Punishment: Its Ineffectiveness

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By Simon Li

Punishment is one of the foundational pillars of society; today, it manifests itself in the form of prisons, of the police, and of the criminal justice system. But what is it? At its core, it states that a necessary evil must be inflicted on those that do evil to others, that those who commit wrongdoing deserve retribution. This concept traces its origins to the earliest states, codified into law codes from the Code of Hammurabi to Roman law to today. The famous expression “an eye for an eye” is a perfect example of the pervasiveness of punishment. 

It is no wonder then, that a society without punishment seems ridiculous. Not only has it existed for millenia, it continues to be deeply ingrained for us to justify its existence. The mother tells the child that “only bad people go to jail” and that child grows up convinced that prison is a socially necessary institution. The news broadcasts stories about crime waves, about high profile murderers, about terrible people who do terrible things, and the public becomes terrified of crime waves, of high profile murderes, of terrible people who do terrible things. The public becomes convinced that the only way to crack down on the crime epidemic is to become harsher, to impose more punishments, as a form of deterrence and revenge. 

In this article, I shall attempt to do away with these notions of punishment.

The Failures of Punishment

“Prisons do not disappear social problems, they disappear human beings” — Angela Davis

The perceived goal of punishment today is to deter crime: to set an example for future wrongdoers and prevent current wrongdoers from committing more crimes. To do this, we send wrongdoers, called criminals, to cages, otherwise known as prison. There, prisoners supposedly reflect on their mistakes, pay their debt to society, and if they behave well enough, come out reformed.

Yet, what ends up happening is the complete opposite of what is intended: future wrongdoers are not dissuaded from crime, and current wrongdoers are more likely to commit more crimes. In America, the recidivism rate for prisoners is 76.6 percent over five years. In other words, 76.6 percent of prisoners released are rearrested within five years. What’s worse, decreases in crime over the past thirty years were only attributable to punishment policies by roughly 10 to 15 percent. 

Are these statistics that surprising, though? As a result of their sentencing, individuals often lose everything — employment opportunities, families, friends — and turn to crime as a result. Many learn new techniques for commiting crimes from other prisoners, and make up for the lost time once they are free. Others assert dominance within prison, their victims this time being fellow prisoners. Murder, theft, sexual and/or physical assault are commonplace within prisons. So commonplace that it has become a trope: for instance, the phrase “don’t drop the soap” is used jokingly to warn of sexual assault in prisons. Peter Kropotkin, writing about his personal experiences in prison, put it succinctly: “Prisons are universities of crime, maintained by the state.”

When we celebrate the sentencing of a criminal then, we aren’t better off as a society. We have just perpetuated the problem. Out of sight, out of mind, yes, but the problem itself has not disappeared. After all, it is much easier to read about how many more people were sentenced to jail this month than it is to actively seek the roots of crime. By what right do we, the public, have to be shocked when the news reports a new crime wave? 

Thus punishment serves only to bury people alive. Locked behind bars for months, years, decades even and left literally out of sight, out of mind. Forgotten. Condemned. They no longer have a right to humanity, stripped of identity, of free will, put in prison uniforms and sometimes even separated from all of humanity to the point of insanity. They disappear not just from society, but from themselves. Once the aspirant, the hopeful, now the hardened, battle worn criminal. For most, to reappear is a sisyphean task, trapped in an endless cycle of crime and punishment. To regain one’s humanity becomes an impossibility, lost forever to the bottomless pit one calls jail.   

To be clear, the absence of punishment is not the absence of accountability. Acknowledging responsibility for wrongdoing is not and cannot be coerced by punishment, and vice versa: to be accountable does not require the act of punishment. Many other forms of justice systems exist that still hold people accountable without punishing them, such as transformative justice. In the fear of being too long winded and off topic, an in depth analysis of transformative justice will not be explored today, however the basics of which rely on healing, peacemaking, and addressing the root causes of crime instead of punitive measures. 

It is uncivilized, if we are to believe the misattributed quote of Dostoevsky, to maintain such institutions in the name of deterrence or retribution. “An eye for an eye” leaves the whole world blind; those who inflict violence on others become no better than the supposed criminals that they are punishing. In the act of stripping away the criminal’s humanity, it strips away their humanity as well. To extrapolate further, if the society supports punishment, willing abets in the perpetuation of punishment, of violence, then we have collectively lost our humanity. Out of sight, out of mind becomes a condemnation for ourselves, supporting an institution of violence while wholeheartedly denouncing criminal violence in the same breath. The only solution can be abolition.