Against Prison Violence As Punishment

[Epistemic Status: I agree with the argument I’m making, but not with some of the propositions I accept in order to most effectively make it. See the first comment for details.]

Paul Manafort just narrowly avoided spending time in Rikers, which has left some people disappointed. There’s a certain glee that’s common to cases where the defendant is hated, as people begin to speculate just how grim their life will be in prison.

To some, the indignities and violence of life in jail and prison are just part of the punishment; an added way of getting justice for what criminals have done.

I think this perspective is wrong-headed. I think the commonly held intuition that prison life (as opposed to simple confinement in prison) is a punishment rests upon a very shaky moral foundation, one that falls apart under any inspection. There already exist many essays arguing this from a perspective of compassion, so I’d like to put forward two new arguments.

First, violence in prisons is not evenly or fairly distributed. Imagine two inmates, both guilty of murder.

The first is a serial killer who strangled numerous victims. The second is a young adult who accidentally shot someone in a robbery gone wrong.

Both of these people are deserving of punishment. But if one of them is deserving of more punishment, it is clearly the serial killer. The serial killer acted deliberately, cruelly, and with actual malice. The kid did something wrong and stupid and tragic, but probably isn’t irredeemable.

Unfortunately, prison “justice” metes out punishment exactly opposite of the way we would. No one is going to mess with the serial killer. No one is going to threaten them, steal their stuff, or try to beat them up. Meanwhile, if the kid is scared, out of their depth, and still traumatized by what they did, they will get picked on.

This is an unavoidable side effect of the second problem: when we allow prisons to become instruments of punishment (rather than simply the punishment for crimes), we outsource decisions about how that punishment will be meted out – and we do this outsourcing to criminals.

Sorting out the morality of who to punish and how much is difficult work, work that requires a solid framework. Prison violence isn’t… isn’t any of that. It is not based on deep moral thinking and is not proportionate to crimes.

Indeed, some violence in prisons comes at the cost of giving people who richly deserve their punishments one of the things they crave the most: the chance to victimize others. Our serial killer from above might relish the chance to kill another inmate. Allowing violence to flourish gives them that gift. Stamping it out denies it.

It is deeply dangerous to outsource our moral reasoning to anyone, to say “I will not decide what is right or wrong, let someone else do this”. It is worse when we knowingly outsource this to people with flawed moral codes.

If you believe that someone deserves more punishment than incarceration can provide, you should be willing to make that argument explicitly, to spell out the punishment you think they deserve. Hiding behind – or eagerly anticipating – random acts of prison violence severs that linkage. It allows you to (perhaps; prison violence is unpredictable) see your aims completed without you ever having to feel like you’ve got your hands dirty, morally or practically.

We should, as moral actors, uprightly face the consequences of our decisions. When we fail to, it is much easier for us to decide wrong. When we engage in the winking game of wishing prison violence on someone, when we say “oh, it would be a shame if something happened to them in prison”, we are hiding from the full moral force of what we are suggesting. This is cowardice.

Prison violence is tantamount to torture. If you were to explicitly say “I believe what that criminal did was so heinous that they deserve to be tortured”, you might find yourself stopping to evaluate if your moral framework is askew. If you cannot stomach explicitly calling for someone to be tortured, you should not be willing to smile and nod and wink while it happens in the darkness.

2 thoughts on “Against Prison Violence As Punishment

  1. Prisons exist to serve three goals: punishment, immobilization, and rehabilitation.

    I believe that prison – even prison in Denmark – is an entirely adequate punishment for all crimes. Prison absolutely severs some of the most important freedoms we have ¬– including freedom of movement, what Hannah Arendt calls that crucial first freedom necessary for any action in groups.

    In prison, you cannot control your routine, where you live, and to a certain extent, your activities. You cannot decide to go on a road trip or visit a friend. You have no control over the people you have to associate with; you cannot move to a different part of town or visit another establishment. Furthermore, the people you’ll be spending time with will be the sorts of people who get sent to prison. Many of them will have issues regulating their emotions.

    (This is not to say that dealing with potentially violent outbursts should be part of prison! That’s the whole point of this essay. But there’s a difference between “unfortunately, you will be hanging out with people, predisposed to violent gestures, but you will be protected from them” and “you will be at the mercy of violent people”. The first is an unavoidable consequence of the immobilization function of prisons, the second is torture.)

    Abuses in prison harm their crucial third function: rehabilitation. Ultimately, most people will be released from prison. I believe that neither inmates or society are served when prison serves mainly to traumatize the incarcerated and teach them norms that are deeply harmful to normal human interaction. But I think this argument is viscerally unsatisfying to people who wish that punishment in prisons was stronger, so I’ve omitted it from the essay.

    I personally rarely feel visceral desire to see other people punished beyond the baseline immobilization and loss of freedom prison provides (actually, prison guards being abusive is one of the rare cases where I have to take a deep breath and step back from a desire for violence), which undoubtedly informs my own focus on rehabilitation.

    If compassion doesn’t move you, I should point out that it is also the case that recidivism is expensive. If we wish simply to maximize our use of scarce societal resources, investing in successful rehabilitation will, in the long run, be far cheaper than underfunding our prisons to the point where violence is common, conditions are squalid, and opportunities for rehabilitation are non-existent.

  2. I agree with you about finding any pleasure in prison violence distasteful, even cowardly. And generally I’d be okay with more corporal punishment & capital punishment. But relying, even tacitly, on prison violence to provide deterrence or justice that we are too squimish to mete out is outsourcing our ethical decisions to those already deemed of poor judgement!

    A rapist being raped in prison or a murder getting slain in prison is not an example of justice being done, but of an incompetent and out of control system that is going to screw up in scope or direction far more than it will ever do good.

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