It’s Pay Back Time Prison is the university of crime. Justice should focus on restitution
At Port Arthur stands an appalling reminder of the useless cruelty we can so readily perpetrate, especially in the grip of ideology. I don’t mean the memorial to the 35 slaughtered by Martin Bryant, though it is hard to imagine a more futile viciousness, but a much older institution: the separation prison.
Now a tourist attraction among the convict settlement ruins, here victims were held in solitary confinement, unable to utter a word to another living soul for months, even years. On Sundays they would shuffle to the chapel to be locked into individual cubicles, wearing long caps with face guards pulled low, lest they received the comfort of eye contact. Jailers would guard against a whisper or the touch of another hand.
For one hour a week they would hear other human voices, and be able to lift their own in the hymns. At other times communication was by gestures and bells. Meals were passed through a trap in the cell doors. Guards and prisoners even wore felt cloth over their boots to ensure silence.
Part of being made in the image of God is that we are beings who relate, who need company and conversation. The separation prison seems to me sick and dehumanising. Yet this horror was deemed enlightened, an advance in penal theory, an improvement on the floggings and irons and cruel labor. It was modelled on Pentonville jail in London, under the belief that prisoners who had no escape from their thoughts would eventually find repentance and moral reform. The goal was rehabilitation.
It was not spectacularly successful. People in prison, then as now, did what they must to get by, and put it behind them when they got out.
But the prison system today is scarcely more successful. Recidivism stands at up to 70 per cent. Hardly anyone comes out of prison a better person than he went in; jails are universities for crime.
Edwin John Eastwood (Victoria’s Faraday primary school kidnapper) said on the eve of his release: “I liken jail to a family abandoning a pet in the forest. They wouldn’t recognise the pet two years down the track because to survive you have to become a feral animal. And the same is true for prison.”
No one denies prisons are necessary, but the vast majority of people locked inside them need not be there.
Traditionally, there are four purposes of punishment: retribution by society on the offender, to deter him and others, to protect the innocent, and to rehabilitate the offender so that he can become a useful member of the community.
Perhaps most important is the protection of the community, or quarantine, and here prison is the right option. Child abusers, psychopaths and violent criminals are obvious examples.
Next, I suggest, comes rehabilitation. We who have received grace are to impart it. God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but when they turn from their ways and live (Ezek. 18:23). The second principle, deterrence, is found in 1 Timothy 5:20, “those who sin are to be rebuked publicly, so that the others may take warning”, and punishment is there too (eg, 1 Pet. 2:14 tells us that governors are sent by the Lord for the punishment of evil-doers).
However, the Christian view of rehabilitation is quite different from moderns secular approaches, the extreme version of which is the behaviorism exemplified in the Kubrick film A Clockwork Orange. Here aversion therapy — linked to the only thing the protagonist loved, the music of Beethoven — was used to change the conditioning and produce different reflexes. The result was a monster — or a cripple — of a different sort.
The essential thing in rehabilitation is breaking habits or inhibiting habits about to form. It is not the best plan to put comparatively innocent lawbreakers among those who are hardened, cynical or despairing, where drugs and abuse and fear are constant companions.
English lifer Erwin James writes: “Prison is designed to disempower. Everyone in jail is vulnerable, to a greater or lesser extent. Prisoners live at the mercy of those in charge, and of each other, and dignity is a scarce commodity ... It is when prisoners feel they are not being afforded respect as people that the cynical prison culture thrives.”
He also claims: “Prison life is mostly a continuous repetition of the same day, over and over again. Finding a purpose and a meaning beyond ‘punishment’ can be a struggle. Often, people are not in prison long enough to discover anything worthwhile beyond a new set of criminal alliances. Or they end up inside for so long that any good that might have been achieved along the way is undermined by bitterness and resentment.”
“The paradox of prison lies in society’s expectations. The community wants retribution but also rehabilitation. For many, sending people to prison is not enough, they must suffer while there. But only somebody who has never been to prison would believe that jails are ‘soft’ places.”
Australia’s prison population is rising. Victoria, which has the smallest prison population, per capita, nevertheless found the prison population grew 27.8 per cent from 30 June 1995 to 30 June 2001. Of these 94 per cent are men, two thirds of whom have been in prison before, and the recidivism rate has increased steadily. The Victorian Government promised four new prisons in the state budget in mid-May, taking $194 million of a $334 million increase in the corrections budget, but recognised the need for rehabilitation programmes to reduce reoffending.
Reduced discretion for judges in sentencing is the biggest factor feeding the prison explosion, along with drug laws (more than 80 per cent of people behind bars are for crimes involving alcohol or other drugs).
The fact that judges cannot take the seriousness (or otherwise) of the crime into account, nor the circumstances of the offender, lies behind much of the controversy of the Northern Territory’s mandatory sentencing laws. There people have been jailed for stealing pencils, or a box of biscuits. Some of them, bewildered and despairing, have killed themselves.
The 19th century penal theorists were right that the key to rehabilitation is for the offender to take responsibility for what he has done and recognise the harm he has caused. The key lies in serving the community, and restitution is a vital aspect.
Under our present system, crime is against the state. The state jails the offender, the state takes the fine. Victims often feel deserted and bereft. The biblical method is restitution: the offender must repay the victim, plus a penalty (e.g. Ex. 22). This is not always possible but — especially with minor crime — it is possible much more often than it is done.
We know that rehabilitation must involve the whole person. Conversion is the best guarantee, but we can work to change lives of non-believers too. Programmes that bring young offenders face to face with those they damaged and confront them with the reality and impact of their crime have been quite successful. A wider system of community service orders would be appropriate for many who are now locked up.
Working in food banks and with charity organisations is better than tidying roadsides. What about young offenders working in supervised teams to fix up the homes or properties of the elderly and handicapped? Not only is it useful work, which benefits the community, but there are psychological benefits. It can break down the alienation, as each group becomes real, human, to the other; they are in a relationship. A cup of tea, scones and a chat could be a natural accompaniment.
Yes, the caseworkers and other costs would be significant, but surely not more than cost of keeping criminals in jail: at present, more than $50,000 a year each.
Theologians have traditionally distinguished between sin, vice and crime, as offences against God, oneself and others (clearly, sin usually encompasses the other two). But not every sin is a crime (it is impossible to legislate against greed or covetousness), and not every crime is a sin (for example, witnessing in countries where Christian evangelism is illegal). What they have in common is that the corruption begins within, so the offender cannot make any progress until he recognises his own responsibility, that the problem begins with himself.
My plea for alternatives to jail is not directed at serious crime, where retribution is important, where the community indicates its refusal to condone such behaviour by removing the offender, and where society’s wellbeing demands his removal. And these comments are the merest sketch of a way forward, for which many qualifications and caveats are needed. But the guiding principle is clear: God is quick to restore the penitent (1 Jn. 1:9). He is slow to anger, but abounding in loving kindness (Ps. 103:8). That should be our ambition too.