Retribution or Redemption: The Prison System’s Absurdity

Two theories of justice exist for prison populations: the retributionist theory in which the goal of prison is punishment as deterrence for future crimes, and the rehabilitation theory in which the goal is to reform and rehabilitate. Which is better?

In my opinion, using prison as punishment is counter-productive and harms not only society, but also the individuals who once made a mistake. We can see in European countries such as Germany or Norway how a more compassionate approach to rehabilitating criminals has resulted in less recidivism, with an associated reduction in crime rates. It makes sense, if you think about it. When someone commits a crime, they don’t think about the future punishment of prison in the moment — it certainly isn’t a primary concern or deterrent. Everyone always thinks, instead, that they will get away with it, that they must do it to survive, that what they are doing isn’t a crime to them. Or they simply don’t think about it at all, like with crimes of passion where anger blinds all.

Has anyone in the history of man ever looked up the punishment for stealing a bottle of wine before they do it? It’s a ludicrous proposition of course. So what then, is the point of using punishment as a deterrent when no one pays attention to it? Moreover, it exasperates pre-existing problems like anger issues, or a lack of empathy. When you think all everyone wants to do around you while you are in prison is make life miserable for you, there’s not only no incentive to change, but you end up hating them for it, which in turn increases risks of attacks on prison staff. The only benefit that I can see for the retributionist is that the victim might feel a little satisfaction in seeing the offender suffer as they did. Yet, among all the police officers I’ve talked to, victims rarely feel good about it, because it’s of course not going to bring a loved one back, or undo the injury caused. It’s just retribution. Eye for an eye.

As a society, however, we have a duty to reduce the crime rate. Punishments will not reduce recidivism, criminals with continue to re-offend as their entrenched opinions grow from this attitude cultivated from prison that everyone is out to get them. If instead, we tried to look at the root problems — their attitudes, beliefs, upbringing, environment, influences, etc. — and attempted to fix them, there’s benefits for all. Criminals would be less likely to re-offend, prison guards less likely to be attacked, prisoners less bitter and less likely to commit crimes again, in addition to making positive contributions to society. Who isn’t inspired by stories of redemption? Should we really be happy to deprive prisoners of basic rights like voting, reinforcing the notion that they are sub-human, sub-citizen, when even the victim would be happier seeing them reformed and change their ways? To look them in the eye and admit their mistakes, rather than lashing out at them and society?

It’s time we treated prisoners more like human beings, if not as a matter of morality, then as a matter of what’s best for society. We must change our broken prison system that overflows at the brim despite already housing — disgracefully — larger prison populations than even China, who has exponentially more people with less civil liberties and still somehow has less people in prison. We think of China as this dystopian county, yet it is us who has far more of their civilians in prison under dystopian conditions. This fact alone should prove how broken our system is. Inmates need to rehabilitated, and those who denounce such efforts as pampering criminals should consider the cost, both in terms of money and human life, that retributionist theories have inflicted. I would rather spend a little money to prevent future crimes, future inmates and victims, future suffering of humankind, than to allow this disgusting system to continue that harms us all.

The weakest part of the rehabilitation theory is arguably the victim’s point of view, yet every victim would give an arm and a leg to have prevented the crime from happening in the first place. This is what rehabilitation aims to achieve, and demonstrably does so statistically. So if it benefits the victim, the perp, the prison guards/police, and society, what are we waiting for? I think it is the wholly human desire for retribution on those who have wronged us. I would extend the German word of schadenfreude to this, the idea of taking pleasure in another’s pain. Some want to see these criminals utterly destroyed, blinded by hatred and the same lack of empathy that led those criminals to commit their crimes. It isn’t much of a leap to assume then that this hatred will eventually be acted on, like the Trump fans who have attempted to kill prominent Democrats or vigilante justice.

We cannot be blinded by this desire for retribution when all evidence suggests everyone benefits if we instead turn to rehabilitation and compassion. It’s time we look at the prison population as human beings, and pursue rehabilitation while rejecting prison as a punishment. Punishment has its place, but it cannot be the primary method of justice. If we can do this — and countries like Germany have already proven the human capacity to do so — then the country will undoubtedly be better off for it. One day, I assure you, we will look back at this medieval practice of treating prisoners like animals and wonder why we ever thought doing so would lead to any good outcome.

Psychology graduate and law student. I'm a paraplegic writer interested in everything, especially psychology, science, history, law, politics & philosophy.

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