I was perusing the letters to the editor for my local paper when I came across one about the treatment of prisoners. It was a response to another letter, but it isn’t necessary to get bogged down in details. The gist is this: Some people think prisoners have it too easy and should get no privileges (such as TV) whereas other people believe it is better to use the carrot instead of the stick. Here is the response I left in the comment section:

[Letter writer] Kevin Tardiff makes some very salient points; I agree with his position.

The point of prison is not to merely punish. Punishment is the vehicle we use for two more important purposes: the safety of society and the rehabilitation of the offender. We cannot achieve these goals if we mistreat those we place behind bars. Isn’t it obvious the U.S. prison system is a failure? Countries which treat their prisoners with a certain level of human respect have lower recidivism rates, less crime, and less violence behind prison walls.

It’s clear there is an underlying desire among many people to get revenge. This reflects the false view that prison is for the primary purpose of punishment, and it’s a petty perspective to have. Aren’t we supposed to be better than those we imprison? People will argue (and some here already have) that violent offenders have mistreated their victims, so we shouldn’t give them any decent treatment in return. This is a bogus, inhumane position that promotes the exact sort of thing we wish to deter. People who make that sort of argument should be ashamed and embarrassed – ashamed because they are seeking hypocritical revenge, and embarrassed because their argument is logically incoherent. Should we also rape rapists in an act of tit-for-tat?

No one is arguing prison ought to be a cakewalk. And, the fact is, it isn’t. That’s why no one wants to be there. But we should have societal safety and rehabilitation in mind when we design prison programs and procedures. Treat the animal in the cage nicely and it won’t bite you when you let it out. Treat it poorly and you get what you deserve.

We’ve tried the macho tough-on-crime bullshit for a few decades now. It hasn’t worked. It has been an expensive endeavor that has only trained people to be better criminals. It’s time we start looking in the other direction. I know people are interested in abstract ideas of justice, but we have to do away with some of that. Let’s hold onto our ideals, of course, but let’s not pretend like we’re actually making anything better in the world by doling out a sort of government-endorsed karma. That might make us feel better in the short-term, but it doesn’t make us any safer or productive as a society.

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