Prison: Rehabilitation or Retribution?

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‘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.’ ― Nelson Mandela

A grandmother’s nature is often indelibly imprinted on one’s psyche; my grandmother was a strong inspiring woman who led an incredible life, she travelled across Europe and even China in the 40′s, translating for the British during the war and eventually settling in a newly defeated Germany; she exuded kindness and even at her weakest, her warmth and charisma would slip out from beneath the hospital bed sheets and splash itself rebelliously against the sterility of the hospital’s whitewashed walls. Naturally, she passed these qualities down to my mother, who in turn passed them down to me – somewhat cocooned by kindness, I have become a kind person, just as my mother and her mother before her.

Yet how much of this is really down to my own true nature and instinctive genetic tendencies? We are products of the world in which we live, some go so far as to deny the possibility of true imagination and original thought, for everything that we know and even imagine, we ultimately can only have learnt through experience. From our very first breath to our very first swim, we emulate all that we see. Even language – seemingly one of man‘s most innate traits – can only be accomplished through repetitive imitation and studies have indeed shown that children never exposed to language lose all capacity to learn it as an adult: there are certain things that if never witnessed as a child, cannot be grasped in adulthood.

Might the same be said also of morality and ethics? Man is considered superior to his animal counterparts for his sense of right and wrong, but it seems that such a quality is understood through social interaction rather than intrinsically, for if a child is exposed only to violence, it is likely they will psychologically develop into an adult prone to violent behaviour. Controlled through civil laws and regulations, each society is defined by its own independent morality, which is why one society’s criminal is another society’s king; perhaps however, society ought judge a criminal not solely on his legal crimes, but also on the natural crime society itself has committed in exposing him (or her) to violence. When they are young, these so-termed criminals may bear witness to one of pattern of behaviour, to a certain code of morality, but later in adulthood, all at once they are forced to accept an unfamiliar morality where the mimicry of such behaviour is condemned as criminal. Chaotic memories of brutality and aggression rattle under the skulls of once abused children- we punish those who have already been punished by their own upbringing; would it not be wiser to re-educate rather than to whip, to support rehabilitation rather than fortify discipline and retribution?

Many believe though, that an inbuilt moral instinct lies within each individual, a human sense of morality and ethics that goes beyond the confines of both social background and judicial law. Despite a background of abuse, are violent criminals still capable of weighing up the gravity of an action by considering it not in terms of civil law, but in terms of human mercy and empathy? The answer is most likely yes, since even chickens and goats may be said to exhibit a capacity for empathy. Yet the question remains, is it really more beneficial to society to punish citizens who have not adhered to its laws, rather than to educate them, allowing them to understand why such laws are in place and why society and the court dictates the behaviour of its citizens in such a way?  Upon leaving prison, many incarcerated criminals may be more dangerous to both themselves and society than they were entering it; perhaps it is not individuals that need reforming as much as it is the system.

Is Chris Grayling, the justice secretary of Britain, commendable in his decision to promote reform through prohibiting the country’s prisoners from receiving books from friends and family? With the Institute for the Study of Civil Society confirming that 48% of prisoners in Britain had literacy skills at or below Level 1 in 2010, does it not seem feasible that an improvement in education levels should lead naturally to an improvement in general social conduct? Should education and culture be society’s enemy or its ally? Legal in 58 countries, does capital punishment educate a nation into perceiving killing to be ethically right or ethically wrongIs the murder of one individual by another any more of a crime than the killing of a criminal by the state? Ought we uphold justice and support the victims of heinous crimes in allowing the death penalty to continue in 32 States of America? If murder should be met with murder, then ought we not execute any soldier to have willingly fought in combat?

Stone walls do not a prison make,
Nor iron bars a cage;
Minds innocent and quiet take
That for a hermitage;
If I have freedom in my love
And in my soul am free,
Angels alone that soar above,
Enjoy such liberty.’  Richard Lovelace, To Althea, from Prison

My grandmother gathering flowers in her garden.

My grandmother gathering flowers in her amazing garden.

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 ‘I spent much of my prison time reading. I must have read over 200 large books, mostly fictional stories about the American pioneers, the Vikings, Mafia, etc. As long as I was engrossed in a book, I was not in prison. Reading was my escape.’ ― Frazier Glenn Miller, A White Man Speaks Out

British justice secretary Chris Grayling Defending his rehabilitation policy that prevents inmates from receiving books from family or friends.
British justice secretary Chris Grayling Defending his rehabilitation policy that prevents inmates from receiving books from family or friends. Photograph:Sean Dempsey
The last meal of Ricky Ray Rector prior to his execution. In 2001 the system of allowing inmates one last meal of their choosing was abolished in Texas, the American state in which the highest number of executions take place each year. Photograph by Henry Hargreaves is part of his series No Seconds.

The last meal of Ricky Ray Rector prior to his execution. In 2001 the system of allowing inmates one last meal of their choosing was abolished in Texas, the American state in which the highest number of executions take place each year. Photograph by Henry Hargreaves is part of his series No Seconds.

‘The greater ignorance towards a country is not ignoring what its politicians have to say, it is ignoring what the inmates in its prisons have to say.’
Criss Jami

Gerald Lee Mitchell had a history of drug abuse, which began when he was 14 years of age. He was executed for the murder of Charles Marino and his 16 year old brother in-law, a crime he committed when he himself was just 17 years old.

Gerald Lee Mitchell had a history of drug abuse, which began when he was 14 years of age. He was executed for the murder of Charles Marino and his 16 year old brother in-law, a crime he committed when he himself was just 17 years old.

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24 thoughts on “Prison: Rehabilitation or Retribution?

  1. Very thought provoking. There is no right or wrong answer because if there was, you would think someone would have thought of it by now…at the end of the day, for those of us who are law abiding, we just want to see justice done and would rather people did not reoffend…not sure the human race will ever get there. I do think the animal kingdom has an advantage over humans in that what we consider violent crime would only be carried out of survival necessity…with humans there are far weaker motives…a big tragedy is that the invasion of Iraq by USA and UK went unpunished.

  2. Sure, justice should be done. But as a taxpayer, I want my money to go toward preventing recidivism. As long as prisons are private, for-profit enterprises, their motivations are the opposite. Removing books is one example of their strategy to ensure they never lose head count.

  3. Thank you for your provocative peace. You might enjoy the following thoughts from Nietzsche’s *Genealogy of Morals*:
    “Punishment is supposed to possess the value of awakening the feeling of guilt in the guilty person…[but] It is precisely among criminals and convicts that the sting of conscience is extremely rare…Generally speaking, punishment makes men hard and cold; it concentrates; it sharpens the feeling of alienation; it strengthens the power of resistance” (2.14.517)
    …it was precisely through punishment that the development of the feeling of guilt was most powerfully hindered—at least in the victims upon whom the punitive force was vented. For we must not underrate the extent to which the sight of the judicial and executive procedures prevents the criminal from considering his deed, the type of his action as such, reprehensible: for he sees exactly the same kind of actions practiced in the service of justice and approved of and practiced with a good conscience” (2.14.518)

  4. Hi
    Depriving prisoners of books is the worst thing, many people have transformed themselves in gaols. I know someone who works for an outfit, which sends books to prisoners, its tight as you have to send them straight from the bookseller, so that nothing illegal gets passed.
    As for the death penalty what can I say; inexcusable.

  5. I can’t help but wonder why you omitted the book of Genesis in your analysis? Adam, Eve, and the Snake in the garden of Eden seems like it would have some relevance seeing as how the first law supposedly began with them, e.g., “Thou shall not eat fruit from this tree …surely die” et cetera. What you have here is deep though. I liked it. It got me to thinking about the first law that was enacted by man.

  6. This is an excellent read on an important topic. Here in the US, we have an industry around prison populations. So, change is doubly tough. I am hoping we can stop putting people in jail for petty drug crimes, so that they don’t “learn” how to be worse criminals. You are on the money about rehabilitation rather than incarceration. It breaks my heart to see young people jailed, rather than set along a better path. There are small community examples of success; we just need to make them more widespread. Thanks for sharing, BTG

  7. You have written about this important subject with such eloquence and sharp logic. Politicians often come up with the dumb solutions because they try to solve problems from the level of the problems. If criminals are given a chance to heal from their mental and emotional scars, they would have a much better chance in living in a new life and never even consider going back to crime. Have you heard of David Lynch Foundation’s work with prison inmates? It’s been introducing meditation to them and the results aren’t short of a miracle:
    http://www.davidlynchfoundation.org.uk/prisons.html

  8. Wow! Your best peace so far. A prison sentence should be the punishment. However in some countries being locked up is just the beginning. The torture and mistreatment is deemed part of the real punishment.

  9. Very interesting how you try to expose or put a complex problem into a black and white one. Personally I don’t think some criminals can be rehabilitated and to somehow make a parallel with their childhood and the criminals some become is wrong. Wrong because there are plenty of people that have endured violence and such growing up and aren’t criminals or violent themselves today.

  10. Fantastic piece! Prison systems in Australia and the US are increasingly shifting towards rehabilitation rather than incarceration.

    The traditional prison system runs at a great expense to the economy, not to mention that after long periods of time in gaol the individual finds it harder to re-enter society and the workforce.

    It should be said that more could be done for promoting rehabilitation. However, it is increasingly become more of an issue in balancing traditional processes and a system which has yet to be tempered as much. Perhaps time, trial & error will tell.

  11. I think that you have the answer in your post, I found it in these words :

    1. “she exuded kindness and even at her weakest, her warmth and charisma would slip out from beneath the hospital bed sheets and splash itself rebelliously against the sterility of the hospital’s whitewashed walls”

    2. “the natural crime society itself has committed in exposing him (or her) to violence”

    3. “allowing them to understand why such laws are in place and why society and the court dictates the behaviour of its citizens in such a way”

    Due to the significant role that society has in generating criminals and in particular due to widespread egoism, ignorance, violence, lust, cowardness, avarice etc etc etc and for it’s own benefits society needs to make sure that every prison has enough staff emanating genuine kindness towards the imprisoned so that the walls of the inner prison are destroyed first. Also, enough staff that have the skills/grace to make sure that the person understands why he/she got into prison, how society laws work and that there is a chance to recover their dignity during their stay and once they leave the prison walls. Those who say, law above all do not really understand what they are saying. Unless there’s mercy above all it is all in vain. By simply “punishing” them we are potentially creating more vicious and skillful recidivists.

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  13. As an American and a military veteran I have my own belief of our laws. I know nothing of European ways except that our president seems to gravitate to changing our society and economics to yours. Countries are so different for many reason. Our major flaw in our nation is not just our president (whom I dislike greatly because I am a huge believer in our constitutional rights and our creed my forefathers fought for…and it seems Obama has a huge distaste for it all), our politicians are not doing very well either…our justice systems sucks. Our family courts I think are as bad as yours. Our jails are overpacked with non violent criminals that shouldn’t even have long sentences (such as pot heads…ridiculous they are even in prison), our violent, sexual predators, abusers, and horrific criminals aren’t getting what they deserve and we then pay ungodly amounts of money a year for their care when we have hungry children running amuck. When you man can rape his wife and not go to jail, when a man can stab another in a bar and just get probation, but a kid that has weed in his pocket can get years in prison, and someone that steals over $500 dollars worth of merchandise gets a longer sentence than violent criminals…something is wrong. Everything is wrong on our side right now and it saddens me that my children will have to grow up in a world that is overly confused. Especially with a trade off of a soldier who deserted his post for five high taliban terrorists…the next few years are not going to be interesting at all…they are going to be scary. Sending prayers from the U.S. to you all across the way.

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  15. I’ve often thought how ridiculous it is to say aniamls don’t know right from wrong. What wrong do animals ever commit? They live to survive, they breathe, they eat, the kill for food or they don’t and some have obvious loving emotions. We destroy, pollute, rob, hurt, and kill for sport. Animals are possibly much smarter than us.

  16. Hi Rachel. Good post but you are posing an awful lot of questions in one short article which many people have been grappling with for years. Volumes have been written about crime and punishment, the judicial system, the prison system, rehabilitation and of course education. I’d love to debate this with you as I have strong views on the many areas of a complex subject. Unfortunately there isn’t enough room here!! Keep well. James

  17. Very interesting post, but this is a difficult subject for me. I live in a town that is close to three prisons – sometimes the county is paid to accept prisoners, and our homeless rate has increased substantially. I do not blame this on only prisoners, but the job problem in our country currently. Since I have lived here a law was enacted that releases thirty “non-violent” prisoners (due to overcrowding of prisons). The crime rate has gone up substantially in the past few years. The statistics show the majority of prisoners do criminal acts within a month (if that) of release, and are again jailed. Our violence to women has increased, we have increased the number of meth labs, we have many, many sexual offenders, and it is getting worse VERY quickly! Our prisons offer rehabilitation, education, take care of all medical needs (including glasses and teeth) – which seniors cannot get unless they pay cash, and offer nice gyms for the prisoners to have their daily workouts. It has become a joke to say, “Oh I will just go to prison to get free room and board, and everything I need.” But it isn’t funny.
    It is true. The statistics on rehabilitation are not encouraging. My friend has a son who is in prison for murder – he says he gets the best drugs he has ever had in there. So you can see why I have mixed feelings – I am a kind person and would like to believe getting “perks” in prison helps, but I just can’t!
    (By the way, thanks for stopping by my website – didn’t mean to go on like I did, but I have seen my wonderful town become a statistic of unsuccessful releases…locals hate it).
    I will be reading you again for sure!

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