. So I clicked on the name, found the reviewer's email, and sent a polite but firm rebuttal. I also posted my own review which began 'I want first to correct a howler in a review below …'. I thought I was being polite by dropping the reviewer a personal note as well as posting a rebuttal in my own review. She thinks otherwise, and this morning I received a ranting email calling me an 'ass' for 'bad-mouthing' her and threatening that what I was doing was illegal!

    Leaving aside the nonsense she was spouting (I wasn't bad-mouthing her, just correcting an idiotic comment, and thought I was being polite not harassing by doing so personally as well as publicly) it struck me as very ironic that the internet, that modern marvel of free speech, prompts people to be so sensitive. As far as I'm concerned, if you post something on the net you invite responses. So all power to your controversial elbow!

    PS I'd be interested in other people's thoughts about my little clash with the prickly American, if anyone thinks it was out of order.

    20 Mar 2006, 16:33

  5. Prison, so far as I can tell, serves four main purpuses: as a threat to deter people from comitting crime; as a means of preventing crime by having potential criminals locked up; to limit re-offending by re-habilitating prisoners; and as a way to provide justice by punishing people for comitting crimes.

    I think the problem is with the last one because, while it sounds like a perfectly reasonable and sensible thing to do, it doesn't actually make sense. Justice doesn't serve any real purpose, and I can't think of any rational argument in its defence.

    Condider, for example, a religious perspective. There is a set moral doctrine that people must follow, or else they deserve to be punished. However, there is (invariably?)already a mechanism to provide such punishment. If rapists are going to hell anyway, what sense does it make for them to be punished on Earth?

    As for a secular perspective, what does justice achieve? Satisfaction for the victims? Without an absolute moral code, how can you decide which punishments are deserved and which are not?

    Having people locked up to prevent them from re-offending might seem like a good idea, but unless you're locking them up for life, has anything really been achieved? Without rehabilitation, this seems rather pointless.

    As a deterrant I don't think there's really any call for long jail sentences at all. It seems to me that anything more than a couple of years becomes almost meaningless, because you'll already lose more or less your whole current life.

    In addition, rehabilitation doesn't really make any sense for a crime of passion. As they weren't being rational anyway, I can't think what you would teach them to prevent them from doing it again.

    22 Mar 2006, 16:21

  6. This question of the opinions of those in prison is very interesting. I guess I have been naively judging this on my own ideas of right and wrong and have not considered the possible alternatives. James's point is interesting: that crimes committed on impulse are not rationalised. I think they must be considered at least to some extent, even if only in the split second before a crime is committed (I find that even if I do something on impulse there is some thought that goes into it). I don't know whether this makes them better or worse, though.

    I blogged on this subject mainly because I find it very difficult to make up my mind. The problem is that there has to be one set of rules governing the treatment of all prisoners (otherwise how could it ever be regulated without the possibility of bias), but that one system can never hope to provide the best answer for everyone. Far from it. Comment 3 summed it up: I 'have no groundbreaking ideas' to change things. I think I probably believe in imprisonment being more of a punishment, as I feel an offender should serve their time. However, I think it is possible to provide a climate of rehabilitation without providing relative luxury. For example, encourage exercise without providing expensive gym equipment, provide minimal communal entertainment facilities, provide learning opportunities and counselling but more as a reward than a right. Having said this, deciding who gets to reward or punish the prisoners whilst they are on the inside is also a difficult one.

    James, thank you for your comment. I find that people are sometimes surprised that I am so keen to engage in controversial debate, often on the unpopular side, but I normally can't help myself: I'm naturally far too outspoken. As for the prickly American, you may have received a slightly less angry reply had you not used the word 'howler' (I find that always replying to people's views in a totally respectful manner, no matter how wrong you think they are or how abusive they have been towards you, generally keeps you out of trouble and encourages people to at least consider your views) but I doubt it. Some people just can't take being corrected, I'm afraid. The advent of new technology and the sharing of ideas seem to make no difference to some defensive human reactions.

    22 Mar 2006, 16:27

  7. Colin, one of the problems I have had when considering religious ideas in relation to criminals is that the rapist is not necessarily comdemned to go to hell: if they confess and repent of their sins they are washed clean, as it were, and can go to heaven, thus removing the punishment. I'm not sure I can accept that as a concept.

    I concur with your justification of rehabilitation on the grounds of preventing someone from reoffending.

    22 Mar 2006, 16:34

  8. Ah, but from the perspective of the religion, whatever God decides to do is the right thing by definition. Whatever justice might be required is carried out by God, so there's no need for anything to be done to punish people on Earth. If you don't like what God decides to do then you're wrong, from the perspective of that religion.

    As for doing things on impulse, I've read that a lot of the time people do things and rationalise them afterwards. In any case, I think what James meant is crimes comitted in a highly emotional state, where they may well be thinking, but they aren't thinking rationally. It seems to me that such people are rather less likely to re-offend than those that think their crimes through carefully beforehand.

    On a peripherially related side-note which I feel compelled to add because I wanted to say it somewhere: Statistics suggest that Americans are quite keen on torture. In particlar, religious people are more likely to be in favour of it, especially Catholics. Is it justifiable to torture (or even merely imprison) people on the grounds that you need information from them? I would go for no, but I guess a scary number of people don't agree.

    23 Mar 2006, 01:16

  9. Colin, I do agree. I was merely stating that I personally find it difficult to accept that a person who has committed hideous crimes can simply say sorry and still go to heaven. But that's probably symptomatic of the fact that I've changed from regular churchgoer to agnostic verging on atheist over the past few years.

    I agree completely with your second paragraph: you would assume that these people would be more likely to accept responsibility for their actions and accept that what they did was wrong, thus making them less likely to do it again.

    On torture, I doubt from a religious point of view it is justified, but I can't say that I know for sure. Having said that, there are many things that people of all religions do that are not strictly in line with their beliefs: trying to bend the rules is something we're good at, I think.

    23 Mar 2006, 10:34

  10. Visiting Atheist

    It would be interesting to know if anyone has suggested the return of hard labour to prisons. I'm thinking of something like digging out ditches in chain gangs or breaking rocks. On the one hand, it would stop people being locked up for 23 hours out of 24 and get them out in the open air doing work the rest of society would appreciate – and put an end to the requirement for expensive gym equipment. However, I shudder to think about the Health and Safety aspects of this or the prison reform people who would say that it is humiliating to prisoners… shouldn't that be part of the point of going to prison and part of the deterrent effect?

    With respect to rehabilitation, should we accept that it is okay if we can rehabilitate offenders even if we often fail or should we be more demanding that they are deterred from offending in the first place? (one of those horrible ideal world vs. real world questions that normally I hate)

    The one time I had a brief direct exposure to the whole justice system – fortunately, second hand, unfortunately for my friend – it became quickly apparent that not many people seem to care about doing a decent job. Too many people seem to be just taking a run-of-the-mill, turn-of-the-handle approach to the job clocking in and clocking out and assuming (without any really evidence either way) that they must be doing a half decent job. The truth is, that in my experience, none of them really seem to care if they are doing a worthwhile job, it just seems to be enough to do it as long as the whole system is seen to operate. When people say that British justice is the best, it seems that this is down to the fact that we like to pat ourselves on the back because we fervently hope that it is not otherwise. It may well be the best, but it not particularly good, empirically speaking.

    James, with respect to your American 'friend' and the 'howler, I suppose we all like to put ourselves forward in life as 'knowledgeable/expert' about something (even me!) so when someone comes along and disagrees it can be a bit of a jolt. These days, our email inbox is part of our personal space so any uninvited criticism might be seen as an unwelcomed invasion. Still, how many people on these blogs get into some sort of slanging match when their own opinions are challenged? Has anyone ever blogged an entry that goes along the lines of 'oops, sorry, I really got that one wrong and I'd just like to take the opportunity to apologise to xxx'? How many of us do original research before posting an entry or is it just a question of skimming secondary sources and then deciding which source we like the look of most? Then, if that source turns out to be wrong or is accused of being wrong, not only do we look foolish for being wrong (or being accused of being wrong) but we look foolish for trusting someone else who was also possibly wrong. No wonder she got arsey! What expert likes to be publicly humiliated?

    Going back to prison and hard labour, it's just occurred to me that the Army have (what I think is) a positive approach to prison discipline. If you are not a particularly good soldier i.e. you won't work with others in your squad, won't look after yourself and won't look after gear or follow orders, the army eventually court martials you and chucks you in military prison for a couple of years and dishonourably discharges you. But, in those two years, in prison, the guards make you take pride in your appearance and bearing and ability to work with other people and the inmates actually have to pass a passing out parade before they can go back into civvy street. Because of the sense of camaraderie in the Army and the sense that the soldiers have to look after each other, the prison guards feel that it is in the Army's interest as a whole that even the failures get something positive out of the experience.

    23 Mar 2006, 11:17

  11. James

    Thanks very much to all the thoughtful responses to my original post here.

    I have done a bit of reading about punishment and deterrence, but it's been a while. Scratching around the dim resources of my memory, I'd observe:

    1. Victorian prisons were extremely harsh by today's standards. The same is true of most third world prisons today. I don't recall the crime rate being much lower in Victorian Britain or in the third world today (open to correction by someone who has the relevant statistics).
    2. The evidence, at least that before the House of Lords' judicial committee in the recent SIAC appeal (haven't got the name in front of me but I can find it easily if anyone's interested), suggests that torture doesn't work as a means of extracting information.
    3. I think notions that prisons should not be Victorian stem from the idea of not stooping to the offender's level. There are some who think that any criminal should have their crime performed against them (though you'd have to be imaginative in the case of a serial killer – killing them several times over! And who'd get the job of dishing out the punishment in the case of rapists, murderers etc).
    4. Having said all that, I repeat what I wrote above: (a) it is a truism, but none the worse for that, that keeping people in prison prevents them from committing crimes; and (b) there has to be some element of punishment involved, to serve our notions of justice and to act as some deterrent. Equally, the idea of reforming people is attractive, assuming it can be achieved. In all respects, I think our justice system is distinctly imperfect but at least heading in the right direction.
    5. BTW I disavow all the nonsense about determinism – that people's circumstances compel them to commit crimes. That is a reason but it is not an excuse. To the extent that it's true, it is relevant in watering down punishment but no more. So a child born a heroin addict might be less culpable for stealing to support her habit than her mother who took it whilst pregnant, but it doesn't mean we shouldn't lock up the thieving child (whilst trying to get her off the habit through rehab).

    Now to my irritable American acquaintance. Sarah you're probably right about the word 'howler', I mainly used it because I thought it was a term Americans would understand (but would maintain it was appropriate given the bone-headed remark I was referring to). I always enjoy your blog entries because they are controversial, but at the same time expressed as reasoned argument and not ad-hominen. Some others on these boards stray to the latter at times. I take the view in respect of my American duelist that anyone who puts a viewpoint on the web invites a response, and if they put their email address as well they invite the sending of emails to it. So any objection because they don't like the response (assuming it is not obscene) is fatuous.

    I do encounter problems with electronic communications, maybe it's my imperfect English (or that of my readers). But I think it is also the case that meanings or tone or sense get misunderstood, especially in the informal world of the net and of emails.

    23 Mar 2006, 12:05

  12. Visiting Atheist

    Statistics from The Times today (p41, comment item):

    71% of young men reconvicted within two years of release
    40% of all men reconvicted within 9 months

    more than half of offenders are below the expected reading performance of an 11 year old
    nearly half were excluded from schools
    more than half do not have the skills to required for 96% of jobs.

    (Perfectly qualified as unresearched secondary source, of course!!)

    23 Mar 2006, 13:51

  13. what really upsets me is where people who commit a crime then get to live in circumstances much nicer than they would have if they hadnt committed a crime. for example, in Rwanda those who were ringleaders of the genocide and directly responsible for the deaths of 100s of 1000s of people are now probably in some nice large prison, with televisions, regular meals etc, whereas in their home towns they probably didnt get to eat due to poverty. I'm not saying they should be ill-treated, but really do they have to be rewarded for commiting genocide?

    23 Mar 2006, 16:44


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