Prison Ethics

I’m currently reading Dostoevsky’s prison memoir, The House of the Dead.  I’ll have more to say about it when I finish (though my progress has slowed substantially since restarting gainful employment for the fall).  So for now I’m just asking a question, one posed in the opening section of D’s 1861 work.

… it seems crime cannot be interpreted from preconceived conventional points of view, and the philosophy of it is a little more difficult than is supposed.  Of course, prisons and penal servitude do not reform the criminal; they only punish him and protect society from further attacks on its security.  In the criminal, prison and the severest hard labour only develop hatred, lust for forbidden pleasures, and a fearful levity.  But I am firmly convinced that the belauded system of solitary confinement attains only false, deceptive, external results.  It drains man’s vital sap, enervates his soul, cows and enfeebles it, and then holds up the morally withered mummy, half imbecile, as a model of penitence and reformation. (The House of the Dead, trans. Constance Garnett, Barnes and Noble Classics, 20).

As I read D’s argument above, he’s saying that while he can grant that prison works as a detention center for criminals who have been caught, so as to prevent them from doing further harm, it does very little to reform its members, achieving only “false, deceptive, external results.”  If anything, it hardens the criminal to the point of being counterproductive as a means of social improvement.

To generalize away from D’s particular phrasing – I’ve heard of four traditional justifications for prison as an institution:

1) Deterrence – the existence of prison makes would-be criminals not commit criminal acts, lest they end up themselves imprisoned.

2) Prevention of future crime – imprisoning a criminal prevents them from committing more crimes, at least while they’re in prison.

3)  Rehabilitation – A prisoner can be improved and made into a better person as a result of their stay.

4)  Retribution – one who commits a crime surrenders their right to some of the freedoms they ordinarily enjoy.

My question is – which, if any, of these reasons is persuasive?  I’ve never felt any of them to be particularly good arguments.  I’m struck by D’s observation that the philosophy of prison is “a little more difficult than is supposed.”

To elaborate, if prison is counterproductive as a force for rehabilitation (i.e., it makes criminals worse than they would have been had they not been imprisoned) then are we justified in imprisoning people?  The failure of the rehabilitation argument seems to vitiate the deterrence and prevention-of-future-crime arguments, if it turns out that prison actually makes our society more criminal, and not less (all three arguments are utilitarian at their base, after all).  That would mean the only remaining argument is the retribution-based one, but the source of morality authority it draws on seems far from obvious, especially if there are compelling utilitarian arguments against it.  Ergo – we shouldn’t have prisons, at least not as we do now.

Any thoughts?  I know this is a rather generalized and naive stance, but I’ve always felt very intuitively drawn to it.

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8 Responses to Prison Ethics

  1. David says:

    Very interesting. You may be interested in checking out a recent book by David Boonin, “The Problem of Punishment.” Boonin basically uses an argument from elimination to show that punishment in general and imprisonment in particular is morally unjustifiable. Two more general thoughts:

    1) Suppose that, as D says, prison has no rehabilitative effects and, indeed, serves only to ‘harden’ criminals. This doesn’t entail that prison/incarceration cannot be justified on rehabilitative grounds–rather, it suggests that our current prison conditions need to be very significantly reformed. So I guess one question is this: is prison necessarily at odds with the goal of rehabilitation, or could we feasibly revamp the existing prison system so that it was more conducive to this goal?

    2) Why do you think rehabilitative failures undermine the deterrence argument?

  2. Nates says:

    On a biographical note, isn’t it odd for Dostoevsky to suggest that prisons do not rehabilitate? After all, his own prison experience appears to have converted him from a Western liberal to a pro-Slavic Christian. Presumably, the state would have counted this as a rehabilitative success story.

  3. Lime says:

    Foucault gives us an explanation, but probably not the one we want.

    Following up on what David writes, society outside of prisons seems to play a big role in the relative success of rehabilitation. Do ex-prisoners lose citizenship rights? Are criminal background checks common practice, and are they used as a sorting mechanism for jobs with large numbers of applicants? Are the effects of incarceration on employment exacerbated by racial tensions (as studies seem to have shown)? Does society provide social services for the unemployed?

  4. Josh says:

    Two days of high school teaching leaves me wanting to pick some fights (just kidding, sort of…) Really, it just leaves me starved a bit for sustained, intelligent argumentation with peers. So here goes:

    @Lime – Actually, I’m not exactly sure Foucault’s explanation is unwanted. I actually find the psychosexual-historical-archeological analysis of prisons a bit more intuitively satisfying than whatever normative arguments might be adduced on either side of the prison debate. Something about the role prisons play in normalization seems to be more penetrating as analysis. Of course, it answers the question of why/how prisons exist, rather than whether they should. But understanding processes of normalization do seem like useful starting points for changing them, in the same way that therapy might work better than logical argumentation when dealing with a drug addict or an child-abuser.

    (Then again, without a normative account, we might not have a reason to declare drug addiction of child abuse to be wrong, and so would have no basis for recommending the therapy in the first place. But then again, I think the Foucault project has a response to that too, but I haven’t really figured out how to phrase it succinctly).

    One of the more memorable intellectual/emotional experiences I’ve had recently came from a sermon of my wife’s about the Garasene demoniac, a story from Mark. Jesus is asked to purge the demon from a man – he casts the demon into some pigs, which promptly run off a cliff. The story ends with the men surrounding Jesus recoiling in fear. Brooke suggested, in much more subtle and effective terms I’m sure, that in a lot of ways, our long-term prisoners (in Guantanamo, or death row, or elsewhere) are our Garasene demoniacs. Were we to expel their demons, and somehow end their otherness, we would all recoil in fear… true freedom and equality are uneasy, frightening states for all of us, and systems of domination and division actually make us quite comfortable, even help to confirm our own normalcy. Dealing with that fear by bringing it to the level of collective consciousness through archeological exploration thus becomes an important critical and social-therapeutic strategy.

    And I don’t think it’s coincidence that Mark 5 serves as D’s epigraph for his monumental, but notoriously complicated and cryptic late work, Demons. One of the things I’m really looking forward to in my Dostoevsky reading project is re-reading that novel – but alas, it will have to wait until next summer.

    @Nates – My reading of Frank’s biography suggests that at least for him, the description of Dostoevsky as western-liberal-turned-pro-Slavic-Christian is an oversimplification. On the one hand, Frank adduces a lot of evidence from the pre-exile period which seems to tell of a reverence for religious experience that is not exactly congruent with the rest of his intellectual “circle.” On the other hand, Frank also devotes some time to showing how the post-exile D. remained committed to some liberal/radical causes. Arguably, two antagonists – the “hack novelist” of Poor Folk (pre-exile, D’s first novel) and the dreaded aristocrat-pseudo-radical Stravrogin of Demons (post-exile, one of his last) come in for some similar criticisms…

    @David – You are right that the failure of our current prisons to provide effective rehabilitation does not tell against the existence of prisons per se – it would be hard to prove that prisons were intrinsically flawed as rehabilitative or deterrent institutions. But there is a certain sort of empirical proof here that seems relevant even if not decisive – there are just not a lot of examples from history of societies that regularly used extended prison terms as a punishment for crimes that succeeded in reducing crime through such a mechanism.

    That’s sort of why I’m a bit more sympathetic to the Foucault-type story – these prisons are doing something for all of us. On this view, the deterrence or rehabilitation arguments, or even the retribution arguments, are just the post-hoc theorizing of a society which for some reason needs the sort of collective cathartic trauma that both violent crime and draconian punishment provide. So I guess on that view, it’s less important whether any of the normative arguments work.

    But even so – it’s a fun game to play. You ask Why the failure of the rehabilitative aspect also undermine the deterrence argument? I guess I was saying they’re both the same sort of consequentialist argument at their base. A failure of rehabilitation will, in some sense, become a failure of deterrence. If criminals emerge from prison having not been rehabilitated, they will return to their criminal habits, probably even harsher criminal habits. This means that their return to freedom would result in a net increase in crime. Of course, their imprisonment still could have deterred others from committing similar crimes, but all I was saying is that these two categories can both be reduced to the question of whether net crime increased or decreased as a result of the imprisonment.

    The retributive argument, on the other hand, is a deontological argument, as I understand it. It argues that someone deserves a punishment simply by virtue of an act they’ve perpetrated. Even if the deterrence and the rehabilitation arguments failed, a retributivist would still have an argument. I’m just not really clear about what that argument is in the first place. But I also suspect retributionism is really the guiding impetus behind much imprisonment. Hence the need for a geneological/archeological approach to understanding the institution of prison. It would reveal the source of our “intuitions” about punishment, or help do so at least.

  5. Nates says:

    @ Josh: yeah, it makes sense that the relationship between D’s pre and post-prison beliefs is more complicated than I was suggesting.

    On the normative issue, it seems that we as a society do not agree on what should be the most important roles of prisons. So, we end up with institutions that are trying to realize very different, often conflicting aims–and succeed in doing none of them very well. If we all agreed that rehabilitation was the most important aim, then I suspect that our prisons would look very different and would be much more successful. (Likewise, if we all supported retribution as the primary aim.)

    I suppose my point could also be put in developmental (genealogical?) terms. We have institutions designed primarily for retribution and deterrence that have gradually assumed the task of rehabilitation. It’s an awkward fit.

  6. David says:

    Nates writes: “I suppose my point could also be put in developmental (genealogical?) terms. We have institutions designed primarily for retribution and deterrence that have gradually assumed the task of rehabilitation. It’s an awkward fit.”

    No doubt–it’s interesting, though, that there was a time in this country (70’s would be my guess, but I’m not sure) when ‘rehabilitation’ was the explicit goal of our prison system. This led to prisons all over the country being re-named “Correctional Centers,” which now seems like a bad joke.

  7. David says:

    Josh writes: “The retributive argument, on the other hand, is a deontological argument, as I understand it. It argues that someone deserves a punishment simply by virtue of an act they’ve perpetrated. Even if the deterrence and the rehabilitation arguments failed, a retributivist would still have an argument. I’m just not really clear about what that argument is in the first place.”

    Yeah, Retributivist justifications of punishment are tricky. I’ve always thought the problem is that there’s no ‘argument’ for Retributivism that is, or could possibly be, more compelling than the basic intuition and widely shared belief that people who damage the well-being of others ought to suffer a proportional loss of well-being themselves. But of course that’s not so much an argument for Retributivism as a statement of the position.

  8. Josh says:

    Nates – I think I understand Foucault (in my limited exposure to his texts) to be saying something like this: the rhetoric of retribution, deterrence, and rehabilitation, indeed the whole normative edifice of theorizing about this question, are just post-hoc expressions of some much more primal function that prisons serve for our society. It seems to me that the varying modes in which “otherness” has been envisioned through these various justifications (and institutional structures) might require a less directly normative investigation to understand, to misappropriate the phrase, “the sources of normativity.”

    David – you’re right that the retributive argument seems just like a statement of position, and not a reasoned argument. It’s an appeal to intuition. To me, though, this strikes me as the most honest of the dominant accounts of prison as an institution. We have an unfounded, perhaps re-rational sense that people who do things that are wrong deserve to be denied their freedom. It’s neither right nor wrong – it’s just a moral phenomenon. [On a somewhat serious note – this is perhaps why prison rape jokes are, for whatever reason, more or less tolerated in polite company in today’s society… and why they illicit nervous, rather than hilarious laughter. It seems to point to some underlying unease about the whole thing.]

    To swing the discussion back to Dostoevsky – it seems like a first-person narrative by a theoretically sophisticated and emotionally attuned author such as D. would be a good way to start a more critical interrogation of prison as a social institution. It seems like an experience of narrative sympathy is more likely to stir the emotions and allow their exploration than perhaps a normative exploration a la “the philosophy of punishment.”

    While I’ve been reading The House of the Dead I have been reminded of Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Both were written very close to the same time, and shed light on two institutions that, for whatever reason, had a very intuitive grip over their own societies – Siberian exile imprisonment on the one hand and plantation-style slavery on the other. Both report the strange moral contortions these institutions seem to create on their victims, and both do so in seemingly unsentimental, but still quite profoundly emotional terms.

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