“Train up a child in the way that he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.
- Proverbs 22:6
Or to put it another way, tell a child any damn thing, no matter how unfortunate, and it will be almost impossible for him to un-learn it later. Cultural assumptions are like fast-growing vines: they cover everything and they’re a devil of a job to remove if you regret planting them. Punishment is one of those assumptions.
From the time we’re little children, we learn that if you break the rules (or “do something bad” – it’s the same thing) that you should be punished. The bigger the rule you break, the worse the punishment, and there’s no other way to be sure people won’t break rules.
You can test this deeply-rooted moral assumption by suggesting in almost any forum that you can be a moral person without believing in God, or a good Christian without believing in Hell. (Once you light that fuse, stand well back!)
American politicians also know better than to propose shorter prison sentences, better prison conditions, or any measures to stop prison rape. There’s simply no political capital to be gained from it. Every election cycle is marked by ever more draconian punishments against “criminals”. We hear about “victim’s rights” and “coddling” criminals. Prison should be brutal; dehumanizing, a grinding endurance test. Make it so terrible they’ll live in fear of ever returning.
You might think that a three-year recidivism rate of more than fifty percent would make any rational person doubt the usefulness of this model but sadly, no; we go on training our politicians to propose ever-harsher punishments. State spending on prisons has quadrupled in just 20 years. That’s a growth industry and then some – and unsurprisingly the private prison industry is bravely standing up for more incarceration.
We don’t question cultural assumptions. How often do you hear a politician ask; “What if retributive justice is actually making the problem worse? What if our need to punish is actually punishing… everyone?”
I must admit this article blew my mind: Norway’s controversial ‘cushy prison’ experiment. Norway already enjoys one of the lowest recidivism rates in Europe – just 20 percent. So eighty percent of their criminals presumably go back to work and become members of society again. It made me wonder; what in dog’s name are they doing to those poor guys so that only 1 in 5 ends up back in prison? Norwegian prisons must be awful!
Well not so much: they’re clean, well-run, and have counseling and vocational training. Norway not only has no death penalty; they don’t even have life imprisonment. Their maximum sentence is just 21 years.
But somebody in Norway decided that 20 percent recidivism was too high and started experimenting with an even less punitive model. Bastoy prison is on an island and is nearly self-sustaining; prisoners live in cottages, have Internet access, grow most of their own food, perform jobs and take university courses. It is one of Norway’s cheapest prisons to run and has a 16 percent recidivism rate. The inmates include drug offenders, murderers, and pretty much anything else. Norway is planning to build more prisons like it.
Beware of crazy-sounding questions: the answers might leave you wondering if you know anything at all.
- PEW Reports: State Of Recidivism (pdf) Ponder a moment the economic cost of the revolving-door prison system. Not just the system itself, but all those people who can never become economically productive again.
- Cornell Cooperative Extension: Prisons, privatization, and public values
- At a guess I’d say a large component of the low recidivism rate in Norway is a rehabilitative attitude of the society at large. Our prisoners are basically screwed when they leave prison; they can’t get good jobs which pretty much unbolts the wheels at the start. A society that supports Bastoy prison is likely a very different environment.
- Dawkins: Norway flourishes as a secular state. Perhaps the necessary questions can only be asked in a culture that does not, in the main, believe in Hell.
- At the religious pole lies this revolting extreme: Iran to blind criminal with acid in ‘eye for eye’ justice. Ghandi said: “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”. Beginning with moral blindness.
- There might be some good questions to ask from the success of Victim-Offender Reconciliation Programs
- (h/t Mike The Mad Biologist for link to the Norway prison story)
- Consumerist: Private prisons fail to deliver big savings to states