Tag Archives: prison reform

Jail & Bail

Many people use the words “jail” and “prison” interchangeably. The distinction between this two typed of deprivation of liberty by the government is, however quite simple. Jail is the place were people are held before and during their trial. Prison is the place were we put convicted criminals.

When the police arrests someone, they will usually bring the arrested person first to the police station for [further] questioning. This stage usually takes several hours to a few days, and when it considered necessary to keep this person in custody for a longer period of time, the arrested will be transferred to jail.

The main purpose of keeping suspects in jail is to ensure they will show up in court, as it is difficult to convict people in absentia in many countries. Locking people up is, however, a drastic measure, in particular if one is suspected of a relatively minor crime.

There is a tension between jail and the presumption of innocence. This principle states that people should be held innocent unless proven otherwise. For liberal democracies this principle is of great importance as it protects citizens from arbitrary imprisonment. Before the authorities should be allowed to put you in prison, or to give you whatever punishment, they government should prove your guilt.

Because of this tension between protecting the rights of innocents on one hand and the desire to prevent suspects from fleeing the country, the concept of bail has been introduced. Bail is a sum of money one has to pay to leave jail, and this money is returned once one shows up in court (in your own trial). The height of this sum is set by the judge at a preliminary hearing.

In most cases suspects are allowed to leave jail if they pay bail, as most criminal court cases only involve minor crimes. There are, however, people who cannot pay bail, regardless of how low the bail is set. This is frustrating for poor suspects who are actually innocent, they are punished twice just for being poor as they are robbed of their liberty without due cause.

Bail is invented in more primitive ages, when technology was far less developed than today. Nowadays, we can prevent suspects from fleeing the country by electronic monitoring or in more extreme case with electronic house arrest. Hence in our opinion bail is outdated and should be abolished. Instead we are in favour of the following procedure:

At a pre-trial hearing the judge(s) should the decide whether a suspect should remain in jail (there are legitimate reasons to keep suspects in jail) or whether (s)he could await the trial in liberty. In the latter case it should be decided whether an additional measurements such electronic monitoring will be imposed. But in any way, if it is not necessary to remain in jail a suspect will be released regardless of his or her financial position.

How life would look like in a Penal Colony

Previously we have argued in favour of sending dangerous criminals to penal colonies, where the criminals have to stay but are further free to do what they want. In this post we have a closer look on what life would look like there.

First the colony itself has to be designed. A small space habitat as the Stanford torus designed for about 10,000 people, seems to be suitable to serve as a penal colony. There will be some non-convict staff, but since the convicts are not supposed to be under 24/7 supervision as in normal prisons, the number of guards can be kept low. It suffices to control the entrée and exit gates of the colony, in order to prevent escape.

Most staff would consist of medical and paramedic personal and probation officers. But the non-convict stuff should be no more than 25% of the total number of residents. Instead most of the services should be provided by the convicts themselves. For instance some convicts could get a barber’s license and provide hair cuts to other criminals, hence there will be no need for hiring non-convict barbers.

A part of the colony will be reserved for agriculture, and plots of agricultural land will be given to some convicts for the purpose of growing food for the colony’s residents. This will reduce the need of importing food, and hence saves public funds. Agricultural surpluses will be exported in order to cover the expenses of the colony.

Other convicts will be employed to run the shops in the colony, or in the waste management department. But importantly all employment of convicts is done voluntarily, because forced labour is generally less productive. However, taking up some employment will increase the likelihood of being eligible for parole.

Besides employment the convicts will need accommodation. Our suggestion is to house them in simple residential containers, which could look like this one. And here we have a picture of how the interior might look like. Though the floor plan of such container has some similarities with a prison cell, the main difference is that in this case the convicts are not locked op in their containers and are allowed to leave it at any time. Since the convicts are supposed to prepare their own meals, each container will have a cooking unit.

For those who think this treatment is “soft”, recall that everyone sentenced to penal transportation has to stay in the colony for at least fifteen years, during which they are isolated from their friends and family (given the remote location of the penal colony, visits are almost out of the question). And a person condemned to this penalty, has to live among people who have proven to be dangerous criminals. Further parole is not guaranteed, but is at the full discretion of the government.

Penal transportation

Some criminals pose such a danger for society, that they need to be removed from society. By doing this citizens are protected from future crimes from said criminals. Such “punishments” are meant to deter or to rehabilitate criminals, the sole purpose of such treatment is incapacitation.

Nowadays prison sentences are often used to incapacitate dangerous criminals. In this post we will defend the “reintroduction” of the ancient penalty of penal transportation. First we will define penal transportation. Then we will analyse what kind of crimes should be punished by penal transportation. Thereafter we will discuss the practical aspects of this penalty.

What is penal transportation and what is the difference with prison? Penal transportation is the compulsory sending of people to a penal colony as punishment for a crime. Prison is any building used to lock people up as a punishment. In the case of penal transportation, the primary restriction is that the convicts remain in the colony. Further restrictions might be imposed upon them, but this not a prerequisite.

In our model the convicts are basically free to do whatever they want, except leaving the colony. Only communication with the outside world will be restricted, not to punish the convicts, but to protect civilized society from them.

This is a great difference with prison, where people are locked up in a small room for a large part of they day. We believe that long prison sentences are a kind of psychological torture, which only make people more dangerous than less.

Since incapacitation is the primary purpose of penal transportation, rather than rehabilitation, we should restrict this penalty to the really dangerous criminals, those who are likely to commit violent crimes again. Further this suggests that this penalty should be of indefinite duration. Under Napoleon’s Code Penal transportation was basically a life sentence, whilst under British law transportation was for time (although after completion this term, one had to pay for his own return).

An indefinite sentence means that the duration of the sentence is not predefined. In practise the actual time served depends on the prisoner’s own conduct. This allows the periodic re-evaluation of one’s sentence. Those criminals who remain a serious threat to society might remain in the penal colony for the remainder of their lives. A minimum term to be served of fifteen years, is in our opinion reasonable.

Peter Moskos suggests that pedophiles, psychopathic killers and terrorists should be locked up for life. We would add (serial) rapists and violent repeat offenders to his list.  These are the types of criminals for whom we believe, penal transportation is appropriate.

The idea of a penal colony is to relocate criminals to a remote place, in order to isolate them from society. The remoteness of the penal colony serves a protection measure in case a convict would escape from the colony. The greater the distance between the colony and society, the more difficult it will be for the fugitive to return to the country.

Any space habitat can serve as a penal colony, no one can escape with out a space ship. The suicidal nature of escaping of a space based penal colony will refrain convicts from attempting escape. However, some might manage to escape by stealing or hiding in visiting space ships. In that case long distances will also mean long travel time, and this will allow authorities to recapture the escapees before their effective return.

What should deportees do in such a space penal colony? Rather than to lock those convicts up in a small cell, they will be encouraged to perform labour. But unlike traditional labour camps, employment will and should be voluntary. However, taking up a job would increase the convict’s prospects of an early release. Besides employment, the prisoners will receive opportunities for education.

What kind of work will those convicts do? First, they have to be fed. Hence farming would be a major source of employment in penal colonies, as would be the processing of agricultural products. Mining would be another possibility, especially if these penal colonies are located in the Asteroid belt. But also some of the supervising of the prisoners could be done by convicts. Of course, the higher levels of supervision will be carried out by non-convicts. But convicts with demonstrated good behaviour could be rewarded with lower level supervision tasks.

Prison reform

This post is based on a presentation I gave as part of an undergraduate course on Modern Political Philosophy.

Crime and punishment is a subject which should be taken into account by Space colonists. If one thing is certain, there will be crime and criminals in any future Space settlement. Therefore we should consider how to deal with issues of criminal law. However, in this post we will not pursue what act should be considered as crime, only that we believe that the harm principle should be used to construe crimes [1].

An important question is whether we should use imprisonment as a punishment. Although the modern prisons system has been invented in the 18th century as a more civilized punishment, it has been controversial ever since. The prison reform movement is in fact as old as the institution itself.

American professor of criminal justice Peter Moskos argues [2]:

For most of the past two centuries, at least in so-called civilized societies, the ideal of punishment has been replaced by the hope of rehabilitation. The American penitentiary system was invented to replace punishment with “cure.” Prisons were built around the noble ideas of rehabilitation. In society, at least in liberal society, we’re supposed to be above punishment, as if punishment were somehow beneath us. The fact that prisons proved both inhumane and miserably ineffective did little to deter the utopian enthusiasm of those reformers who wished to abolish punishment.

Incarceration, for adults as well as children, does little but make people more criminal. Alas, so successful were the “progressive” reformers of the past two centuries that today we don’t have a system designed for punishment. Certainly released prisoners need help with life—jobs, housing, health care—but what they don’t need is a failed concept of “rehabilitation.” Prisons today have all but abandoned rehabilitative ideals—which isn’t such a bad thing if one sees the notion as nothing more than paternalistic hogwash. All that is left is punishment, and we certainly could punish in a way that is much cheaper, honest, and even more humane.

As an alternative Moskos make the following proposal in his book In defense of flogging [3]:

I propose we give convicts the choice of the lash at the rate of two lashes per year of incarceration. One cannot reasonably argue that merely offering this choice is somehow cruel, especially when the status quo of incarceration remains an option. Prison means losing a part of your life and everything you care for. Compared with this, flogging is just a few very painful strokes on the backside. And it’s over in a few minutes. Often, and often very quickly, those who said flogging is too cruel to even consider suddenly say that flogging isn’t cruel enough. Personally, I believe that literally ripping skin from the human body is cruel. Even Singapore limits the lash to 24 strokes out of concern for the criminal’s survival. Now, flogging may be too harsh, or it may be too soft, but it really can’t be both.

[…]

Because not only does incarceration not “cure” criminality, in many ways it makes it worse. From behind bars, prisoners can’t be parents, hold jobs, maintain relationships, or take care of their elders. Their spouse suffers. Their children suffer. And because of this, in the long run, we all suffer. Because one stint in prison so often leads to another, millions have come to alternate between incarceration and freedom while their families and communities suffer the economic, social, and political consequences of their absence.

The benefits of optional flogging as an alternative punishment for prison are clear, both for the criminal as for society. The life of the convict is not destroyed as is the case with years of imprisonment, but is still punished for his crimes. For society the main benefit is the reduced costs of administering justice.

Of course, Peter Moskos realizes that some criminals should be locked up, although this is not for the sake of punishment upon the criminal, but in order to protect society against the most dangerous criminals. Moskos further argues that optional flogging can and should be used in combination with restorative justice.

Video interviews with Peter Moskos:

In Defense Of Flogging As Alternative To Prison (CNN, 4.18 min)

In Defense of Flogging: Controversy Over Prisons and Punishment (PBS Newshour, 6.15 min)

Links

Review of Peter Moskos’ In defense of flogging by The Economist

Interview with Peter Moskos in Salon

Notes

[1] We see the harm principle as a rule of thumb rather than as an absolute rule. We acknowledge that this principle will not work in some circumstances, however we believe it is appropriate as a general rule.

[2] Peter Moskos, In defense of flogging in The Chronicle Review, April 24, 2011. (Visited on April 6, 2013).

[3] See previous note.