This article is inspired by another that I happened to be reading yesterday, an article about solitary confinement. I spent some time looking for it in my browsing history and I couldn’t find it, but I’m still inspired to write about it today. I’m writing about it today because the evidence is clear that solitary confinement makes permanent cognitive changes in the brain. There is even a scientific consensus that it’s torture and contributes nothing to rehabilitation of prisoners. But this article is not just about solitary confinement.
There is a difference between punishment and restraint. Punishment is retribution, plain an simple. Punishment says, you did wrong and look what’s coming. Punishment is taking some comfort, joy, or some pleasure out of seeing someone else suffer. Punishment assumes that making someone else suffer after he has made you suffer, will make you whole. Punishment is revenge and it is never sweet.
Then there is restraint. Restraint is different than punishment in that it says, “You can’t or refuse to control yourself, so we are restraining you until you can cool your heels.” Restraint is what we do when someone threatens violence or is violent. Restraint is not about punishment, it’s about safety. Restraint says, we will hold you in peace until you can let the feeling pass and stop being violent.
It is urgent to find authority for restraint when someone is violent. We think of how to be safe from a person who is threatening violence or carrying it out. Punishment is what happens long after the violence. Punishment is what happens long after the feelings have passed.
Our penal system has one of the highest rates of recidivism in the world, something on the order of 52% the last time I checked. That means there is a 52% chance that someone who has been convicted of a crime, served his time, and is freed from prison, will commit another crime and return to prison. That means better than half of the prison population will return again after release.
Clearly, we are not teaching at least half of American prisoners the skills they need to stay free. It is also clear, that the people who write public policy harbor no intention of doing so, else, why the high rate of recidivism? The numbers are plain to see. So is the outcome.
As a child, I’ve been made to sit in the corner for 20, 30 even 60 minutes. I know, it’s not solitary confinement, but it is but a taste. I’ve been grounded for an entire summer. No friends, no stereo, no phone, no TV. Just past due homework and books. Lots of books. As an adult, I spent a lot of my life living alone. So I have come to believe that even a little childhood confinement can make for some adult loneliness. I don’t think any of my sibs endured what I endured.
There is a saying that everyone is fighting a quiet battle that we cannot see. Most people who commit crimes have that. Some are mentally ill. Some are just having an adult sized meltdown after spending a very long time trying to solve a problem without getting the results they wanted. I’m not offering a defense of violent or non-violent crimes here. I’m just saying that people who commit crimes are always trying to solve a problem and that they don’t have the skills to solve it without hurting someone else. If people could do better, they would.
Solitary confinement, the death penalty, forced labor and chains, they are all extreme forms of punishment. All of them assume that a human being has the authority to impose those punishments on someone else. But the evidence is clear, none of those punishments provide rehabilitation. It is fair to say that all of them are about shame, as if shaming the prisoner will make him think twice before doing that again.
It is one thing to say to a child, “Please stop crying or I will give you something to cry about.” That is shame. Or we could say, “I see that you’re crying. I will give you a hug and teach you empathy. I will hold you until you can stop crying on your own.” That is, as an analogy, rehabilitation. Rehabilitation is teaching to men and women in prison the skills they need so that they can take care of themselves when they are free.
If we are focused on shaming people who have committed crimes while they are in prison, we are not focused on giving prisoners the skills they need to live a life in peace when they are finally freed. Prison must be more than just punishment or restraint, it must be rehabilitative.
Now it may be true that some people cannot be rehabilitated, that they simply lack the capacity to learn the skills needed to ever be free. Even with a life sentence, there is no reason to keep someone in solitary confinement. Solitary confinement doesn’t teach any skills. We can be pretty sure that the death penalty doesn’t teach any skills, either. Forced labor is slavery. And chains are just that. They don’t teach any skills other than how to keep living while bound in chains. But if we’re not completely focused on rehabilitation, even if there is no chance of release, then we’re not being humane.
Punishment is a very subtle concept. It can creep up often if we’re not aware of how we’re thinking. Have you ever been cutoff by someone in front of you while driving to work? Did you hurl profanities at that driver? Would you venture to say that you had an impulse to punish that other, oblivious driver?
Have you ever made a sarcastic response to what you might think is a stupid question? Did other people laugh? Uh huh. Punishment for a stupid question? Is there such a thing as a stupid question? I always assume that people ask a question in earnest curiosity or need, so I disregard their motives and answer the question. I assume that they really want to know the answer I have to give.
Do you see how easy it is to slip? Do you see how easy it is to justify punishment instead of rehabilitation? How easy it is to justify punishment over forgiveness. Oh, I know that one, and I know it well. Forgiveness is a form of rehabilitation, but it’s not for the offender. Forgiveness is rehabilitation for ourselves.