Socratic Form Microscopy

Against Prison Violence As Punishment

by Zach Jacobi in Ethics

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.

Tags: ethics, justice system, prison, punishment