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Does Society Need Prisons?

Posted: February 28th, 2008, 4:09 am
by Scott
[The following topic is featured as a leadup to the May philosophy book of the month discussion of Holding Fire.]

Does Society Need Prisons?
by Scott Hughes

Millions of people in the world currently rot in jails or prisons. People think of jails and prisons as an essential part of society, but do we really need them? Do prisons really protect people from violence and victimization, or do prisons just make matters worse? Let's look at the different types of criminals that governments throw in prison.

Non-violent non-victimizers - Governments have a tendency to criminalize behaviors that do not hurt anyone. The governments create victimless crimes by creating authoritarian laws. When people break these laws, they have not hurt anyone in any major way. These laws can include any laws outlawing victimless behaviors, such as drug possession, prostitution, peacefully practicing a religion, and so on and so forth. For example, the United States currently has over 1 million people behind bars for victimless crimes, which only limits freedom and does not protect others. Instead of putting these non-violent people in jail or prison, we can just let them go and legalize all victimless behaviors. It makes more sense to let people have freedom than to waste resources enforcing authoritarian laws.

Incidental Criminals – Some people may commit an illegal act of violence or victimization due to external conditions. We can refer to these people as incidental criminals. These 'incidental criminals' do not have any more of a tendency to hurt others than the average person. For example, consider someone who has to steal to feed his family one day. Almost anyone would do that, so it does not mean we need to throw the person in jail or prison. If we can change the conditions that cause a normal person to commit a crime, then we can do that rather than brutally lock a person in a cell. We have no need to throw a person in jail or prison if they pose no more danger than the average person but committed a one-time crime due to external circumstances.

Mentally Sick People - Finally, we have sick people. These people have some sort of mental defect that makes them a danger to other people. If we do not restrain these people, they will victimize other people. So we must restrain them. But why put them in jail or prison? They need treatment, and prison will not cure them; it will just torture them. If we put them in jail or prison, then we can never let them out because jail or prison will not cure them. If we put them into a treatment facility, then we may successfully treat or cure some of them, at which point we can safely release those ones back into society. We will protect more people by putting mentally sick people into treatment centers (including insane asylums), then by throwing them in jail or prison. These people need professional care in a medical establishment, not the punishment of prison.

I think most people feel like me in that I would prefer to protect people and to do it in as least brutal a way as possible. I have no interest in using the force of government to pointlessly get vengeance or inflict punishment using prisons. Thus, I see no need for prisons. We can release people who have no psychological defect that makes them dangerous, and we can put the ones with psychological defects in treatment. Let's base our policies on sympathy, understanding, and a desire to protect people. Let's not base policy on a wasteful indulgence in state-sanctioned vengeance.

About the author: Scott Hughes manages the Philosophy Forums, which contain a Philosophy of Politics Forum. You can use the forums to discuss topics such as this and more.

What do you think? Do you think society needs prisons? Why or why not?

Posted: February 28th, 2008, 7:56 am
by bossssob
Societies need to have prisons but on the other hand societies need to equitable law and judgement systems.I mean that there should be moderation: 'proportionality principle '.. So many constitutional systems assuming this principle in theory but in practice, they are generally unsuccesful.

Re: Does Society Need Prisons?

Posted: February 28th, 2008, 1:33 pm
by 1Samuel8
First of all, I believe the whole question is fallacious.
There is no such entity as "society" that exists in any intelligent manner which can have a need. Only individual people can have a need. There may be a common need among every single individual, for example, breathing oxygen, drinking water and eating food.

If you are asking whether there is a universal common need among every single person for prisons, the answer is clearly negative. This negation can be demonstrated different ways:
1) find one non-prisoner who does not want prisons
2) find one prisoner who wants out of prison
3) find one geographical area that does not have prisons yet still contains a population

Re: Does Society Need Prisons?

Posted: February 29th, 2008, 4:41 pm
by donisbac
I like the idea but I wouldn't think thats possible because there are a lots of criminals who like to take advantage to the system where he/she will pretend to be an insane after slaying/killing the victim. So the criminal will likely admitted to a mental hospital for evaluation instead of putting that person to jail. Jail is pain and its not a good place to be especially if you are being mixed with a bunch of hardcore criminals. So as like i said, a mental institution is not a good option for real criminals. So, yes the Society need Prisons.

Re: Does Society Need Prisons?

Posted: February 29th, 2008, 6:12 pm
by Roland
1Samuel8 wrote:There is no such entity as "society" that exists in any intelligent manner which can have a need. Only individual people can have a need.
I don't agree with this sentence. I don't know if you know the very important French Philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau.This man explains in one of his book ("le contrat social"... I don't know the title in English...)that there is two types of interest : particular interrest for individual person and general interest for a society... and I think that the first interrest of any entity is to satisfy its needs (to survive, ...) ... So a society can have needs... And more... these needs are the causes of existence of this society...

PS : I hope my English is not too bad... A french philosophy "fan" !!!!

About prisons...

Posted: February 29th, 2008, 6:42 pm
by Roland
The fonction of prison is to exclude some people from other people of society. This exclusion is very special because if the problem was only from the responsibility of the prisonners, there will be only a need to ban these people... But if a society ban all his prisonners, it is like like a slow death where individual people who consitute the society are supressed from it...So the prison is a very special place where you are exluded from the other individual person of the society but not of the society as an entity (prison are where are people)... So, the prison are a way to satisfy the need of society to continue to exists with ignoring (with this specific exclusion process) its problems.

Prisons are for society, that subconscient is for individuals... And do you think we could live without subconscient ?

Re: About prisons...

Posted: March 1st, 2008, 8:30 am
by 1Samuel8
Roland wrote:But if a society ban all his prisonners, it is like like a slow death where individual people who consitute the society are supressed from it...
However, nobody should be forced to associate with any other person.

Roland wrote:I don't agree with this sentence. I don't know if you know the very important French Philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau.This man explains in one of his book ("le contrat social"
L'explication de Rousseau n'est point une justification.
Connaissez-vous Lysander Spooner? Je suggere:
www . no-treason . com/Starr/1 . html

En effet, il n'y a aucune Etat qui s'est etablit avec le consensus de "son" peuple.
Roland wrote:PS : I hope my English is not too bad... A french philosophy "fan" !!!!
Votre anglais est parfait.

Posted: March 1st, 2008, 1:13 pm
by sethm395
For the most part of your argument I agree with you. However I disagree that your taxonomy of criminality is exhaustive. You might wnat to say that those who don't fall into either of the first two categories must fall into the last one. But to do that is to say that there are a lot more mentally ill people in the world than is really justified. Take for example the person who parks in a hadicap parking spot. The are commiting a criminal act yet they are not incidental criminals nor are they commiting a victimless crime. You can't just say that they are mentally ill for what would be the basis of your diagnosis? That they did the criminal act? That would merely be a circular justification of your classification. If you don't like the above example then ponder this: A bank makes a mistaken deposit of $2 000 000 into a person's account and that person withdraws the money so the bank doesn't have an opportunity to rectify the error. Is that person mentally ill? Perhaps and perhaps not. If you define the criminal insane as any person who commits a non-incidental non-victimless crime then you are right, but that definition seems far too broad for me.

Posted: March 3rd, 2008, 6:06 am
by Invictus_88
With respect, even if your three arguments above are valid, you have still only considered three subgroups of prisoner whereas there are others which are more difficult to explain out of prison.

Posted: March 3rd, 2008, 11:06 pm
by Scott
Thanks for your replies everyone!

bossssob, I agree that society need equitable laws, but I don't think they need prison. Instead of putting especially dangerous people in prison, we can put them into medical institutions. The rest can be safely released; right?

1Samuel8, you make an interesting point about semantics, but that's for another discussion. The question is this: Are prisons needed to fulfill the goals for which they have been created? The only goal about which I care is protecting people by restraining dangerous people.

donisbac, you worry that criminals would pretend to be insane. But I am saying that they psychologically defected in a way justifying forced institutionalization; they do not need to pretend. If they are not psychologically abnormal in a way that makes them more dangerous than the average person, then they can be safely released. The non-dangerous and non-insane people need neither prison nor medical institutionalization. Basically, I am mostly just suggesting that we restrain dangerous people in medical institutions rather than prisons.

sethm395, you say that my taxonomy is not exhaustive. I think it must be. Either a criminal is psychologically abnormal in a way that makes him a special danger to others or the criminal is not. You give examples of people who break simple laws such as parking in a handicap spot. These people can fall into the category of incidental criminals if it is not that unusual of a behavior. On the other hand, if society is outlawing normal behavior, then that might be an example of a victimless crime or what could be called a nearly victimless crime, such as speeding. Even if you feel the need to outlaw and punish people for commonplace acts, I think you would agree that they could be punished with fines rather than with prisons.

Invictus_88, you too think my taxonomy is incomplete. I think it logically must be. If a person commits a crime, they logically must have either committed a victimless crime or committed an act of criminal victimization. Of the ones who committed an act of criminal victimization, they logically must each either be a person who do not have an abnormally dangerous psychological state or a person who does have an abnormally dangerous psychological state.

Basically, my overall contention is that we can release anyone who does not have a psychological abnormality making them espeically dangerous to others. As for the ones that are psychologically dangerous, we can restrain them in a medical institution rather than in prison.

Posted: March 3rd, 2008, 11:29 pm
by Invictus_88
Drug-addicted thieves?

Posted: March 5th, 2008, 6:57 pm
by vandsmith
what an interesting question!

"do we really need prisons? do they protect people, or do they make matters worse?"

i think it's clear to most people that restraining dangerous individuals is a necessity in any society. that being said, you identify that some people in prisons might not really need to be there, with aggressive and violent offenders and i agree with you there are some "criminals" who shouldn't be locked up. as for the type of people i am talking about here, well small-possession of drugs; those who have fallen to the three-strikes rule...but realize that these aren't necessarily victimless crimes. in fact, prostitution shouldn't be illegal and prosititutes shouldn't be put in jail. but where there is an active sex-ring, and abuse from within, the leaders should be locked up in my opinion. even drug possession - lock up the leader, or the highest person you can find; alternatively, legalize the growth and consumption of marijuana and that alone relieves pressure on the whole prison system (just to take one offence).

using mental institutions instead of prisons is simply tranferring the problem, and stamping a stigma on anyone who goes there. i'm uncertain as to which insitution is more dangerous, both have track records of abuse and repression (not always undeserved either). what about the racism inherent in the prison system? how about the fact that the majority of prisoners are minorities/black men? something like $50 billion per year is spent on prison system in america, and i believe about 1 in 10 people in america are now in prison. how about that fact? 25 million prisoners!

do we need prisons? no. do we need a better legal-prosecutorial system? yes. we need to restrain people who inflict wanton violence on members of society, or who pose a significant theat to society through their actions. of course, if more resources are spent on education, health care, and other social services it is arguable that this problem would not be as bad as it is, at least in the u.s.


Posted: March 13th, 2008, 4:07 pm
by Daniel Owen
Yes. We need prisons. And we (in England) need to bring back capital punishment. Society cannot survive anti-socials, freedom cannot survive freedom-haters.

Posted: March 17th, 2008, 2:42 pm
by Scott
I don't know if I said this before, but I think education needs to be a major of treatment for criminals. All in all, as I said in another recent blog post, I see the main forms of criminal rehabilitation as education, psycho-therapy, and psychiatric care.

Invictus, drug-addicted thieves seem like a great example of people who would be more effectively, cheaply, and compassionately neutralized with medical treatment rather than prison. Don't you think so? After getting their drug addiction sufficiently treated (which may also require a life-long participation in an N.A. type group) and having any related problems fixed (such as poverty from lack of education), these people could be safely released back into society. I believe throwing drug-addicted thieves in prison for a preset amount of time would probably just make them worse.

Vandsmith, thanks for your reply! At one point, you say that using mental institutions instead of prisons is simply transferring the problem. I agree. I see it as transferring the problem to a place that can more effectively fix it rather than leaving the problem in a place that will probably make it worse. I believe prisons do not fix the problem; they just lock it up for a while and then let it go. Well-run medical facilities can treat the criminals so that they will no longer pose a danger to society. (Granted, poorly run treatment facilities will just be prison under a different name.) I also agree very much with your speculation that if we spent more on education, health care, and other social services it would prevent much of the problems in the first place.

Daniel Owen, you say that we need prisons and that England needs capital punishment. Why do we need them? What allegedly needed purpose do they fulfill that cannot be fulfilled by restraining the inmates in medical institutions that provide treatment? You say that society cannot survive anti-socials and that freedom cannot survive freedom-haters. Why can we not protect society and freedom by restraining "anti-socials" and "freedom-haters" in medical facilities for the purpose of receiving treatment?


Posted: March 17th, 2008, 3:32 pm
by Scott
Cori Buraks sent me the following reply to the article in the first post of this thread.
Cori Buraks wrote:I completely agree that prostitution and drugs should be legal. After all, we own our bodies, not the government. However, you can't possibly put all violent offenders out on the street or in mental institutions. You have to remember that violent criminals are NOT insane, despite popular belief. Furthermore, most of them suffer from anti-social personality disorder or psychopathy. People suffering from these disorders lack the ability to feel guilt and empathy. They believe that nothing they do is their own fault; i. e. someone else did something to make them commit the crime. Because they lack conscience and accountability for their actions, they are resistant to any psychological treatment. They think everyone else is the problem. Treatment only works if you are willing to accept it and admit you have a problem.

You obviously don't know what state mental institutions are like. They cost more in tax payer dollars to run than prisons and are almost as harsh. State mental institutions are designed to do what prisons do-keep dangerous people from hurting themselves and others. Their primary purpose is NOT to provide treatment. The harsh truth is that such individuals cannot be rehabilitated. Law abiding citizens deserve protection from dangerous people.

I don't know what you do for a living, but you clearly are not in the field of psychology. You really need to do more research on psychology, sociology, law, economics, and public policy before making such outlandish claims. You are only showing your own ignorance in these blogs, especially the one on corporate violence.

The prison system definately needs reform. I agree that you don't want to send criminals to a place that makes them more violent when they are released than when they entered. But, quite frankly, if you are willing to commit heinous crimes against humanity, you deserve whatever you get.

Respectfully Yours,
Cori Buraks
Cori Buraks,

You say that criminals are NOT insane, but then you say that most of them suffer from pathologies such as anti-social personality disorder or psychopathy. So it appears to me that you do see that many people commit acts of criminal victimization out of a psychological abnormality.

I say society does not need prisons because those people, who have a psychological abnormality making them more dangerous than the typical free person, can be restrained in a treatment facility managed by medical professionals instead of a prison. I also will say that I believe that putting them in well-run treatment centers, where they will get treatment and care from medical professionals, will prevent future crime more effectively, cheaply, and compassionately than just throwing them in prisons.

As you point out, some mental disorders and psychological abnormalities can not be cured to the extent that it will ever be safe to release the person back into regular society. I still believe that these incurable people can be put into medical institutions rather than prison, where they can receive whatever care and treatment is available from medical professionals. I would much prefer those people who must be restrained for life be put in medical facilities where they can receive care and compassion, rather than thrown into much more horrible prisons. For the most part, the incurability issue is irrelevant because it will hardly be known that a certain person cannot be successfully treated until after the attempts have failed. (And let's not forget that most of the treatments that medical scientists have discovered were discovered in major part from the failed attempts at treatment in the past.)

As for the so-called criminals who do NOT have a psychological abnormality making them more dangerous than the typical person, they can be released safely back into society. The civil courts (not the criminal courts) are there to make them pay restitution for any damages they caused to others by their crime.

You say that law abiding citizens deserve protection from dangerous people. I also want to protect innocent citizens. I believe it is my number 1 priority. We can protect the innocent people by restraining the dangerous ones. I am simply suggesting we restrain them in treatment centers rather than in prisons.

You also point out that some state-run "mental institutions" are run just like a prison. Such places are prisons as far as I am concerned. I am suggesting we restrain the psychologically dangerous people in a place where they are forced to stay but where the focus is to provide treatment and care in a compassionate enviornment managed by medical professionals.

Finally, you say that the prison system definitely needs reform. I agree. I want the prisons reformed into treatment centers where, instead of being punished with the terrible and corrupting enviornment of prison, the inmates will receive treatment and care in a compassionate enviornment run by medical professionals. Of course, as we have agreed, reforming the justice system would also include outright releasing a lot of people who do not pose an abnormal danger (e.g. prostitutes).