Justice for society

To be cheeky about it, one could say that the only things in life that are certain are death and crime (there are people who, due to a lack of income, could avoid paying taxes). Crime is one of those things that, for centuries, caused people to try and eliminate it. They have routinely failed. As long as there are societies and laws and rules, there will be crime.

So having established that eliminating crime is a fool’s errand, we must turn to the question of what, exactly, do we do with all this crime that we have mucking about? Reducing it seems to be a fairly agreeable idea and a somewhat attainable one at that, too. There are two directions to approach this from: you stop people before they commit their first crime (with the acknowledgment that you’re going to fail some of the time; see above) or you stop people from committing their second crime.

You do the latter by punishing people for the crime that they have committed to teach them how not to behave: that committing crimes is wrong and socially unacceptable. You also do the latter by teaching those same people how to behave: that integrating into society and being law-abiding is an admirable goal.

What suffices as punishment for crimes that have been committed? Is or should the immediate and long-term loss of liberty and freedom suffice? Or do the conditions and the manner of that deprivation also have to be deplorable it to be considered equitable? And does the manner of that punishment have any bearing on the second approach, i.e., nurturing the better instincts in humans in an effort to aid them in controlling their circumstances and emotions.

One prison in Norway thinks so: that isolation from society is punishment enough and what people do while isolated will shape what they do when they are returned to society. The Bastøy prison is tucked away on a small island and home to 115 prisoners who have committed all manner of crimes – ranging from murder and rape to drug peddling.

From the Guardian article, written by convicted murderer-turned-journalist Erwin James [for more on him, read this]:

I wasn’t sure what to expect on Bastoy. A number of wide-eyed commentators before me have variously described conditions under which the island’s 115 prisoners live as “cushy”, “luxurious” and, the old chestnut, “like a holiday camp”. I’m sceptical of such media reports.

Whether it was as those adjectives described it or not (it’s still a prison, remember) is beside the point. The point is that such descriptors reflect our attitude toward what a prison should be and yet such attitudes are entirely at odds with what is actually productive and beneficial to society.

Says governor of the prison – and clinical psychologist by profession – Arne Nilsen:

In closed prisons we keep them locked up for some years and then let them back out, not having had any real responsibility for working or cooking. In the law, being sent to prison is nothing to do with putting you in a terrible prison to make you suffer. The punishment is that you lose your freedom. If we treat people like animals when they are in prison they are likely to behave like animals. Here we pay attention to you as human beings.

“If we treat people like animals…they are likely to behave like animals” is precisely what a client once said to me. Nilsen concludes:

It is important that when they are released they are less likely to commit more crimes. That is justice for society.

And does it work? Norway has one of the lowest rates of recidivism in the world and Bostoy’s recidivism rate is 16%, compared to anywhere from 40-60% for the United States, where we warehouse prisoners as cattle and treat them like no more than parts on a never-ending assembly line.

It is true that Bastoy accepts transfers from inmates who have shown a true dedication to change. It is true that Norway has maximum security prisons where the worst of the worst can be housed. But it is also true that Norway’s justice system is less interested in retribution and more so in rehabilitation and reintegration and – dare I say it? – justice.

“Do as I say, not as I do” is no way to be a role model for those among us who have succumbed to undesirable instincts and behaviors. Compassion, understanding and help, while simultaneously imposing punishment by depriving an individual of liberty, seems like a measured way to repair the wounds of individual victims and society in general.

As James concludes:

On the ferry back to the mainland I think about what I have seen and heard. Bastoy is no holiday camp. In some ways I feel as if I’ve seen a vision of the future – a penal institution designed to heal rather than harm and to generate hope instead of despair. I believe all societies will always need high-security prisons. But there needs to be a robust filtering procedure along the lines of the Norwegian model, in order that the process is not more damaging than necessary. As Nilsen asserts, justice for society demands that people we release from prison should be less likely to cause further harm or distress to others, and better equipped to live as law-abiding citizens.

Don’t we owe that to ourselves?


Two other things of note:

1. The disparate prison terms in Western Europe and the United States bear remarking. The maximum life sentences in those countries are 20-odd years, whereas here, in the U.S., one can get that much time for simply robbing a store. It is certainly an indicator that we, in the U.S., value life and potential less than elsewhere.

2. Compare the subtle reporting of Erwin James – a former prisoner and engaging writer – with that of the anything-but-subtle-relying-entirely-on-cliches style of this CNN reporter, also reporting on Bastoy. I couldn’t shake the sense that the CNN reporter was reporting with disdain; in that, I think, he lost the point entirely.

H/T: Karen Franklin, whose blog you should be reading.


2 thoughts on “Justice for society

  1. Windypundit

    One of the other things about low-security prisons which you’d think would be appealing is that they are much cheaper to operate.

    I’m pretty sure the theory in this country is that you stop people from committing second crimes against society by separating them from society, which is the reason for the 20-year robbery sentences. And if you’re going to keep them in prison all their lives, there’s little point in preparing them to integrate back into society. Might as well treat them like animals.

  2. rita

    It’s always interesting to see when the binary human/animal surfaces, as here in the “treat people like animals and they are likely to behave like animals” phrase above. This sentence cannot mean what it appears to mean: humans are animals and non-humans do not, in their overwhelming majority, behave in ways which upset their communites, so what is this sort of thinking accomplishing? It sets up categories where individuals can be placed so that they can be treated in a way which overrides their particular interests. What is of note in the occurrence of this distinction in the article – it is well illustrated in one of the photographs accompanying the “Guadian” piece – is that the inmates of Bastoy act as prison guards to nonhuman prisoners: i.e. they treat them “like animals”.


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