Monday, November 16, 2009

What's the point of prison?

Peter Hitchens asks, What's the point of prison?

He has a rather original thought. Maybe the purpose of a prison is to punish.

The police deterred crime in cities and countryside, the Churches and the Temperance movement worked constantly to improve morality. Heinous murderers were hanged, so there were very few of them. The municipal reformers sought to clear the slums.

And the declining numbers who committed crimes went to prisons which were austere and harsh but not cruel or chaotic or diseased.

Prisoners had to work. They were kept under strict discipline, they lived in single cells and every moment of their lives was governed by hard rules. They could associate with each other only in very limited circumstances. Food was basic. Heating in winter was minimal. Contact with the outside world was very limited. Tobacco was not allowed (let alone drugs). Remission had to be earned by consistent good behaviour, as did privileges - access to books, visits, letters, better food.

In short, the authorities had the upper hand, all the time. Prison terms were not usually particularly long, but few who had undergone them wished to sample the fare again. Word got out that a spell in prison was to be avoided. People avoided it.
We are often told that we imprison more people than any other European country (though in fact the gap isn't that big, as careful study of the figures shows). But this endlessly repeated liberal whine fails to notice that we also have many more crimes and criminals than any comparable European country.

If we imprisoned at the rate they do, we would have even more people inside. But we do not. We either don't send them to prison in the first place or we let them out as fast as possible.

What happened to produce this enormous increase? Well, the sixties happened. The death penalty was abolished, requiring the growing incarceration of murderers for long periods, and a general inflation of sentencing because there was now no distinction between property crimes and killing, and because serious violence grows more common when murder isn't punished by death.

Reward was separated from effort by a bloated welfare state, illegal drugs were encouraged by rock music, the authority of parents and teachers was weakened, the police were taken off the beat.

And prisons quit punishing.

What also arrived, largely thanks to Roy Jenkins, was the culmination of a long liberal campaign to relax prison conditions.
For my own description of an existing modern British prison, they might like to Google "Peter Hitchens" and "What happened to punishment?" This described a visit to Wormwood Scrubs (the time and place were chosen for me by the authorities).
The basic point is that prison, once 'the due punishment of responsible persons', now has no such aim.

Read the whole thing.

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