On Corporal Punishment versus Imprisonment, or maybe new ideas?

Prison really started in theory as a way of removing offenders from society and hopefully redeeming or morally improving them. In theory, rehabilitation removes the human from the criminal element and makes them into better, more productive and happier members of society. I don’t know if that works. Certainly the U.S. of A., being exceptionally diverse and literally founded on immigration has a harder time keeping its social system together. Inner-city blacks are still hard hit by the crime wave which erupted in the 80’s crack epidemic, leading to absurdly high rates of incarceration. In some aras, “Hispanics” are equally jailed for eqully serious crimes. I worry that prisons are isolating and, well, imprisoning the problem. I worry that they may contribute to gang formation and criminals becoming even harder-edged.

That might sound left-wing. However, much like the right-wing, I don’t believe rehabilitation efforts have much success to show. Simply put, you can’t force someone into a mold they don’t want, and numerous other foolish policies contribute to the overall problem. Moreover, the help offered by a few well-meaning souls can’t really compare to the constant environment of criminals around the prisoner, if you go in for the environmental thesis. They have to want to change, and that means offering them a better way: a job, a life, a sense of self-worth founded on something concrete. And I don’t think the reformists have that to offer. A few get out, while most keep going back to jail, often for more and more serious crimes (re-incarceration rates are very high). And the social costs of prisons are huge.

I start wondering if the old, nasty and visceral punishments weren’t better. They are certainly demeaning and ugly things, but that may help rather than hurt. People would be able to get back on with their lives, and an innocent man would probably rather have one brutal injury than a decade of imprisonment. And certainly the public nature of the punishment would help shame most people. Certainly the worst offenders could go to jail, but it would cost far less and permit more control and focus on them for rehabilitation.

I don’t know. I’m uncomfortable (very uncomfortable!) with the idea, but I also can’t think of any clearly better ideas to follow. If anyone has a good point to make, I’d love to hear it. I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and I just don’t have any good ideas except the unpleasant and cruel ones.

I have to admit I like the idea of public floggings for relatively minor nonviolent crimes like vandalism and car theft and such (and I have zero sympathy for Michael Fay), but I suspect back scars would just replace prison tattoos as symbols of contempt for the system. “Yeah, I got whipped, but the fuckin’ Man never made me cry. I fuckin’ asked for seconds!”

There’s no evidence to show that corporal punishment has any more deterrant or rehabilitative effect than imprisonment. But it does lack the one thing that imprisonment indisputably accomplishs - a guy in prison is not out committing crimes in the street.

I doubt it would do anything but make people worse. Possibly much worse. The usual pattern with corporal punishment, up to and including outright torture is increased compliance in the short term; increased aggression in the long term.

There’s also the question of whether or not someone who expects to be whipped or worse will actually surrender. Innocent OR guilty.

As for reform not working; we really haven’t tried all that seriously. We want to punish people, and we really don’t care much if it works.

Hmm, I believe it has been tried for quite a bit, over here in the Netherlands, at least.
I’m not sure about the success rates but recently we’ve had several hard criminals escaping while on furlough in reintegration programmes.

I do think there are people in the world, the rest of society needs to be protected from. Corporal punishment is out, and frankly I don’t care about them being punished for their misdeeds. I just want to be safe from them.

So it’s either death or life imprisonment for those that have proven themselves to be too dangerous.

Will never happen. Not because it’s more or less effective, but because floggings look awful on evening TV, while locking someone away for 20 years produces fewer bad feelings.

Huh? How can you claim that? The American penal system has always been trying to find new means of rehabilitation. Heck, the system itself was invented as a means of rehabilitation.

Yes, I may not have made this clear, but the entire modern penal system was essentially designed for the purposes of reform. The concept was to remove criminals from the environment, which was supposed to psychologicaly injure them, and place them in a warmer environment with education and assistance. In some ways, this survives in the form of prison libraries and psychological counselling. On the whole, however, it does not appear that the project can be viewed as any kind of success, and while people give lip service to “rehabilitation”, it now sounds much more like we’d all like but nobody can actually do.

Understand I am MASSIVELY simplifying here. I’m not going to try and completely recount the history of the modern prison and why people made them.

You’re talking the Pennsylvania System - isolate the criminal from all bad influences and he will reform himself (you can nudge him in the right direction by putting a bible in his cell). It was actually a humanitarian idea for its time (it was propagated by the Quakers). The problem was that isolating the prisoners from bad influences required that they be isolated from other prisoners as well - and for good measure they were pretty much isolated from anything that would “distract” them from their self-rehabilitation. Unfortunately there was not a modern understanding of the detrimental effects of isolation. Lock somebody up in solitary confinement for a year or more, and they’re more likely to emerge insane than rehabilitated.

So the Pennsylvania System gave way to the Auburn System. This was more of a Skinnerian concept. The idea was that criminals were breaking the rules of society. So they would be put into an environment where everything was regulated, punished for breaking any rules, and would thereby be conditioned into authomatically following rules (including laws when they were released). Everything in the Auburn System was regulated - prisoners were told when to eat, when to sleep, when to wash, when to use the toilet, when to work, etc. One of the defining images of the system was a line of prisoners in close rank marching in lock step.

But the Auburn System was also a failure albeit not as spectacular a one as the Pennsylvania System. Prisoners who emerged from the Auburn System were usually not insane but they were “institutionalized” - they needed somebody to tell them what to do and could not function on their own in society. They were only rehabilitated in the sense that they were too incapacitated to commit most crimes.

Then the Elmira System followed. This was the idea that crime was a symptom of some mental problem. The theory was you would solve the mental probelm and the prisonee would no longer feel the need to commit any crimes. I think it’s a shakey premise but, for good or bad, this is still the main theory of rehabilitaion we have now.

The Elmira System’s been around for over 120 years now and judging from our crime statistics, it can’t be called a complete success. Proponents say that it’s still a valid theory - the problem is that we don’t yet know how to cure all forms of mental illness so we can’t fully implement it. Opponents say that not all crimes dervie from mental illnesses and that even if we could make all criminals sane some of them would still choose to commit crimes.

And the premise of treating crime as a sympton of mental illness raises other issues. We’re now seeing the idea taken to its logical conclusion - prisoners who have completed their sentences are being involuntarily confined for mental illnesses. At the moment, this is only being done for people who committed serious crimes. But in theory, if the desire to commit crimes is a mental illness then a person who steals cars or smokes marijuana is just as mentally disturbed as a murderer or rapist.

But can’t the same thing be said for prison as well? People seem often to come out of prison more aggressive and willing to risk greater and more brutal crimes. Plus they have had 2-10 years or more to study under, and learn from, better and more able criminals and make contacts for when they are released - almost like some of us going for a Masters.

Yes, but at the same time they’ve aged, possibly going from an impulsive 20 year-old to a slightly-less impulsive 30 year-old. No doubt some will be recidivists, but others won’t, and not because they’ve been rehabilitated but just because they’ve calmed down.

Prison is not criminal university. Think about it - if you’re in prison you’re a failed criminal. If you want to learn how to be a successful criminal you’ve got to pick it up out on the streets.

Little Nemo, thanks for that explanation of the various systems. I read it with great interest.

IMHO, the idea that crime is due to a “mental problem” that is amenable to some sort of medical/psychological treatment is pretty shakey, and not real successful in improving outcomes. Unfortunately I don’t have a good alternative to suggest.