Make not your thoughts your prison

 

What can we do with those who flout the laws of the land or openly disrespect the prevailing mores? The usual answer is to punish -to retribute, either by restricting the offender’s rights, or their freedom. And sometimes, depending on the crime, even ending their lives.

Prisons have traditionally been the means to rid ourselves of the problem -out of sight, out of mind. Until they’re not, that is -because unless we intend to keep convicted offenders incarcerated and off the streets forever, there will come a time when we will have to deal with them again.

Of course, this uncomfortable inevitability was not lost on everybody, and through the ages there have been sporadic attempts at rehabilitating people once justice had been seen to be done and they were scheduled for release -more recently, things like parole in which the prisoner could be conditionally released into the community before the sentence had been fully served; or even indeterminate sentencing where the duration of incarceration lies somewhere between a minimum and a maximum time, depending upon the behaviour and signs of presumed rehabilitation exhibited by the prisoner.

Unfortunately, recidivism rates have been high and this has frustrated continuing reformation in various countries. So many things are not as they seem, not as we would hope. Even in this age of algorithms and Wikipedia, the reasons are not always forthcoming -at least, not the ones we expect. Maybe that should not be a surprise, though: we are not omniscient, nor, more importantly, are we prescient.

An article in BBC Future series on criminal myths addressed an aspect of the problem that had not occurred to me. http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20180430-the-unexpected-ways-prison-time-changes-people  As the author, Christian Jarrett, put it, ‘Day after day, year after year, imagine having no space to call your own, no choice over who to be with, what to eat, or where to go. There is threat and suspicion everywhere. Love or even a gentle human touch can be difficult to find. You are separated from family and friends. If they are to cope, then prisoners confined to this kind of environment have no option but to change and adapt. This is especially true for those facing long-term sentences.’

‘In the field of personality psychology, it used to be believed that our personalities remain largely fixed in adulthood. But recent research has found that, in fact, despite relative stability our habits of thought, behaviour and emotion do change in significant and consequential ways – especially in response to the different roles that we adopt as we go through life. […] Particularly for anyone concerned about prisoner welfare and how to rehabilitate former convicts, the worry is that these personality changes, while they may help the prisoner survive their jail time, are counter-productive for their lives upon release.

‘Key features of the prison environment that are likely to lead to personality change include the chronic loss of free choice, lack of privacy, daily stigma, frequent fear, need to wear a constant mask of invulnerability and emotional flatness (to avoid exploitation by others), and the requirement, day after day, to follow externally imposed stringent rules and routines. […] [T]here is widespread recognition among psychologists and criminologists that prisoners adapt to their environment, which they call “prisonisation”. This contributes towards a kind of “post-incarceration syndrome” when they are released. […] The personality change that most dominated their accounts was an inability to trust others.’

The article reports on a large number of interviews on prisoners done in the UK by Susie Hulley and her colleagues at the Institute of Criminology. The prisoners described a ‘process of “emotional numbing”. […]  “As the long-term prisoner becomes ‘adapted’ – in the true sense of the term – to the imperatives of a sustained period of confinement, he or she becomes more emotionally detached, more self-isolating, more socially withdrawn, and perhaps less well suited to life after release,” they warned.’

In another paper, led by Jesse Meijers at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, it was felt that ‘the changes they observed are likely due to the impoverished environment of the prison, including the lack of cognitive challenges and lost autonomy.’

So, what are we to do with those individuals who have broken the law and for whom society demands retribution? Does the loss of freedom and privacy necessarily engender adaptive personality changes? ‘The current evidence suggests that the longer and harsher the prison sentence – in terms of less freedom, choice and opportunity for safe, meaningful relationships – the more likely that prisoners’ personalities will be changed in ways that make their reintegration difficult and that increase their risk for re-offending.’

Well, from a distance at least, it seems to me that prisons should be the solution of last resort -merely getting offenders off the street has consequences. Some, no doubt, would be a continuing threat to public safety if they were to remain at large, but some -maybe most- would not, and they are the ones on whom changes in our idea of retributive justice should perhaps be focussed.

The very idea of ‘punishment’ needs to be revisited for many crimes, I believe. But the strange need for vengeance is so thoroughly stamped in our minds, that even the idea of anything other than the ‘eye-for-an-eye’ code of Hammurabi, seems unthinkable. Unjust. Of course there should be consequences for actions -but commensurate ones. Prisons and jails have too long been places where troublemakers could be warehoused and essentially forgotten. But, as we are realizing to our dismay, the problems do not go away -they often merely fester, albeit out of sight. For a while…

I don’t have any truly heuristic solutions to crime, or the wages of evil that seem to follow us through the ages. I was not granted an epiphany in my long journey amongst the ever thinning years, but I do suspect that the answer does not lie in punishment alone. We are missing something that perhaps our genetic atavism will simply not allow us to see.

And yet, perhaps Shakespeare glimpsed something of it, however opaquely, those many years ago: The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together: our virtues would be proud if our faults whipped them not; and our crimes would despair if they were not cherished by our own virtues.

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Consequences: the Smacking Laws

Ahhh, spanking, the dreaded consequence of miscreance meted out in retrospective fairness by loving parents anxious to create an appropriate conscience in their child. Anxious to establish that there are consequences to behaviour that have not gone unnoticed. Will not go unnoticed. It is one end of a spectrum running between reward and dissuasion all in the name of, well, persuasion. Encouragement. Manipulation.

But words matter, don’t they? Depending on how I wished to portray it, I could easily have used more pejorative words, punitive, violent words such as, oh, coercion, intimidation, threats, or even assault. The devil is in the words. The message. The intent.

So it was with much curiosity that I was drawn to a BBC article on the Irish Smacking law that seems to have drawn the ire of the European Committee of Social Rights. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-32887584 Well, in truth, it was a complaint from the UK’s own Association for the Protection of All Children in 2013 that launched it all. As the article points out: ‘Corporal punishment was banned in Irish schools in 1982 and, by 1996, it was a criminal offence to hit schoolchildren.’ but it apparently still allowed ‘reasonable chastisement’. So in a recent decision, ‘the European Committee of Social Rights said none of the Irish legislation referred to it expressly banned “all forms of corporal punishment of children that is likely to affect their physical integrity, dignity, development or psychological well-being”.’ As a result, the ‘Irish Minister for Children James Reilly told the state broadcaster, RTÉ, that ‘his department has started talks with the Department of Justice and Equality on removing the defence of reasonable chastisement from Irish law.

Well, that’s that, I suppose -another spoke in the wheel of human rights; another barrier to violent punishment… But hold on a moment. What just happened here? The UK association maintained that ‘[…] the existence, under Irish Common Law, of the defence of reasonable chastisement “allows parents and some other adults to assault children with impunity“.’ Fair enough criticism, perhaps. But failing the ability to spank, what are the other options that remain? Well, said the Minister, ‘in recent years, most parents have used other ways of disciplining their children’, but ‘he said he wanted to see the options available on abolishing the reasonable chastisement defence before considering any new legislation to ban parental smacking. The minister added that he has instructed his officials to prepare regulations that would explicitly ban corporal punishment of children in foster homes or in the care of the state.

Uhmmm. I think he should be worried about the content of the European denunciation that proscribed –as quoted above- punishment of children (in this case corporal) likely to affect their physical integrity, dignity, development or psychological well-being. So, is verbal abuse acceptable as an alternative to physical punishment? How about withdrawal of love or affection… or proper care? Would none of these affect development or psychological well-being?

I suppose there is always the option of ignoring the misbehaviour. But if the behaviour was a cry for help –a cry for attention- then looking the other way doesn’t seem appropriate, nor likely to change the behaviour. Nor would it, either, if it is a naïve attempt to find boundaries –or for that matter to have them delineated more clearly. More forcefully.

Transgression is fraught with penalties; order is sewn together by laws and consequences. I would be the last one to condone violence to a child –or anyone else, for that matter- but I am honestly at a loss to know how to deal effectively with recalcitrance. I am, to be sure, of an other era when the mere threat of retribution –spanking, or the ‘strap’- was enough to deter behaviour. So was withdrawal of privileges, I suppose -but that engineered manipulation rather than change: either ransoming the privilege, or misbehaving anyway as in Macbeth’s ‘Lay on, Macduff, and damned be him who first cries, “Hold, enough!” as he defies Macduff when Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane.

Anyway, I’m not sure how one would police spanking. Physical violence, yes: bruises, fractures -or worse- on visits to the doctor’s office or the emergency department. But it would certainly be even more difficult to uncover –let alone gather enough evidence to prosecute- non physical violence, though. So, I wonder whether it is a terrible thing to retain ‘reasonable chastisement’ as a more benign response than what is left: a letting off of steam to prevent the otherwise impending explosion.

I don’t know that it is punishment that I condone, however –I think it is rather the consequences that should follow the act that would otherwise be disciplined. I would prefer to let my own opinion lie fallow while the dust settles on the Irish thing, and merely quote George Bernard Shaw’s observation of the wages of deceit: ‘The liar’s punishment is not in the least that he is not believed, but that he cannot believe anyone else.’ Consequences!