Prisons As Hell

Before I get to today’s topic, thank you all for the thoughtful, insightful comments.  It’s always a pleasure guest hosting Bookworm’s blog because of the intelligence and thoughtfulness of her readers.  Quote of the day has to go to Lissa, “Why should we judge a society by its poorest and weakest? Why not judge it by its best, and the opportunity for the poorest and weakest to become neither poor nor weak?”  For all of its history, America has been the land of opportunity, the one place on earth poor and weak people could come to make themselves rich and strong.  In recent years, social programs have encouraged people to stay poor and weak by rewarding poorness and weakness, rather than hard work and achievement.  But the opportunities are still here to work hard and do well, for those with the strength of character to reject the invitation to permanent victimhood and dependence. 

On to today’s topic.  When I was growing up, I was taught decency and morality with a carrot and a stick — heaven and hell.  These were very real places and hell was a place you definitely did not want to go.  With the exception of fundamentalist Christians and Islamists it seems few people believe in hell as a real place any more. 

I thought of this when Sgt. Dave and others talked about reforming prisons, to make them places of punishment, places you would not want to go.  Most Americans still say they believe in God and, perhaps in some vaguely undefined heaven, but not as many believe in hell.  This has a profound effect on the way our society views life and death.  Back when we believed in heaven and hell, capital punishment was no big deal.  If we killed a woman as a witch or a man as a pickpocket and they were innocent, all we really did was hasten their entry into heaven.  Not a bad outcome, even when we were wrong. 

Today, though, if we kill someone and that person turns out to be innocent we view the matter as a great tragedy.  When life is all there is, ending life is a very big deal.  Or take war.  It used to be that there was nothing more honorable than dying for ones country or religion.  The Islamists still believe in this and are quite willing to die.  Mothers are proud to send their sons and even their daughters to kill and to die.  In the West, though, the death of a soldier is a much bigger deal.  Each death is viewed not as a noble act or a passage to heaven, but as an unmitigated tragedy, to be avoided at all costs.  The anti-war movement, with its obsessive running tabulation of the body count, cannot imagine that death in a war may be a good thing, even for the person who dies, or at worst a necessary evil that protects our society, our country and our way of life.

Of all the people who suggested ways to improve the decency and morality of our society, no one mentioned heaven and hell.  But a number of people did talk about our prisons, which, I think, reflect an ambivalence about punishment.  On the one hand, we understand that criminals need to be separated from the general population, so we stick them in prisons in record numbers.  On the other hand, we don’t treat criminals like criminals once we get them in the prisons.  For some, they are better off inside the walls of the prison than outside.  Perhaps in all our cultural relativism we’re no longer sure decency & morality are worth defending any more.

We need to return to the idea that prisons exist for more than to warehouse bad people and keep them away from the general public.  Prisons serve two other purposes — punishment and rehabilitation.  Certainly not to the extent of hell, but like hell, prisons should be places no one wants to go, ever.  They should punish prisoners for having acted indecently and immorally.  They should rehabilitate prisoners to give them the tools to succeed while acting decently and morally when they return to the general public. 

I won’t repeat all the good ideas from your comments about how to make prisons places of punishment and rehabilitation instead of comfortable wearhouses.  But let me suggest that a key starting point is reducing the number of prisoners so we can adequately deal with those who remain.  Several commenters said we have too many laws and I quite agree.  Take all victimless crimes off of the books.  What consenting adults do is nobody else’s business.  Decency and morality are about treating each other as human beings, not about controlling the private actions of others.  Shorten sentences for other less serious crimes.  If prisons really are places of punishment, it doesn’t take as long to convince prisoners that they’d better shape up because they don’t want to come back.

Prisons should have books and education programs and job skills training.  But they should have no entertainments and amusements.  Prisons should be serious places where serious people do their best to punish and rehabilitate the inmates.

Does this make sense?  Most importantly, is it politically practical?  Does our society have the strength of character and does it believe in its standards of decency and morality enough to aggressively punish those who violate those standards?  What do you think?