‘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 traveled 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 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 wrong? Is 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