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?”

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  3. 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.

  4. 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????


  5. rafflaw,

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

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