A skinny, dishevelled boy of 6 sits cross-legged on his dust-covered bedroom floor, hands clamped over his ears so tightly that his fingertips are whitened. The impassioned screams of his booze-fuelled parents permeate the house, filling every room with blackened anger. It’s no use — he cannot shut out the despairing sounds of the people who are supposed to be his role models; the people who are supposed to love him. Instead, they spend their evenings numbing their miserable existence with cold, hard liquor, expelling any remaining pain as vehement hatred. Though he craves nothing more than an evening of quiet solitude, or just a moment of peace in which this misery can be forgotten, he cannot escape the screams.
Add another twelve tumultuous years until his 18th birthday, when he officially becomes a man. At this point his upbringing has caused severe psychological damage, resulting in regular anti-social behaviour, sometimes violence. He struggles to make friends, and the few friends he does have exhibit similar behaviour, having also grown up in desperate, low socio-economic circumstances.
His turbulent life has created a consistent sense of fear and anger, and a strong desire to protect himself. He carries a knife as a result. One winter afternoon, during an escalating argument outside a pub with a former schoolmate, he pulls his knife from his pocket and stabs him through the heart, killing him.
What should happen to him at this point? How should society deal with him?
The typical answer is “prison” — he’s murdered another human being, and deserves to be punished. The public also needs to be protected. But how can we possibly justify punishing someone who has spent his entire life being punished by cruel and unjust circumstances? People who have grown up in better conditions rarely stab people. Dire situations lead to dire outcomes — the man had no control over the circumstances of his life, so as he stood before his opponent, glowering with righteous anger, to say that he should have done the right thing is tragic moral ineptitude.
Hard prison time — in which the prisoners are being punished for their actions, shielded from the public, and rehabilitated — doesn’t work. The United States — a country that boasts the world’s highest incarceration rate — re-arrests almost 67.8% of released prisoners with 3 years, and 76.6% within 5 years. Only a meagre quarter are able to make it past 5 years without committing another offence. In the UK, 65% of prisoners who served a sentence of 12 months or less ended up reoffending. These stats could be even higher, with the strong possibility that some criminals would have reoffended without being caught. While working for the Conservative party in the UK, Douglas Hurd took part in a study which concluded that “prison is an expensive way of making bad people worse“. A report from the University of Cambridge claims that imprisonment “changes people to the core”, with strong evidence to suggest that the personality adjustments will hinder the person’s chances of rehabilitation. The Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam found that even a short stay in prison can affect a person’s impulsivity and attention control. How can an inmate expect to re-integrate with society when their character has been so successfully marred, abetted by morally twisted notions of the punishment should fit the crime?
“If imprisonment were the answer to crime we would be closing prisons not opening more.”—Stuart Greenstreet, Philosophy Now
UK prisons are full of people from disadvantaged backgrounds. As children, they’re 4 times more likely to have run away from home, 13 times more likely to have been taken into care, 25 times more likely to have been a regular truant, and 4 times more likely to have left school with no qualifications. It’s also 2.5 times more likely for them to have a family member convicted of a criminal offence. Their upbringing is a long stretch of tempestuous instability, during which they gradually take on the corrupted characteristics of their hapless parents, fated for the dark, cold walls of a prison cell — a cycle of perpetual criminality, generation after generation.
Poverty increases the likelihood of mental illness—prisoners in both Australia and the US are fraught with mental health problems. In Australia almost half have a diagnosis from a medical professional, with over a quarter taking medication. There’s similar results for the US. These people are disadvantaged in myriad ways, and we lock them up in dangerous, violent prisons. Would we consider punishing a child by locking him in his room because he has ADHD?
The concept of punishment as a deterrent is a complete failure. Many of the people who commit crimes do so because of their tragic lives, making them prime candidates for empathy and support, not punishment. It’s obvious that dangerous criminals should be kept away from the public, but in an establishment whose main purpose is to help and assist them, not punish them. This is occurring in the Netherlands, which places a strong emphasis on mental health, by assessing, filtering and treating the prisoners based on their unique problems, unlike the UK or US where they’re thrown into general population. The Dutch even implemented a sliding scale of responsibilitybased on the convict’s unique circumstances, ranging from full responsibility to a total lack of responsibility. The Dutch prison system is so effective that they’ve started turning their prisons into housing for refugees. Over in Norway, the recidivism rate is the lowest in the world — just 20% — relying on a concept called restorative justice, which aspires to repair the damage caused by the crime, rather than ruthless, merciless punishment. Psychologist and prison governor Arne Wilson states the following:
“In closed prisons we keep them locked up for some years and then let them back out, not having had any real responsibility for working or cooking. In the law, being sent to prison is nothing to do with putting you in a terrible prison to make you suffer. The punishment is that you lose your freedom. If we treat people like animals when they are in prison they are likely to behave like animals. Here we pay attention to you as human beings.”—Arne Wilson
Compare the Norwegian recidivism rate of 20%, with the US rate of 76.6%. This tells you exactly what you need to know about the effectiveness of the brutal and inhumane “hard time” mentality.
Thankfully, some areas of the US are making progress. New York judges have the option of sending criminals to programs instead of prison, which like the Dutch system, are more tailored to the person’s unique needs. This program has a 60% success rate. The state of Kentucky passed a bill that encourages community-based treatment for juveniles, rather than immediate, costly detention. For the younger troublemakers, Chicago is now offering a cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) program, which has reduced arrests by up to 35%, violent crime arrests by up to 50%, and graduation rates by up to 19%. CBT teaches the youngsters to pause and reflect on their impulsive, often damaging thoughts and behaviours, in order to consider whether they should be doing things differently.
“I’d watched too many schoolmates graduate into mental institutions, into group homes and jails, and I knew that locking people up was paranormal – against normal, not beside it. Locks didn’t cure; they strangled.” —
In Canada, prisoner-afflicted families are being offered family-group counselling, helping to build a closely connected support group that decreases the likelihood of reoffence. It’s believed that this solution is one of the reasons for Canada’s prison population decrease. When we treat criminals like humans and offer them the assistance that they so desperately need, they often respond with the same kindness. Back in the UK, the Midlands watched their recidivism fall to an incredible 10%, after tripling the number of officers whose exclusive responsibility is to deter former criminals from reoffending.
Dangerous criminals should obviously be kept in confinement to protect the public, but the conditions of their incarceration, and the professional help that is offered to them, are key to their successful rehabilitation and reintegration into society. We cannot maintain impotent notions of the punishment should fit the crime, or an eye for an eye — they’re grossly inhumane, and utterly useless. Prisoners need repeated long-term therapy to manage their mental health issues, and educational programs to help them with their lives and careers. But most importantly, despite their crimes, they need the sympathetic kindness of an entire host of prison and rehabilitation workers, each fully convinced that the way to repair a person’s ravaged character is through consistent and relentless benevolence — the treatment that they should have received from their parents during their younger years.
With compassion, understanding, and a hell of a lot of patience, the revolving door of prison can be smashed off its hinges.
“It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.” —