While prisons remove criminals from society, they aren’t much of a deterrent for future crimes. I may have a better idea (or, at least, a creative one).
I was touring a colonial era site in South Carolina when I came to the spot at which a jail once stood. Although the building was long gone, the foundations still remained, showing that the jail was about ten feet by ten feet when it was operational.
If you’re familiar with historic sites across America, this is the norm: jails were small, very, very small. I idly wondered aloud if people were more law-abiding back in the day or if the jails were packed in cattle car fashion.
Both were possible said my guide, but the real reason for the small jails was that they were not meant to be places in which people served out their post-trial punishment. Instead, they were merely holding cells before trial. Because long-term prisons are a resource hog (as we well know), the real punishments following a guilty verdict involved anything but jail time: hanging, the stocks, bodily mutilation, whipping, fines, forced military enlistment (a gamble with death), and exile.
With the exception of the death penalty for first-degree murder and the imposition of fines, all of those punishments are gone. In some cases, as with hanging for lesser crimes than murder or bodily mutilation, the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment struck them down. I don’t know when whipping vanished, but not only do we now deem it cruel and unusual, but its overtones of slavery make it unthinkable in the modern era. When it comes to exile, as the recidivism rate for illegal aliens shipped over the border shows, in a large, impersonal world, it’s very hard to keep people from coming back. Stocks have become socially unacceptable.
And so, deprived of traditional American punishments, we ended up with long-term incarceration. I happen to believe that long-term incarceration, while it keeps bad actors away from good citizens and drives down crime rates (as a baffled Fox Butterfield once noted), is a most imperfect form of punishment.
To the extent black men are incarcerated in rates disproportionate to their overall representation in the population, that deprives black communities of fathers. Fatherless communities are terribly unhealthy communities. Boys are more likely to become criminals themselves; girls are more likely to become dangerously promiscuous. A father in prison virtually guarantees that the same pathologies that led to his imprisonment will appear in the next generation.
Prisons are schools for crime. Young men who go in as low-level criminals, come out with the skills and connections to become high-level criminals.
Prisons deprive society of the labor of able bodied men. American prisons once got around that — and helped pay for their costs — by using chain gangs for hard labor. I’m not advocating chain gangs, which have too ugly a stench of slavery hanging about them. I’m just saying that, to the extent society has a use for men between 18 and 35, too many of them are moldering in prison cells.
Prison does not stop recidivism. Too often, for too many, it’s a revolving door. While middle class people feel an absolute sense of horror at the thought of prison, for young men marinated in a social environment in which a significant percentage of older men have been in prison at least once, prison has become, in an unholy way, almost an extension of their community and, perhaps, something of a rite of passage.
Lastly, as I noted above, prison is expensive. Working men contribute to society. Imprisoned men drain society.
Given my belief that prison is, in its own way, a cruel and unusual punishment, not just for the criminal, but for society at large, I was intrigued by the colonial-era concept that prison is merely a holding place on the way to actual punishment. However, as I noted at the start of this little essay, we will never return to colonial-era punishments, either because they’re barred by the Eighth Amendment or because modern society is no longer structured to accommodate them, either in the physical sense or in the emotional one.
So I cast around in my mind for something that is punishing, without being cruel and unusual. I came up with it too.
To begin with, there’s nothing “unusual” about nausea. Just ask any woman who’s ever had morning sickness, any person who’s ever had motion sickness, or anyone who has had cancer treatments, food poisoning, or the stomach flu. Nausea is ridiculously usual.
It’s also hard to argue that nausea is outrageously cruel. Instead, it’s the body’s natural process for dealing with things that it deems unacceptable. That’s most obvious with food poisoning, when the body uses vomiting as a purgative to rid itself of whatever is causing harm within. It’s also associated with things that are good, such as having a baby. To the extent people getting treated for cancer suffering from nausea, no matter how awful that nausea is, they often willingly embrace these brutal treatments because chemo and radiation are currently the only known pathways to beating cancer. I can’t come up with a good reason for motion sickness, but the good thing is that, once the motion stops, you usually feel better.
I speak with authority about nausea. I was horribly sick from Day One to Day Baby during my pregnancies; I had a disastrous response to the Pill, something that it took doctors over a year to diagnose correctly; I’m so sensitive to motion I get sick watching movies with shaky camera work; and I’ve suffered from migraines all my life with acute nausea being the predominant symptom. I therefore speak with authority when I say that nausea is one of life’s more miserable experiences, but when it’s over, it’s over.
The most important psychological thing about nausea is the aversion aspect. If you’ve ever gotten food poisoning from eating a specific food, you know what I mean. For example, no matter how much you once loved oysters, if a bad batch of oysters gave you food poisoning, you can never look at oysters again. The mere thought of oysters leaves you with an instant queasy feeling. In my case, I haven’t touched scallops in thirty-five years, thanks to a bad experience at a restaurant in Dallas. That instant revulsion is integrated into my circuits and will take a conscious effort to end, an effort I’m not willing to make. I live a fine life without scallops, thank you very much.
Imagine, if you will, a world in which a criminal is given the following sentence: You will receive an implant (much like the contraceptive implants women have in their arms) that will make you nauseous for “X” numbers of months or years. At the end of your sentence, the implant will be removed. Be warned that this implant creates a form of nausea that is resistant to common nausea remedies such as marijuana, Zofran, or Dramamine. Indeed, those common remedies will only exacerbate how sick you feel. Also, you’ll have to check in weekly at this or that clinic so that we can ensure that you haven’t removed the implant and aren’t taking drugs that dull its effects.
In the beginning, criminals will think, “Awesome! No more prison for me. I can deal drugs or beat people or rob banks, and the only punishment will be that I’ll feel kind of nauseous.” By the end of their sentence, though, thanks to the aversion therapy that is the body’s built-in response to nausea, criminals, having spent extended lengths of time feeling horrible every single moment of every single day, will do anything to avoid that kind of punishment again.
Moreover, people who are nauseous, while they can go about their daily activities (which I did during my three separate nausea years), don’t have much energy left for other things, such as robbing banks, assaulting people, etc. Thus, criminals can be gainfully employed, should they wish, but will be unlikely to return to their previous criminal pursuits.
It’s a crazy idea, I know, but it is thinking outside of the box.
Image credit: Hello 2009 by Evil Erin. Creative commons, some rights reserved.