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Why Isolationist Forms of Punishment Don’t Work

Writing by Yu An Su. Illustration by Sarah Dobbs.

This July temperatures in the UK soared to 35 degrees, and news stories emerged about prison inmates who had been left in their cells, with poor ventilation and boiling conditions. Since the COVID-19 outbreak began, pandemic restrictions meant inmates were only allowed out of their cells for half an hour each day and interaction within the prisons was virtually absent.¹ Essentially, inmates that were detained for crimes not deserving of solitary confinement - if indeed there is such a crime at all - were forced into conditions that advocacy groups have called inhumane and cruel. All of this raises a much larger question: why is isolation the chosen punishment given to most of those who break the law? To answer this question, it’s vitally important to parse through philosophical perspectives on crime and punishment as a whole, and understand how a system of retributive or deterrent justice leads to an isolationist solution.

There are various theories surrounding punishment, but they all largely fall under the following four categories: deterrence, protection, rehabilitation, and retribution. Deterrence is the idea that the aim of punishing crimes is to stop others from committing the same crime. The logic follows that the greater and more harsh a punishment to a certain crime is, the more effectively it deters others from committing it. Protectionist theories, sometimes referred to as incapacitationist theories, justify punishment as a method of protecting society. If those who have committed crimes are placed in prison and are no longer out in public, they no longer have the ability to commit further crimes or influence and coerce others to do so. Rehabilitative theories are exactly as the name suggests; people who commit crimes should not necessarily be punished but instead should be provided help, as in many instances their crime can be traced to a systemic issue or a circumstantial decision. Lastly, we have retributive theories of punishment, perhaps the most dominant theory in traditional societal thought surrounding crime. The phrase ‘the punishment fits the crime’ perfectly encapsulates this theory, which argues that offenders should be given a punishment that is proportionate to the crime they committed. Or in other words, a punishment that they ‘deserve’.

With these definitions in place, it’s easy to see where the modern concept of imprisonment comes from: drawing from a combination of retributive, deterrent, and protectionist theories. What’s perhaps more telling is that the poor conditions in most prisons show that rehabilitative measures have not been taken into consideration at all. Most disheartening of all is that there is a staggering amount of studies and data stacking up that shows these three theories are simply misguided. While offenders obviously aren’t able to commit more crimes when they’re in prison, this kind of punishment does little to aid them. Poor conditions often exacerbate existing mental health problems, leading to more aggression and solidifying their already cynical outlook on the criminal justice system. The Pelican Bay State Prison, for example, was an institution built to house those offenders considered most dangerous. However, breeding an environment laced with extreme aggression as well as an oppressive culture among correctional officers led to mass amounts of violence within the facility.² A study suggests that even the short-term incapacitation effects are much smaller than many people are led to believe, and that in the long-term the instrumental effects listed above could increase the potential for repeat offenders.³ Deterrence is an equally lacking theory. Rising rates of recidivism, or a relapse into crime, have shown that increasing a severity of punishment does not necessarily reduce crime. If people are still stuck in a system with no support, they will still inevitably turn to crime as the most rational method to support themselves. Retributive theories are of little utility to society in reality, except for minimal emotional satisfaction for the victim’s family or friends, even if this satisfaction is misplaced. Further, if this past summer of racial tension has shown us anything, criminal justice systems are very far from impartial, and instilling a retributive theory of justice will more often than not exacerbate existing biases.

Returning to the news stories about solitary confinement, there are endless negative effects that discount the need for such extreme punishment. Placing inmates in segregated conditions that some have described as ‘emotional torture’ as well as long-term damage to mental health are reasons enough to oppose solitary confinement, but philosopher Lisa Guenther provides a compelling argument through her phenomenological work. Phenomenology is the philosophical field of study that concerns itself with lived experience, or how things appear from a first person perspective. Unlike ethics or metaphysics, phenomenology is not trying to prove a certain set of facts, but describe a meaning to our experiences and being-in-the-world. Guenther argues, similar to Hegel or Sartre’s conceptions of sociality and reality, that our lived experience is not a solitary conquest. Our interactions with other social beings is vital to us maintaining a rational grip of reality. In her words: ‘Every time I hear a sound and see another person look toward the origin of that sound, I receive an implicit confirmation that what I heard was something real, that it was not just my imagination playing tricks on me.’⁴ So when inmates are subject to solitary conditions, it can completely destroy their coherent understanding of their own experience. While it’s been shown that keeping offenders in prison isn’t particularly effective anyway, putting them in these extreme conditions seems a massive leap too far. A key point Guenther argues is that this solitary experience is especially counter-productive in a prison setting, where inmates should be placed in a situation where they can explain their actions and to repair systems of trust with society.

So where does that leave us? After tearing down the existing preconceptions of why we put people in prison, what should be the best idea moving forward? Rehabilitative forms of ‘punishment’ have been around for a long time. And while there will no doubt be critics that will point to past failures, most of which can be attributed to systems being underfunded or not being extensive enough, we only have to look at a Scandinavian model to see where it succeeds. Not only are inmates allowed to lead comparatively normal lives, the rates of recidivism are one-half to one-third of the U.S.⁵ All of this is to say that many Western countries invest heavily in building up strong and secure prisons, but if that ideology of punishment were to be abandoned, those funds could be distributed to systems that actually reduce crime: mental health services, appropriate welfare opportunities, or even ‘prisons’ without harsh and violent conditions, which actually allow inmates to get educated and rehabilitated. These are all options, but it is clear that isolation from other people and greater society is not the ideal solution to those that commit crimes. This long year has shown that isolation is challenging for everyone, so why should we put those that are often in more need of support through the gauntlet of being kept apart?

² King, Steiner & Breach, Violence in the Supermax

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