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.