How Should A Civilized Society Deal With Criminals?

Contributed by: Mike Spindell, Guest Blogger

All society’s see themselves as “civilized” which connotes that they are humane in their treatment of all within their purview. One society will compare their society towards another, disparagingly in most cases, seeing the “other” as less “civilized” and more barbaric. We all know the clichés about the cruelties of Mexican, or Turkish prisons for instance and our American tendency is to look down our noses upon the barbarity of those countries in dealing with all prisoners, not just felons. How smug we are in our self-satisfaction that America is a modern culture with no hint of the backwardness and barbarism of less modern cultures. In my view this has been merely the legerdemain of mass delusion. I say delusion because the sad truth we all know is that many of our prisons and many of our Jails are “hellholes”, perhaps only degrees better than certain other more “barbarous” Nations are. Our literature and media have for years dealt with the harshness of our prison system. Indeed our gallows humor puts forth the hardly clichéd image of prison rape as a fit punishment for some. A current story conveys our dilemma in seeing the truth of our own lack of civilization, dealing with those who commit crimes both of heinous and victimless nature.

There are the beginnings of a hunger strike in California’s first “Supermax” prison, Pelican Bay.

The prisoners have made five demands that seem quite reasonable to me and indeed conform to prison safety guidelines set by a National Commission, and seem quite reasonable to me.

As to the reasonableness of the demands and the plight of the prisoners, I’ll let readers decide for themselves. From my perspective the cruelties of our prison system have gone on far too long and in reality foster more destructive behavior, making our criminal system into a revolving door that is constantly increasing populations. Is this truly the kind of country most want?

Many violent criminals have been incarcerated, convicted of heinous crimes that beg for retribution. I believe that we must all bear responsibility for our actions and that our punishment for criminal misbehavior should have severity in line with the nature of our action. What though is so severe that it calls into question our own humanity? When do our acts of punishment have us approaching the vicious culpability of those we would punish? To me my incarceration for even a week would be too long and I imagine most others would feel the same way. Imagine being incarcerated for five years, ten years, 20 years, and or life? The prospect of that even in a luxury hotel room would be unbearable. What do we gain as a society from making the privations of the incarcerated unbearably harsh? Is there really sweetness in revenge? Does harsh treatment ever reform anyone? Don’t we further reinforce the further criminal behavior of those cruelly incarcerated when released?

Now if there are some that have truly learned their lessons from their time in prisons, what do we leave them with when their time has ended? Educational programs are  cut back constantly as savings of tax dollars. Therapy and rehabilitation services are diminishing. We almost guarantee the kind of recidivism that has been a feature of our prison culture. Add to this the further cost of future crimes committed by those unreformed in policing and trials and we see that even from a cost benefit perspective this system works poorly. Lest one think that I naively believe in the ability of everyone being reformed, let me disabuse you of that, since I have worked with many former prisoners and am quite realistic about the sociopathic bent that many, but not all exhibit.

My belief is that we  diminish as a society by treating those who’ve conflicted with our laws with cruelty and sadism. We have seen articles on this blog about such as Sheriff Joe Arpaio and recently Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, who enjoy great popularity with their cruelty. Many, many citizens feel that we should treat our prisoners harshly and that even now we “coddle” them. I would propose that these citizens are reacting far too viscerally in thinking about this. Just as insanity is repetition of behavior that hasn’t worked, our methods of incarceration and our dealings with the incarcerated have been failures.

In these times of fiscal problems threatening to overwhelm the country, we have the highest rates of incarceration in the world. A NY Times article states that at 743 prisoners per 100,000 people the US has by far the largest prison incarceration rate in the world. Russia comes in a distant second at 577 per 100,000. We have made prison an industry now invaded by private industry, which will naturally look to maximize profits by cutting back on services to prisoners.

Given this fiscal problem there are those who would ask where would the funds come from that would allow us to give humane services to prisoners. My answer is to end the War on Drugs, start decriminalizing victimless crimes, and stop adding to the growing profusion of criminal violations punishable by incarceration.

I believe that a measurement of viability of a society is in the way it treats all its members, despite their some people’s violent non-conformance to norms. Most history has proven that violence begets violence and it is the same with cruelty. If we as a society are inhumane in treating some, that inhumanity rubs off on all of us and in the process diminishes the principles we use as guides.

27 thoughts on “How Should A Civilized Society Deal With Criminals?

  1. we brutalize these people is what we do. Put them into a thunderdome like society and expect them to be rehabilitated. Good luck with that.

  2. Mike,
    Great story. I agree with you that our prison systems are not for rehabilitation, but for punishment only. With the Right’s move toward for-profit prisons, it is only going to get worse. I think if you add in the military prisons at Gitmo, we are worse than Turkey and Mexico.

  3. Mike S….
    I couldn’t agree more with the opinions that you’ve expressed…..but alas, I am Canadian afterall.
    While we certainly can’t boast the ” perfect ” prison system, I believe that our federal system far outshines that south of the border. There is definately a focus on rehabilitation rather than punishment in the system that we currently have. Albeit, there are many individuals who have the
    ” kill ’em all ” attitude, and very freely express that, however they are often people who haven’t had the opportunity to work with individuals who have faced problems with the law.
    Many people fail to understand how a ” criminal ” is created. Critics of rehab, rather than punishment, should check out the stats on the number of inmates who have diagnosed mental illness, emotional disorders, and drug addictions.

  4. Trouble is the true criminals go unpunished since they control their environment. Unless they get really clumsy and get caught – then they have plan B (as in BUY what you need: be it “justice” via having a powerful judge in ones’ “stable” or even retribution; “representation” by a top flight legal team; or any of a dozen other available scenarios including having another home already in existance, or several, someplace where “it” doesn’t matter and “it” won’t follow you).

    Like the Koch Brothers (only nameless, far more wealthy and always far behind the scenes) – all legitimate and all, but they destroy peoples’ lives for fun and no one can touch them. They have people working for them IN CONGRESS and lobbyists galore on retainer. Where they could be making the world a much better place if their wealth wasn’t so corrosive on their way of thinking, we instead have the Tea Party so they can get away with financial murder (of the middle and lower classes).

  5. This is a complex question,without a simple one-size fits all solution, but being someone who has worked in corrections, thirty years of Law Enforcement,studied Criminology,Corrections,Sociology,both in the field and in the classroom, and now works with many Defense Attorneys,from Capital cases on down,I will give it my best shot.

    This goes much deeper than what we, as a society should do with criminals.
    We live in an imperfect world,but we must strive to do the best that we can.

    With a perfect Criminal Justice System,each case would be a case-by-case solution, that serves justice to both the victim,and the perpetrator.

    During the last couple of decades,most States have adopted structured sentencing laws,because prior to that implementation,the complaint was that not everyone was treated the same, because of social status,some got preferential treatment.

    Under the old system,I can not deny that I have not witnessed the above,however,the fairness hinged upon the fairness of the DA and Judge, and sometimes,I submit that the Old system was better,because it gave a Judge the ability to consider agravaiting or mitigating factors as he deemed,in his judgement,rather than the lawful options,pre-selected to choose from.

    So now that we acknowledge that the system is not perfect,that leads us back to what do we do with criminals?

    The first priority is to protect the innocent public from violent offenders.The only way to do this, is to incarcerate the offenders, where they can’t harm anyone.

    Studies have shown that there is no such thing as rehabilitation for sociopaths,I have seen this myself plenty of times.These people have personality disorders that prevents them from feeling any remorse,so therefore in their world,they absolutely have not done anything unfortunate as this may be, you cant change them,so they have to stay locked up, to protect the innocent population.

    So what about non-violent and repeat small-time offenders?

    This goes back to the issue of jail conditions.If it is not as bad as they were always told it would be,what deterrent is there to keep them from not minding if they came back or not?

    The big picture is jail is not a pleasant place to be for most people,but until someone finds a better alternative to incarceration,it is the only way to protect society.It is depressing to see people behind bars,and all we can do is to pray for them,and hope that at least some of them will receive Jesus and the Holy Spirit while they have time to de-tox and meditate.

    The best preventive measure begins with the birth of a child.The Childs basic belief system is formed by the time that they are five years of age.
    If the Child is exposed to violence,abuse,or neglect,they are more likely to be involved in criminal behavior as an adult,although this theory is not entirely accurate,because I have witnessed otherwise.

    This is the best explanation that I have,I’m sure everyone has their own feelings about the subject.

  6. The reference to privitized prisons troubles me. I think if the state sentences a criminal, it is the state that should execute the sentence.

    Years ago, I met a man who spent a few months in a county jail for some traffic offense. The Sheriff was paid a meal per diem per prisoner. Three times per day, this man consumed a one-slice bologna sandwich with a cup of black coffee.

    Prisoners sent to private prisons become corporate slaves. The prisons manufacture products for all levels of government. Then they can use their profits to contribute to state legislators who will craft longer sentences and three-strike rules. They can also contribute to tough-on-crime judges who mete out maximum sentences.

    Prison employees – private citizens – mete out punishment to state prisoners with no state oversite.

    Private prisons have no financial incentive to rehabilitate anybody; it would be better to beat and enrage them, so they come back or never get out.


  7. N Vale,

    I must concur. The privatization of prisons is a direct contributing factor to both the increasing criminalization of everything in our society (they lobby just like any big money business and guess what they ask for?) and our ever increasing incarceration rate. According to the International Centre for Prison Studies report release March 18, 2010, as of 2009 the United States has an incarceration rate of 743 per 100,000 of national population. This is the highest rate in the world (#1). By way of comparison, the Russian Federation has the second highest rate at 577 per 100,000 (#2), Canada has 117 per 100,000 (#124), and China has 120 per 100,000 (#126). While Americans only represent approximately 5% of the world’s population, 25% of the entire world’s inmates are incarcerated in the United States.

    Private prisons are an abomination that undermine the very principles upon which this country was founded. The reality of the Land of the Free is now the Land of Locked Up for Profits. The Founding Fathers are rolling over in their graves.

  8. Back in my salad days I worked as a group home counselor with level 3 juveniles who were expert at coming up with new behavioral infractions on a daily or even hourly basis. Once a week the other counselors and the teens would gather for a meeting to announce schedules and plans, air complaints, mediate on-going battles between the residents and to dole out rewards and punishments.

    Because there was always a lot of whining about the punishments, the other counselors and I decided to try a small Lord of the Flies experiment wherein the weekly session would be spent having the residents spell out and write down a draft of their own ideas of what punishments should be for various common infractions of the house rules – coming home late or drunk or not at all, being caught alone with girl friends in their rooms, fights, breaking things, etc.

    The end product was their list of punishments that were 10 times worse than anything we as counselors ever had or would have dreamed of as just. Though we were astounded at the harshness of the penalties they had assigned themselves, we put the rules into effect for a month to see how the residents would react to their implementation.

    After two weeks we called the whole thing off because every resident was confined to their rooms for every waking moment except for school or meetings with social workers. They had zero access to any form of entertainment, could not use the phone and had to eat alone (we refused to enact their suggested penalties of no food).

    The question became where did this excessive sense of punishing stem from? Was it innate or cultural?

  9. Is it possible to be cruel to be kind?

    If I were the criminal, I’d rather die quickly and easily than suffer long. Especially if the sociopathic bend within could not be cured.

    What effect would an efficient death penalty have, one grounded in compassion?

  10. “The question became where did this excessive sense of punishing stem from? Was it innate or cultural?”


    My guess would be that these kids had not had a sense of structure in their lives and as a result saw the need for structure in an overly harsh manner. Parenting requires the setting of reasonable boundaries for children, who though acting out crave them. Then too, given that these were children in a group home, many had probably been abused. That brings the Stockholm Syndrome into play.

  11. When I was four years old I stole a dime from my mother’s change purse. I wanted a cherry popsicle and my mother had said no. That dime was going to give me the freedom to buy my own.

    Except, as I learned over the next two weeks, I had no way to get to the store unless my mom took me. And when she took me I was not allowed to wander around but had to stay by her side and hold her hand. How was I going to get that popsicle, pay for it, and eat it all without her knowing? If she saw me she would want to know where I got the dime in the first place. If I told her I found it, she would insist that I give it to the store owner. If I told her I took it from her purse … I had no idea what she’d do but I knew she would be mad and there would be no cherry popsicles in my near future and the look of disappointment in her eyes, the knowledge that her daughter was a thief, was something I didn’t want to experience … especially since it was true.

    Sixty two years later and I still have that dime and the memory of that two weeks has kept me from engaging in all sorts of potentially nefarious actions.

    Over the years I have thought about, and analyzed that action and what I learned from it. I have used that knowledge when disciplining children and grandchildren and myself.

    Innate? Yep, wanting that popsicle overrode everything else at the time I took the dime. Cultural? Yep, actually acquiring that popsicle without incurring the anger and disappointment of my mother was impossible … thank god for structure.

  12. One of the big reasons for the prison problems, the prisoner condition problems and the holding of people for charges they didn’t commit, is the systematic deprivation of the rights of pro se litigants, both prisoners and non prisoners. The Third Branch, the magazine of the U.S. Courts, reported a few months ago that the federal district of Central California finally decided to look more closely at the prisoner cases and surprise surprise “they were not all frivolous”. Even something simple like prisoner dental care or more healthy diets could actually save taxpayer money in the long term.

    One possible way to reduce criminal acts by the criminally accused is to get them to buy into the idea of the Rule of Law by teaching them legal principles. That could also help them to become more intellectual, to use words instead of fists, and, since prisoners are interested in law, help with their literacy skills.

    One idea is that the government printing office should dig out the big web printers it was using 10 years ago, dig out the big rolls of paper that are probably sitting somewhere, and print the legal materials prisoners might need and send it to them. That would be a lot less expensive than holding people longer than needed.

  13. Mike S. and Blouise,
    Good responses to an interesting question from Culheath. Blouise, I hope you have been able to buy your pospsicle with your own money!

  14. Blouise,

    Love the tale and the lessons conferred. I think it’s a mixture as well.

    The fact that you still have the totem dime is perfect. What a lovely pass on gift it would make (with the story appended of course) for a grandchild.

  15. culheath,

    Keeping the dime was unintentional. This all happened sometime in the last weeks before I started kindergarten. I remember that because school was a new experience and I was afraid my kindergarten teacher would find out I was a thief … she seemed to be an all-knowing adult. I remember one day coming home and getting the dime out of my secret box, wrapping it in toilet paper and burying it in my sock drawer … must have been Sept. of 1949.

    Fast forward to Sept. of 1954 when we moved to a new house. My mother gave me a roll of drawer-liner paper to cut and place in my dresser drawers before unpacking my clothes and putting them away. There was a lump underneath the old paper in one of the drawers and when I looked at it, lo and behold it was that toilet paper wrapped dime.

    I had a new jewelry box so into that box it went. Down through the years it has been transferred from one jewelry box to the next … toilet paper and all.

    Heaven knows what a psychiatrist would make out of this … I carry my shame with me? :)

  16. rafflaw,

    Cherry popsicles are still a favorite. Tex gives me one every year for my birthday … to keep me crime free. :)

  17. well the way i see it. the brutality of prisons is fine with many unless its a member of their family then the brutality becomes something else all together

    let’s take a look at all the innocent people placed in our prison system for yrs and yrs. innocent of the crime they are convicted of. but nonethless subject to the cruelities of the system created until they can find someone decent to do the right job and get the evidence that proclaims them innocent of the crimes for which they have spent half of their lives fighting..

    again it is perfectly fine with everyone until its a member of their family suddenly thrust into that same cruel,brutal,unrepentant prison system for which thousands are spending and losing precious moments of their lives moments which they can never get back.

    what about the fear of facing a whole new world from the world you left. with no skills to make you marketable to obtain and hold a job. how many of you would enjoy seeing that happen to your family member????


  18. Angela Davis’ book “Are Prisons Obsolete” deals wonderfully with the place of prisons in our society. She, in my opinion, successfully argues for the abolition of prisons and offers multi-faceted alternatives to mass and racialized incarceration. Once people realize that prisons aren’t a necessary or permanent part of society, they can accept alternative solutions that may actually reduce crime instead of producing more.

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