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The delusion of prison

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A friend of mine put it perfectly: "If you're not mental going in you certainly are mental coming out." As part of our wonderfully insightful social science course at University College Cork, we had the opportunity of visiting Cork's committal prison, which to me, was an opportunity to experience an institution which I believe has been an absolute, catastrophic train wreck.

My maverick opinion of the prison system did not change: it is a long-time failed social experiment, adored by too many and sneered by too few; a system which was always doomed in the first place, and one which must be destroyed in place of a new sophisticated model of treating crime: the anti-prison.

Three thousand years is enough time and money to conduct a social experiment - that punishment could give violent criminals a miraculous moral manicure. Usually, when an experiment fails to produce the hypothesised results, a scientist would disappointingly record it in a log book and proceed to try a different experiment. But across the world, punishment remains the magic solution.

It makes no sense whatsoever, since the result of this ludicrous social experiment came a long time ago, when the second criminal committed a crime, which told us he did not feel deterred by punishment; when he later reoffended, which told us he did not learn from his mistakes; and when worse still, when he came out more violent than before.

Are we disappointed that the ideology of punishment, infused into prison, has not deterred or has thought criminals their 'lesson'? It seems not, for unlike the inquisitive scientist, humanity still flat out  ignores the fact the punishment has got us nowhere, and it must be said, that for all our moral superiority and seemingly unquestionably know-it-all attitudes towards crime,  the embarrassing, hypocritical cold reality must be confronted - that it is us, the 'innocent public' who have not learned our lesson.

Prison is a Harry Houdini escapist trick gone terribly wrong. We have tossed people in mind crushing cells and asylums like a child throws his muddy clothes uncaringly into a washing basket - waited twenty years - and expected to see the once violent criminal come out with a chivalrous, good boy smile, emanating an aura of saintly morality. But science has found an Achilles heel with this illusion. With the rise of modernity, scientific rigour has enabled academics to whisk up explosively insightful findings into crime and its causes. Psychiatric papers may still present new seams not explored in our attempt to understanding crime, but whether humanity likes it or not, our now oceanic knowledge on crime has made the logic of prison and punishment dead, barren and broke.

Basic child psychology holds that punishing bad behaviour is a waste of time. Instead, psychologists suggest rewarding good behaviour. But this simple fact has not registered with the reactionary positions of prison's advocates. If punishment did in fact beat out evil, then there wouldn't be a need for prison in the first place. Why? Because, as Harvard psychiatrist James Gilligan discovered, most of the most violent criminals, which include murderers and rapists, were in fact severely abused as young children. So much was the depth of depravity, Gilligan says, it "was beyond the scale of what I ever thought of applying the term child abuse to" (Gilligan, 2011 in Joseph, 2011).

We ignore the bare fact that punishment either through incapacitation or the death penalty does not deter crime, because we fail to realise that there are some people out there that would rather be punished or put to death, than to be disrespected and humiliated.

Violent crime happens for a reason, and not because people are simply "evil" (another cop-out word), but because there is a certain set of conditions that creates the capacity for violent acts. Society must refrain from engaging in the most pointless, hysterical and jaded rhetoric of moral bashing crime. Instead of letting itself wither in the bitter banter of rapist/murderer jeering, like the recent Indian protests over a brutal gang rape, society must instead ask itself what are the causes of crime and how can we use that understanding to prevent crime before it happens. 

Through the media, whether by the extraordinary, dismally shallow "crime" documentaries or the TV reporter soap opera every evening, we get a superficial answer on the cause of violent crime, which can go something like "she had an affair". It is an answer that rightly so never justifies the crime for the public. But they key is that whatever petty reason drove someone to kill, that petty reason was just that: enough reason to take a life. This is a the point, for all violent crime is simply through the criminals eyes, a means to attain justice for himself. To the criminal, the victim has committed an injustice, and so the criminal commits a violent act "so as to receive whatever retribution or compensation the violent person feels is 'due' him or 'owed' to him" (Gilligan, 1997: 11). Justice, not through the courts, but through violence, is the only answer for the criminal, and so "in killing, the criminal shakes off his sense of victimization" (Pincus, 2001: 155).

But what could the victim have done that is so devastating to the criminal, that the criminal feels that only way to overcome this devastation is to kill? Time and time again, I find the same words being used in many books attempting to explain the underlying causes of violence: denial of respect.

My argument is that punishment can never deter violent crime, because the soul is worth more than the body. We must realise that violent acts are an act of self-preservation. Humans are frail creatures, and if a human being is severely disrespected, put-down, made to feel completely inadequate, to the degree of experiencing overwhelming shame, he/she may feel that the only way to gain respect and self-worth is through the act of violence. Of course not all violent criminals feel this degree of shame. What I am simply doing here is giving a little insight into why prison and punishment can never be the answer for violent crime.

It is imperative we recognise that for some people, even death is not enough to quell their violent impulses or their thirst for revenge. But yet why do we still stick to prison?

Prison's ideological epicentre is based on nothing more than the collective culture of vengeance which violent crime understandable produces. But this vengeance is a reactionary emotion which forbids politicians from enacting measures that could tackle the root causes of crime. Emotions can sometimes triumph reason, and so when it comes to the very emotional subject that is crime, the public are much happier with longer, tougher sentences. Prison is vengeance incarnated into a giant cement block with which we can stuff in those who have done wrong, and allows us to forget that just maybe there are societal pressures that created these individuals. It is also a cop-out for directing our energies away from understanding crime to ignoring it.

But this collective vengeance which serious violent crime produces has a simple cure. Nothing haunts me more than the media's morphine like monologues which stem from a highly dramatic criminal news story that has been brought to a close. It seems that whenever another rapist or murderer has been convicted, when 'justice has been served', the media likes to splash out its tonic like buzz headlines which tacitly suggest that we have won, since the criminal will now be locked up for life. And we feel happy, consoled and relieved that we have "got back" at the criminal.

Prison so, works not for those behind its walls, but for those who built its walls. Vengeance, is like an itchy, pulsating allergic reaction that can only be tranquilized it seems, by locking up the criminal who caused these vengeance attitudes. Prison is an embodiment of vengeance in its most blunt, physical form. It is symbolic violence, steadily gnawing at the prisoner's psyche. It is also symbolic vengeance, in that we don't directly attack, but instead restrict. It is a way of "getting back" at the criminal. But contrary to what our culture believes and to which the media buttresses, winning the war against crime is not about locking away the criminal, because for the victim, it is always too late. There are too many families and friends who know this too well.

Prison and punishment therefore, as a catch all answer for crime is as logically bereft as leaving your depression to your dentist. Our obsessively constricted fetish for punishment is caused by these very vengeance attitudes, and grossly intrudes upon the highly realistic fact that violent crime can be prevented. Public debate on prison therefore, is gasping for electrical vivification, animation, and enlightenment. But it also needs viciously brave, bold and renegade academics who can come out of their matchboxes and publicly declare a disdain for punishment. While big shot physicists continue to mesmerise the general public with their earth-shattering wow theories and sleek humanoid robots which supposedly better humanity, shy soft-talking sociologists continue to spew out academic papers like sausages which further cast prison as a failure.

We need to destroy the 'lock him up' monorail attitude which has plagued us from eliminating the root causes of crime. But it is only through the medium of education that can help us achieve enlightenment. It is no wonder public knowledge on the causes of crime remains an empty tin can. I could not find a single TED talk denouncing prison and punishment as a cultural fantasy. Either this area of science is too controversial or just too depressingly dull for the general public. I however, think crime is worth talking about and so I declare prison and punishment a delusion.


Gilligan, J. 1996. Violence: Reflections on our National Epidemic. New York: Vintage.

Pincus, P. 2001. Base Instincts: What Makes Killers Kill. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.


Robert Bolton is a social science undergraduate at University College Cork.




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