The urge to punish

I recently had a conversation with an acquaintance about working in prisons. He said he thought it might be a good thing that there was something else for ‘crims’ to do inside, apart from ‘just shanking and bumming each other’. It struck me as an ineptly light-hearted comment, born more of privilege and ignorance than of malice, and I did my best to look past it, and talked vaguely about how I think there is human potential in dark places. At the time, I had neither the energy nor the clarity to confront him more vigorously, weary as it made me.

“It is a dreadful indictment of our society and culture that prison rape is considered an inconvenience to politicians, a punchline for comedians or, worst of all, as just deserts for criminals.”

This article, particularly the quote above, crystallises my thoughts, and brings me both energy and clarity. Have a read, and a think about it, and reflect that what happens in prisons (or, for that matter, hospitals, jobcentres or anywhere else the blunt end of government policy crashes home on actual people) is done in the good names of you and me, the law-abiding, hard-working citizens at large.

To a very large extent, prison and what goes on there represents a way to communicate ‘our’ values to ‘them’ – those whom ‘we’ judge to have transgressed. It offers a setting in which ‘they’ can wallow in the self-justifying cycle of despair and victimhood; or it can be the kind of environment that tries to practise care, solidarity and responsibility in order to foster conscience, which is by far the likeliest means to prevent further harm. Most of ‘us’, perhaps by definition, are likely to have experienced such an environment among family and friends. If so, we will have first-hand experience of how difficult and messy this practice can be – but also how essential for our sanity and security.

Yet when it comes to ‘them’, we may seem blinded to this privilege and unwilling to extend it to prisoners. I don’t find the defence of anger and revulsion at ‘their’ crimes a very effective defence of this attitude, because I too know that I have done bad things in my life, and that they don’t comprise the whole of me. What matters is less where you’ve been than what direction you’re now travelling in. In the case of very serious crimes, the backdrop is of terrible, perhaps irreversible harm – and that can make forgiveness difficult, or even impossible. It’s not something to be forced on anyone, least of all those closest to it. Yet in most cases ‘we’ have no close connection to a particular crime, and still rush in to feel the comfort of revulsion, of finding ourselves better than ‘crims’.

I recently had the experience of being wronged by a good friend. It hurt, despite the fact that I knew it was unintentional – careless, rather than deliberate. And to be honest, when my friend reached out to say sorry and make amends, I felt this urge to punish and push away: an eye for an eye. It was seeing my friend in person that softened my heart. It wasn’t even that my friend gave an eloquent apology; it was because I could see the pain of remorse, and that engaged my conscience. Forgiveness was my way of reducing pain. It was a need, and it led to reconciliation and a clearing of the air, as well as an opportunity to let go of my own bundle of hurt. Those of ‘us’ who have some positive experience of reconcilation ought to extend its possibility to others.

It’s difficult to feel this response to pain and remorse so immediately in the case of prisoners, because so few of us see them. In fact, the whole language and nature of prison is to ‘other’ them, to hide them and shut them away, and perhaps in some cases this is a necessary last resort. But it has the dangerous effect of making it easy to harden our hearts, to dismiss, and to see only wrongdoing, which is never the whole picture, though it may be a large part of it.

So, you might feel differently to me about that article. You’re quite entitled to the view that some people in prison deserve whatever’s coming to them, and I’d be happy to agree to disagree with you about that. But if you believe the rule of law and the concept of a duty of care both end at the prison gate, I might conclude that your attitude betrays a low regard for life. I might perhaps also express the hope that you too find relief from the dark, alienated world that you are willing to see inflicted on others.

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