Archives for posts with tag: prison

While I consider myself to be liberal in attitude, I read a newspaper article today that had me shaking in anger and wishing he utmost evil to befall the perpetrator. The story concerned a violent rape in Dublin, where the rapist threatened to kill the victim’s child if he didn’t get his way. The woman was then raped repeatedly while the young child was abandoned in a public park. The whole story was horrific – the mark of a warped, twisted mind.

My instinctive reaction was to wish we had a death penalty, so he could be done away with.

Circumstances such as these are often difficult for people with liberal or progressive values. Conservative commentators love these stories, because they make liberals seem like idiots. OF COURSE they should be flogged, flayed and scalped, dragged through town by galloping horses, then thrown in a dungeon to suffer a painful and lingering death. What reasonable human wouldn’t condone such a course of action? Surely, taking a different position makes it seem as if you have more sympathy with the perpetrator than with the victim?

Such argumentation is misleading on two counts. It’s a classic case of a false dilemma: if you do not accept the stated position, then you must be a wooly headed liberal, with all the baggage that entails. Can you not be for strong punitive action and yet remain committed to liberal values? Questions like these have no place in such rhetoric. Secondly, it’s a classic straw man – if you exaggerate the liberal position as much as you can, you will make it seem ludicrous. The real liberal position can therefore be safely ignored.

I still wish nothing but evil on those who would enact these crimes. I guess it’s a human reaction. However, I feel that our justice system needs to be as fair and as well designed as it can be. It should allow for mistakes to be corrected. It should not veer towards witch-hunts and “guilty until proven innocent”. Even a small bit of research will expose great difficulties in capital punishment, corporal punishment, revenge punishment and torture. Systems that treat people with impunity are all very well until they reach beyond the confines of the violent psychopaths and into the realm of public misdemeanours. Controls and checks need to be in place. As our societies improve, we need our systems of justice to improve with it.

This doesn’t mean we leave criminals off the hook or ignore the needs of victims and greater society. People need to be protected from those who have the means and intent to do great harm. Some people should not be allowed back into society where there remains a substantial risk to the public, no matter how long they have been incarcerated. Sentencing needs to take victim impacts into account. Harshness where appropriate.

Resorting to the whip, the cane and solitary might seem appropriate in some circumstances, but our understanding of psychology indicates that punishment, as a deterrent and a means of reform, is highly inadequate at best. People can get used to most things given time. Cognitive dissonance acts to minimise culpability, even in the worst situations. Mental illness in prison has its own dynamic, often seeing to it that the punishment and the crime are totally unrelated to each other.

We need a justice system that balances these concerns. We need people to be protected from those who wish us harm. We need for criminals to be rehabilitated, so they don’t pose a threat to others. We need a system of justice that embraces the complex needs of society. What we don’t need are brutal solutions introduced that seemingly make one aspect better, while making everything else worse.

We took a boat trip to Spike Island in the centre of Cork Harbour last Sunday. This small, unprepossessing island has a remarkable history. It was a monastic settlement in early Christian times. A military fort was built there in the 18th Century and in the 19th Century it became a holding centre for convicts on their way to Australia. The island was occupied by British forces until 1938 and in the 1980’s it was re-opened as a prison, earning it the monicker “Ireland’s Alcatraz”. The prison has now closed, and the site is currently under the control of Cork Co. Council.

The main building on the island is a star fort, that, with Fort Carlisle and Fort Camden at the entrance to Cork Harbour, provided a strong line of defence from any possible attack from the seas. An impressive 6 inch gun is still in place there, silently directed towards the mouth of the harbour. It has never been used in anger, but plans are afoot to fire it during the Titanic centenary commemorations next year.

In 1985, the fort was used to house juvenile offenders. It was not fit for purpose and later that year, the inmates rioted. Most of the buildings within the fort were burned down. The prison was subsequently modernised but following a dispute with prison wardens, the minister for Justice summarily shut the prison down. In 2006, plans were announced to build a modern prison on the island, replacing the existing prison in Cork. These plans were abandoned after Ireland’s economic collapse. The facility is now deserted apart from the occasional guided tour.

Prisoner cell, in use up to 2004.

During the summer, visitors can go to the island by boat from Cobh. The tour itself is quite fascinating given its strategic location in the harbour and its historical significance. There are still a few issues however. It’s a pity visitors can’t stay longer on the island. There is almost no opportunity to explore it for yourself before you are called back to the boat. Most of the buildings outside the fort are in a perilous state and even some of the more recently occupied rooms could benefit from a spring-clean. Much work needs to be done to bring the history of the site more to life: signs, displays, audio-visuals etc. The narrative from the tour guide was uncritical and failed to take into account many of the complexities of our country’s past. Despite these quibbles, it’s a must see by anyone with an interest in the history of Ireland.

A map of the island is below.

Whereas the 20th Century dealt with the rise of mass-production, it appears that a big theme of the 21st Century will concern mass-customisation. The basic idea is that the organisations that succeed are those that are best able cater to the multiple specific tastes and whims of different individuals in the most efficient way. 

Current examples of mass-customisation include clothing, footwear, helmets, computers, jewelry and printing. All fairly low-key stuff. It’s possible however that we all could be driving around in custom cars, drinking custom concoctions at the bar – exactly matched to our taste buds, and receiving custom prescription drugs exactly suited to our individual genetic makeup. The possibilities are endless and perhaps a bit frightening if taken to the extreme – custom pets and even custom babies perhaps?

Mass customisation applies not just to products, but also to many services we take for granted. From mobile phone plans to travel to insurance, we already experience a great many options so that we can choose something that best fits our lifestyle. Supermarket loyalty cards are used to generate unique discount plans for each shopper. There is even a trend towards personalisation in education, so that children get an education that is best matched to their innate interests and abilities. Many services, from utilities to postal services to taxation, are wide open to future mass-personalisation. 

So here’s what got me thinking: might mass-customisation help to deal with the problem of criminality? For centuries, the blunt instrument of choice has been the prison sentence. While it no doubt has its merits in some cases, it fails in terms of recidivism rates and ultimately it has not succeeded in making a meaningful dent into crime rates within society. Yes, there are alternatives such as electronic tagging, suspended sentences, barring orders, fines and community service, but even so, prison still remains the number one deterrent.

There is something very Victorian about the concept of prison – it is where someone goes to “learn a lesson” and “pay back their crime to society” – to reform their evil ways, as it were. It all sounds very good, if only it were true. I am deeply skeptical that meaningful reform is possible for most people in a prison environment. It seems to jar with what we know about human psychology. The motivations that put people in jail are so different in each case. It could be poverty, boredom, accident, self-expression, anger or even cold-blooded sadism. To me, prison seems like a “one size fits all” solution that, while effective in some cases, is absolutely useless for many other situations because it fails to take account of individual motivations and values. I sometimes wonder if, 500 years hence, our descendants will look on modern prisons in the same way our current generation recoils from the brutal ways the authorities dealt with miscreants in the sixteenth century.   

Enter the world of personalised and customised sentencing. If we had better information on an individual’s background, genetic, personality and psychological makeup and the means to efficiently design responses to criminal behaviour on a case by case basis, could we come up with more effective solutions, thereby driving crime rates down to nominal levels? The suspicion is that, by gaining a better understanding of what drives individual motivations and how an individual’s behaviour is affected by the environment in which they operate, we might come up with approaches and responses that prevent these behaviours in the future. 

Answers that might emerge could include drugs, implants, educational or psychiatric responses, targeted interventions, and in more serious cases, physical exclusion. Maybe it might just be as simple as specifically targeted drugs, who knows?  

I wonder though, if the means were there to implement it, would society be willing to support it? Even if customised sentencing showed huge drops in criminality, it would still require a big change in thinking. A very large section of society continues to demand longer and harsher prison sentences often as a reaction to the injustice of the original criminal act. Harsher sentences don’t seem to make society any safer. (If this were the case, surely the USA, with its large prison population, would be the safest country in the world). In a mass-customised world, prisoners would be given punishments matched to their psychological makeup and circumstances that would ensure a) that the perpetrator does not re-offend, and b) that the perpetrator understands and regrets their actions. It may not deal so well with a victim’s or society’s desire for revenge. Customised sentencing might mean that the best response for a murder, in one case, is drug therapy, whereas a vandal might require a long-term barring order or deep psychological treatment for something relatively minor.

So, customised sentencing may be both a panacea and a headache. It could offer a world with much less crime, but there are social and ethical issues that will need to be dealt with.

What do you think? Is this a pipe-dream? What other benefits or problems do you see? I’m interested in your views.

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