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May 14, 2011

“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.


Categories: Uncategorized
  1. WeeDram
    May 14, 2011 at 13:31 | #1

    Just up the street from you, on Normal Ave @ Gregory, lived a high school crush. She married a Norwegian (much to my dismay,) and moved to Noreway. While that marriage eventually ended, she stayed and continued her teaching career. I don’t blame her.
    On a more fundamental level regarding blame and punishment : http://bit.ly/kCl7pP

  2. Neil
    May 14, 2011 at 17:53 | #2

    It has long seemed quite obvious to me that our society’s(and most other societies’) general ideas about justice are little more than an attempt to regulate revenge and reinforce the state monopoly on violence. It’s a starting place I guess, compared to vigilantism, mob rule and the open tyranny of the powerful- but I’ve always wondered why social conservatives feel so strongly that it should never go beyond punishment, punishment, and more punishment, no matter how much evidence you can show them about better options. There is an almost allergic reaction to any idea that might undermine the concept that authority must be obeyed and feared like a vengeful god, despite the fact that it has never worked very well at all for anything other than concentrating power and fostering a permanent cycle of distrust and resentment among the people.

    The concepts of presumption of innocence, evidence, and open trials are about the only things we get really right in my opinion(or even try to get right), and even so it is a system that has become fully rigged to give those with a lot of resources a reasonably fair shake while serving as little more than a prison funnel for those who are not rich or look like outsiders, and especially for those who have been in trouble before.

    Thank you for bringing these issues up…our assumptions about crime and punishment are so irrational and run so deep that even the most compassionate, liberal, and open-minded people I know have almost no problem with outrageous sentences for even harmless, victimless “crimes”, unfair and increasing economic barriers to justice, an ever-growing, profit based prison system and all the horrorshow of new corruptions that entails, along with a huge amount of prejudice against any ideas that look for results instead of revenge.

    And as almost always, I can’t help but notice that the more conservative and more religious someone is, the more deeply entrenched they are in these mindsets, and the more they fight any kind of reform or even debate. Reasonable, compassionate people figure out as children that kicking a mean dog only makes it meaner…yet somehow, many folks think that society is well served by treating humans worse than they would treat a vicious animal.

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