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.