The Carrot and the Stick – The Irony of Deterrents Part #5

This series is intended to clarify the role and the efficacy of our use of deterrents, both in our households as a parenting tool and in society as a major premise upon which we have based our approach to criminal justice. Here’s the rest of the series:

(Part #1 sucked . . . you can find it on my blog, there’s a search button – but you’re not missing much.)

My premise is this:

When a deterrent works, when someone chooses not to engage in ‘naughty’ or criminal behaviour, then that’s terrific, it’s all good. A child may feel some betrayal at hearing that his caregivers are prepared to hurt him, and in a better world that would be a problem to solve, but in this world we have bigger fish to fry, namely the actual hurt that happens all too often.

It is when the deterrent fails that needs to be looked at, because actual, real world punishments have been shown to increase childhood misbehaviours in the longer term, and it follows that this is also the case in the world of adult criminality. In fact, our “legitimate” punishments cause the very same suite of damages that we all know illicit abuse causes, and so the failure of a deterrent isn’t simply a failure and the lack of a positive outcome, but a net decrease in the quality of life in our families and in our society. It’s a negative.

Our punishments are hurting us. Sounds like a no-brainer when we say it like that, doesn’t it?

We like to talk a lot about rehabilitation, the non-liberals consider that its success rate isn’t good enough and that as such, simply means a waste of money and resources, while the liberals consider it to be important, and if it gets a few percent of people out of the criminal life and the criminal justice system, then we owe to all criminals to try it. I’m here to tell you that rehabilitation isn’t what is failing.

What is failing is not the carrot, but the stick.

If someone wants to explain to me why giving someone an education or a trade won’t work, they’ll need to do something.

They’ll need to show that rehabilitation, when administered alone, without being accompanied by abuse, is failing. We know what abuse and fear does do people, and what it does, how to put this . . . what it does is not this: make people happier, less violent, less addicted and smarter. Personally, I see all punishment as abuse, but for this argument, I’ll settle for this: prison is abuse. Prisons are violent, terrifying places where there is danger in every shadow. We mostly think that’s a good thing, because that is where the deterrent lies, but this being my point in this series: when it’s a threat or a promise, it’s a deterrent. When it’s reality, it’s abuse, and damaging to those living in it.

Rehabilitation is an attempt towards improvement in a person’s performance in society; the abuse of life in prison is almost a guarantee of no such improvement, in fact, as stated in the film “Blow” as well as everywhere, prison is Crime University. That is the education many convicts get, along with the abuse that we know is the best way make people meaner and less interested in the legitimate life of lawful society. So these two ideas are diametrically opposed: if we really wanted to rehabilitate anyone, we wouldn’t abuse them before, throughout, and after their rehab program. Think of it in terms of how the kids in school with the most abusive, violent parents don’t all grow up to be the doctors and leaders, how abuse and corporal punishments have been shown, over and over, to negatively impact cognition and grades. In that sense, the hard-liners of public policy are correct: doing both of these things is mostly a waste of our money and time. It’s just that it’s not the rehab that’s at fault. It’s not the carrot that’s eating all of our resources. It’s the stick.

All that money we’re spending on abuse, and it’s creating crime, making criminals worse, because that’s what abuse does. If we want to see what can be done with the carrot – with an offer of a life for these people – we need to give the carrot without employing the stick at the same time, rehabilitation OR abuse. We need to make our prisons safe for our inmates, is what I’m saying. Sure we need to lock some dangerous folks up, but let’s spend that money a little smarter, and lock them up in such a way where they have a chance to improve themselves, make them safe from one another, more space, individual quarters.

Sure it’s more money, but it’s money with a return. The money we’re spending now is only creating crime in the long run.

State Funded Abuse – Punishments and Rewards in Prison

Abuse – well, corporal punishment – well, punishment – actually causes misbehaviour in children and crime and violence in adults, rather than curing these things. With children, it’s not news, I think that the exercise of punishment actually models and ingrains the very problem behaviour that we employ it to solve. Ironic, which means it would be funny if it weren’t horrible and tragic.

But in adulthood, in the justice system, this causality can be far more direct. The ways in which punishment promotes crime and violence in prison situations requires no knowledge of or belief in psychology at all.

When a person is convicted of a crime and incarcerated, there has long been a tradition and an assumption that the convict has lost his human rights, that if prisons are scary and dangerous places, well, that is the deterrent. That is a reason not to break the law, and we may say that the criminal has done it to himself. These days, a convict’s human rights are gaining some power, at least the officials, the prison administration and employees, are not supposed to abuse convicts any more than is required to enforce the removal of one human right, namely the obvious one, the convicted person’s freedom. The guards are not supposed to abuse the prisoners directly: no beatings, no sexual abuse – lately the force-feeding of hunger-striking prisoners is a controversy, whether or not the force and restraint required to stop a person’s slow suicide is or isn’t a violation of his human rights. This debate (not the situation alluded to) marks a huge improvement in the consideration of the rights of prisoners. There is room for improvement to be sure, but it’s a relatively large step, considering the condition of prisoners in history.

Having said that . . .

I think we need to turn our attention to the ability of prisoners to violate each other’s rights.

If a prisoner has rights, if we (society, the criminal justice system and its agents, the taxpayers who fund it), if we are not allowed to abuse these convicted persons, how is it that we are willing and able to lock them up with a lot of the very sorts of people who are likely to (and proven to) abuse them?

Prisons are scary places, full of dangerous, scary people, and in our attempt to control crime and abuse, we throw them all in there together. I think we have all given some thought to the minor criminal thrown in among the wolves, and the first thing I’ve already mentioned: don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time. I don’t really approve, but that’s not where I’m going with this. For now, regarding that, I’ll say, fair enough. A second point that may be viewed in favour of the forced intermingling of violent criminals with the less violent ones would be that there are tiers, different levels of prisons, minimum, medium and maximum security institutions. I’ll deal with the second point first.

Capone was imprisoned for tax evasion, right? Many criminals that would be perfectly suited for MaxSec locations spend time in all the other levels of the prison network. Many a murderous, gangland soldier spends time in lighter prisons than they might, they get convicted of crimes that are not necessarily their worst acts, possession of stolen goods, drug dealing, any number of things. Because of this, really bad guys can be encountered anywhere in the prison system. All prisons are scary and dangerous.

For the first point, again, we’ve sort of made our peace with the idea that we send not-so-bad guys to prison with very bad ones, that’s the deterrent, it’s prison, not Disneyland. It’s not supposed to be fun. But now we’re getting to it. In prison, and in life, there are winners and losers. The smartest, the toughest, the biggest, baddest, most dangerous men in prison can and often do, dominate and victimize the weaker ones. The well connected ones, the organized gangsters recruit and make slaves and/or soldiers of the more vulnerable . . . may I guess what you’re thinking? But that may not be it. Here’s my problem:

Are we not rewarding the most dangerous criminals?

Are we not creating a situation where the worst and most dangerous offenders are being given a convenient supply of victims to exploit, to rape, rob and enslave? In other words, are we not encouraging the very same patterns of abuse and victimization in the most powerful criminals in our attempt to discourage that very behaviour in the less dangerous ones? Wait a second, this sounds like sociology, ‘what are we incentivising,’ that’s not it either. It’s worse than that. The worst of it is not what we’re doing, it’s that we’re doing it.

What are we doing, exactly?

Collecting the worst, scariest people we can find, and . . . providing victims for them. We, the people, we, society, we the voter and the government, for God’s sake – are pimping for the most dangerous and uncaring people our nations have produced, and paying for it with public funds.

That is what we are doing.

Victimization is antithetical to rehabilitation. We need to keep our prisoners safe if we ever want to help any of them. I’m saying individual rooms, and contact among them only by mutual consent. I’m saying money, to be sure. But abuse causes crime, and what we are doing now isn’t working; the billions we are spending now are not only wasted, but actually exacerbating the problems.

It’ll be cheaper in the long haul.