Shrinking prison system the best way to release potential


OPINION:WHEN WE think of Dickens at this time of year it is usually A Christmas Carolthat is called to mind. But Dickens wrote extensively about crime and punishment and one of his most famous contributions to the debate about the treatment of offenders was a chapter in American Notesthat described his visit to the Eastern Penitentiary in Philadelphia in 1842.

This institution had achieved world renown on account of the system of separate discipline that it operated. In essence, this entailed holding prisoners in solitary confinement for the duration of their sentences.

It was hoped that by isolating them from the pernicious influence of other criminals they would have no option but to reflect on their wrongdoing, realise the error of their ways, and repent. Under the guidance of the chaplain, and with the support of other concerned citizens, they would emerge from their cells as reformed characters ready to play a useful role in society.

The prison sentence, despite its hardships, was seen as an opportunity for redemption.

Dickens was horrified by what he witnessed during his visit. He met a sailor who had been in solitary confinement for upwards of 11 years and was due for release but appeared not to care. He had lost interest in what liberty might offer and struck Dickens as “helpless, crushed, and broken”.

The sailor’s sentence was several times greater than the maximum prison term available in England at the time. To Dickens’s readers at home, who were used to seeing transportation as the solution to the convict problem, to incarcerate anyone for so long must have seemed barbaric.

The Eastern Penitentiary closed in 1971 but extreme separation and lengthy incarceration remain part of the prison system in the US. Last month I had an opportunity to speak to men whose experience of penal austerity is as shocking to an outside observer today as was what Dickens witnessed 170 years ago.

Some were serving life sentences without any prospect of parole. Others were facing death by lethal injection and spent each day alone in their cells apart from periods of exercise in individual cages and the occasional non-contact visit. All measured the time already spent in custody in decades.

There is one major difference between these prisoners and their forebears. It is that the system which confines them no longer holds out any hope of redemption; a route back to society does not exist.

The sense of hope these men expressed was striking, despite the formidable odds stacked against them. Where corrosive bitterness might have been expected there was instead resilience, qualified optimism and clarity of perspective. Self-pity was in short supply and there was a desire to focus what remained of their lives on socially productive ends.

Many of those jailed for life in the US are not killers. That they end up being sent to prison until they die is explained by a criminal process that has become distorted by poverty of imagination, political posturing, inflexible sentencing regimes, and poor-quality legal representation.

While the US appetite for punishment remains considerable there is a growing sense that excessive imprisonment can no longer be justified or afforded. When public money that could be used to strengthen families and communities is instead diverted into prisons, the counterproductive consequences are all too readily apparent.

To deny people a second chance, even if they have caused harm, contributes to an unwelcome coarsening of attitudes. A vengeful, vindictive approach to certain categories of lawbreaker, many of whom have already suffered violence and neglect, can be symptomatic of a society undergoing a crisis of confidence and searching for scapegoats.

Leniency is not the same as lack of determination. Victims do not always want more punishment and countries are not necessarily safer if they treat lawbreakers more harshly. Neither is it the case that convicted criminals invariably reoffend.

It is clear from research findings that people can change for the better and remaining open to this possibility brings many benefits for everyone affected by crime.

Does the punitive obsession that has long characterised the US have any bearing on developments in Ireland? In certain respects it seems to. The prison population has been allowed to drift to unprecedented heights, and faltering steps have been taken towards the creation of an environment where second chances are less likely forthcoming.

Some of the humanity that was formerly part of the Irish prison system, such as a relatively generous approach to early release, is ebbing away. This can be seen in the amount of time that life sentence prisoners serve before they are allowed out on licence which averaged less than eight years between 1975 and 1984; rose to 14 years between 1995 and 2004; and now stands at 17 years.

There has also been a growing reluctance to allow temporary release at Christmas, a privilege that was traditionally used to sustain family ties at a time of year when they were felt to be especially fragile.

People tend to greet the new year with a slew of resolutions. They see it as a time to start afresh, to make amends, to renew friendships, to remember Christmases past, and to imagine Christmases yet to come.

If those responsible for criminal justice policy could resolve to shrink the prison system in 2012, and to release the constructive potential of those behind bars, we would be off to a good start.

Ian O’Donnell is professor of criminology at University College Dublin

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