Examining the Extremes: Punishment vs. Rehabilitation

Every once in a while I’m stumped with a decision to make that I could argue both ways.  And while this struggle can go on for quite some time while I sort it all though, often, it’s when I get back to examining my basic beliefs that everything becomes clear.

What often illuminates the belief I’m seeking is when I consider the extremes.  When there’s so much more at stake, I can feel in my gut what is right and what is wrong.  Which has led me to spend some time looking at the criminal justice system.  After all, when it comes to figuring out how to change behaviour, there’s no more high stakes than that.

I certainly understand the desire to inflict pain on someone who has done wrong.  Many of the people in our jails have caused irreparable damage to the lives of innocent people.  The idea that someone can destroy another life and then go on to live a happy and fulfilled life of their own seems pretty unfair.

But if that’s the belief that is behind our criminal justice system, then we should never release anyone from prison.  We should either be locking criminals up for life, or be investing heavily in the idea of capital punishment.

But that’s not what we say we want.  We say we want people to learn from their mistakes.  We want them to be released after their sentence as law-abiding citizens ready to rejoin society.

So what would the ideal person look like upon release from jail?

In my mind, they would need to believe in the value of all people.  They would need to respect others, but also see that they, too, are worthwhile.  They would need to have connections with people and know that their life makes a difference to others.  They would need to know that they have something to important that they can contribute:  that their life matters.

So how does the system help create this reality?

Here’s been my experience…

Ever tried visiting someone in jail?  It’s a mountain of paperwork and a long process so that you can be approved to come only at very specific times.  I tried to send family pictures to an inmate one Christmas, only to have them returned because they weren’t allowed.  Phone calls can only be made by calling collect.  Part of their punishment is being separated from the people they love.

I’m not going to pretend to understand what it’s like to live in a jail, but what I’ve seen when visiting them is not the “cushy free ride” that people like to complain that our prisoners get.  Sure, there are some opportunties.  People can sometimes access education or treatment programs.  But it seems to me that there is a pretty clear message given:  you are a loser who cannot be trusted.  You don’t deserve anything good because you are not a good person.

And when you are released, you are on your own:  a few dollars and the clothes on your back.  Job prospects are minimal.  Finding someone who will rent you a place to live is challenging, and even if you could find that, where would you get first and last months rent?

Does this sound like a recipe for returning to society ready to turn over a new leaf?  Is it any wonder that many people find themselves back in jail again?

Then I came across this article about a different kind of prison.  Inmates can call their loved ones whenever they want.  In fact, connections are encouraged.  Bridges are built with the community so that upon release, people have jobs to go to.  Prisoners earn money so that when they are released they have some financial resources to get them started.

If you can overcome those feelings of wanting revenge upon someone who has caused harm to another person, there seems to be some logic that this is perhaps a better way to truly rehabilitate someone – to help them to become contributing members of society, as we claim we want them to do.

And if this kind of support helps change behaviour in the most hardened of criminals – why do we still hang on to the belief that inflicting pain, fear, and isolation will help change the behaviour of a child?

Here are the articles I came across about this new kind of prison:



What do you think?


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