Should prisoners be punished?

By The Editor In Chief

In ancient Mesopotamia, dating back to 1754 BC, on black stone stele, chiseled in cuneiform script are the earliest written legal codes – The Code of Hammurabi. The code was enacted by the Babylon King Hammurabi and consists of 282 laws with punishments to meet justice. Some of the earliest examples of the doctrine of “lex talionis” the law of retaliation/retribution, also known as “an eye for an eye”, is found on this ancient code. The stele containing the Code of Hammurabi was found during an archaeological excavation and is now at the Louvre in Paris.

By its mere definition, the word punish means to treat someone in an unfairly harsh manner, with a slew of synonyms to include – penalize, unfairly disadvantage, handicap, hurt, wrong, ill-use, maltreat.

Before the 1700’s, prisons were seldom used. Punishments for crimes were made in public as deterrence from breaking the law. Except for the English and French rulers who imprisoned political enemies in such places at the Tower of London and the Bastille in Paris. Debtor’s prisons existed for people who owed money. Their debtors remained in prison until their debts were settled. I visited the dungeons in medieval England where prisoners were held for such debts, most crimes were an inability to pay taxes. The conditions were atrocious and inhumane; in fact, they were dungeons and torture chambers. One in particular I remember was at the Newark Castle in Nottinghamshire. It was deep underground and access was had by a very narrow opening led down by a ladder. The room was round and dome-shaped, the floor; earthen, and there were chains attached to shackles on the walls. High above, there was a small linear opening on a wall that faced the eastern side of the dungeon. Through this sliver of an opening, a glimmer of light would enter the room at a short period of the day. This was the only source of light to the prisoners, and not only was it sparse, but it didn’t last very long. To show the dismal surroundings of this claustrophobic enhanced room, the lights were shut off to show what that darkness felt like. It was daunting for the 30 seconds or so I stood in that space. This is what isolation felt like.

But during the 1700’s, punishments of executions, mutilations, and other harsh punishments were met with criticism. This began early prison reform.

In the early stages of prison reform in the 1800’s the emphasis was on isolating prisoners with the idea that it would give them time to reflect on their crime. In continuing development in reforming inmates, the silent system was introduced. This system allowed inmates to work and exercise together, but they were not allowed to speak to each other. The introduction of sentence dependent on behavior was included, as prisoners gained points for good behavior and lost points for bad behavior. Also known today as getting off for good behavior, as a reduction of their sentences. Further development of reformation led to the introduction of rehabilitation programs based on individual capacity.

The purpose of prison

The are five major purposes of prisons:
1. Incapacitation: Physically removing them from society against which they are deemed harmful or pose potential danger. In terms of recidivism, long-term imprisonment is used to incapacitate.
2. Deterrence: To impose specific punishments on offenders to prevent them from committing further crimes, and instilling fear of punishment to deter others from similar crimes.
3. Restitution: The offender is required to return to the victim compensation for value of loss or harm caused.
4. Retribution: To injure or inflict punishment to criminal offenders in proportion to crime committed.
5. Rehabilitation: To prepare offenders for a productive life and re-integrate into society.

Considering all of these purposes and how they attribute to effectively reducing crime is the real question. Many prisons around the world are overcrowded with harsh conditions resulting in riots and brutal attacks. This hostile environment has failed at rehabilitation. The reason for imprisonment introduces much debate. The belief that’s largely held is that prisoners should be punished.

Is our goal to punish or to prevent crime?

Deterrence through fear –
In examining our purposes for imprisonment, incapacitation is necessary in order to protect society. As far as deterrence is concerned, I don’t think that convincing anyone to not perform an act through fear is effective long-term. I think it’s a very dogmatic approach and not one that can yield utmost results. Consider mentally ill patients who are segregated, misdiagnosed without receiving proper medical care; leading to self-harm, resulting in imposing more punishment. Harsh punishment as a means of deterrence is ineffective at preventing crime. This is the perfect cocktail for exacerbating recidivism.

Solitary Confinement
Isolation and its psychological effects have long been studied and documented to cause harm to the mental health of inmates. As humans, we require social interaction for healthy functioning. Isolation has been known to cause hallucinations, panic, anxiety, aggression, depression, and suicide. The harm is sometimes irreparable.

In my observance with a previous inmate who spent two weeks in solitary confinement at Norway’s Halden Prison, followed by one year at one of Oslo’s best rehabilitative prisons, Bastoy; the effect was one of recluse and psychological dependency. I spent three weeks observing his daily activities. He avoided conversation at all cost. During meals, he would play games on his phone. The quick motion of his fingers connected with the darting of his eyes and facial expressions, as if in a trance. He apologized to me on several occasions as he played this game in my presence. He said it kept his mind at ease and that he needed it because it distracted him.
He met with his buddies daily, played poker, came home at the exact time every night and watched crime news religiously, then played more games.
He talked to me about his visits with his psychologist and the help he was receiving, still ten years after being released. Yet, his routine was still not reflective of the rehabilitative preparation necessary to re-enter society. Although a large percentage of individuals are successful at reintegration from rehabilitation, there is much debate about solitary confinement towards long-term mental health issues.

Defense Mechanism
There was an underlying air of defense from him. A sense that he was tough and that no one can touch him, almost to the point of breaking the rules without remorse. He protected his space by only interacting with a few trusted friends, but kept everyone else at arm’s length. All interactions with relatives or old friends remained exactly in time. When I say “in time”, I mean, he would converse with them in the exact context and time he remembered them in. He shared no new knowledge of the current state of things, especially his current state. I think this was also used as an escape and reminded him of his life before being imprisoned. He was easily agitated and did not express himself well. He went from being completely non-communicative, to explosively expressing himself verbally with anger and profanity. It took me about three days of seeing this behavior before I addressed it with him. With a hung head and disheartened face, he admitted that his mind could not handle certain things, conflict, troubles, the ability to absorb the education that was given to help reform. He found his own ways of defense and navigated his daily life with a routine that guided his existence.

ADX vs Norway’s Halden and Bastoy
If you ask most people what is the purpose of prison, the number one answer you will receive is that people go to prison to be punished. In most of the westernized world, prisons and high-security facilities exist to secure some of the most dangerous criminals. The ADX, America’s toughest federal prison, located in Florence, Colorado, houses the most dangerous male prisoners. The supermax prison, designed to be escape-proof, is the highest-security prison in the country, and home to those who show absolutely no consideration for human life.

Prisoners at the ADX spend approximately 23 hours in solitary confinement and sometimes not diagnosed with mental health conditions. The consequences of an absence of medication, coupled with harsher treatment to correct mood swings resulting from mental disorder, lead to paranoia, assault, and distress to other inmates and their families.

Halden Prison in Norway, also a supermax prison like the ADX has a different approach and is known as one of the most humane prisons in the world. At Halden, their focus is solely on rehabilitation. Gone are the dark dingy hallways with steel bars and overcrowded cells. Halden was designed with art, bright colored hallways and furnishings to create an airy atmosphere. Inmates have their own suites, flat screen TV’s, en-suite showers, and comforts unlike most penitentiaries, all in an effort to rehabilitate for re-integration into society. An outdoor space with benches, trees, and games, create a peaceful environment where inmates thrive towards rehabilitation. The guards are trained to motivate, not intimidate. The best healthcare is provided and rehabilitation includes education, job training, and therapy.

Bastoy Prison is considered more like summer camp, where prisoners live on an island with no fences and no armed guards. The prisoners all have jobs that they must perform, and they are expected to take responsibility for themselves. Prisoners live in shared homes with their own bedrooms and share facilities. Their focus is also on reintegration and to prevent re-offending. They have a weekly agenda they must attend, and can even go to the main island and expected to return on their own, and they do! The maximum sentence in Norway is 21 years, as their focus is on education and rehabilitation. However, sentences can be extended by five-year increments, if rehabilitation is not achieved.

This system of restorative justice worked to the despair of many Americans examining the case of Anders Brevik, the Norwegian far-right terrorist who committed the 2011 Norway attacks, who got only 21 years for killing 77 people.

Retributive justice and one that is adhered to by the American justice system is defined by punishing someone for a crime that’s harmful to society. Incapacitation, rehabilitation, and deterrence are also included in the American system, but its foundation focuses on fairness and morality and that the punishment should fit the crime.

Both systems include solitary confinement
I’ve already seen the debilitating effects of my observation with that inmate in Norway, in spite of being in one of the most rehabilitative correctional facilities in the world. His stay in solitary confinement was only two weeks, at 23 hours each day. The one hour he was allowed to see the sunlight and walk outdoors, it was also in complete solitude with no one around. The fact remains that solitary confinement has irreparable mental health effects.

Should they be punished, or should they be fixed?
In examining restorative justice at its core, the primary focus is on healing. In the case of Brevik, the voice of each of the family’s victims was heard, to bring remorse to the criminal, but also to give a forum to the victims to heal and confront the victim’s perpetrator. In retributive justice, a hearing would also be done during the trial, but it would take the form of evaluating against the criminal. The restorative model forces the criminal to understand the consequences of their actions. In Norway’s system of restoration and rehabilitation, the environment that may seem too luxurious for a criminal seeks to prepare unstable individuals for a long process of reformation.

Do we need justice or do we need a better society in which to live in? I don’t believe that the method of revenge will appropriately achieve a civil and just society. I believe that any act made on society that is deemed heinous needs to be examined at the root. We need to look at the “whys”. These people are ultimately broken and they need to be fixed. Prison is the end game. Understanding their environment and bringing stability to those cultures or societies is where the real solution lies. We need a dignified approach towards treatment, not revenge.

Which system works best?
America’s system focuses on punishment and confinement, whereas, Norway’s focus is helping inmates for reintegration into society. Norway has the lowest rate of recidivism in the world at approximately 20 percent as opposed to the US at approximately 70 percent.

There is no doubt that certain individuals are not fit to live in a normal society because they are indeed harmful. But we need to examine the root cause. The reasons these individuals have caused such gross harm needs to be examined. They are obviously not well adjusted and most likely mentally unstable. Healthcare should be a priority, followed by education for proper social integration. If we care about our society as a whole, and not just our immediate sphere, we would understand that our fundamental obligation is to create an ecosystem of social cohesion. An environment that is conducive to safety, ensuring relevant human rights is protected and respected.


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