Two Hundred Seventy

The concept, or rather the practical application of the concept, of prison is bizarre. I’ve never thought of it quite the same way before, but this morning it hit me: society decides the behavior of an individual is sufficiently deviant from the range of behaviors we deem acceptable to warrant forcibly locking the person away.

Now, I have no argument that people who pose a physical danger to others should be restrained. But non-violent offenses are more problematic.  It’s not that I disagree that certain people who repeatedly steal or damage property should be prevented from engaging in those behaviors, it’s that the degree of deviance from the ‘norm’ is a moving target. That’s not just from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but from time to time and from judge to judge and from jury to jury within the same jurisdiction.

Prisons seem to be arbitrarily assigned corrective measures of last resort.

And there’s something else. A person can be put in prison for engaging in a behavior that, today, is judged sufficiently deviant to warrant incarceration. Yet, if the rules change tomorrow to permit that same behavior, the person is not freed; he or she is forced to serve his or her sentence based on the rules that were in play at the time of the infraction. If a person can be punished for breaking rules that are later relaxed, why shouldn’t society punish a person for engaging in behaviors that, today, are legal but become illegal tomorrow? For example, if a person is observed taking a pill that’s legal today, but becomes illegal tomorrow, should we not punish him for retroactive bad behavior?

Yes, I understand the arguments against the latter suggestion, but still I think the concept of prison is odd. We lock people away. We, the independence-loving people who fervently celebrate freedom, snatch it away because someone engages in behaviors we deem inappropriate.  Would we feel the same way we do today if the rules changed, making people who engage in behaviors in which we regularly engage subject to imprisonment? For example, if the “right” people came to power and decided coffee is an evil stimulant and its use should be punishable by five year stints in a state pen, would we be as vehement about insisting that people follow the rule of law or risk loss of their freedom?

Just thinking. That’s what I’m doing. Just thinking.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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