Punishment or Rehabilitation?

It’s an age-old debate: What do we want from our justice system? Punishment or Rehabilitation? For the past few Governments, it would seem that the aim has been both, but this may be why neither has been achieved very effectively.

A while back I began to examine this subject and was surprised to find that it is actually us prisoners who hold the solution to the Prison Service’s identity crisis.

Every decision we make is influenced by both thoughts and emotions and, although we tend to treat these as entirely separate things, in fact they both stem from learnt behaviour. On the emotional side we are dealing mainly with subconscious and instinctive reactions to the world around us. In many ways we are trained all of our life to make associations between actions and consequences. It starts as early as when a child gets shouted at for crossing the road without looking both ways. Basically we are trying to make the child associate crossing the road with something bad happening, so that the next time they do it they think carefully about it.

As we get older we are taught in much the same way not to steal or hit people or we will be punished by our parents or teachers. These acts can then trigger the fear of punishment and most of the population learns to avoid them. But not everyone. When we are considering a certain course of action, we are far less likely to carry it through if our chief emotional association with this action is one of pain and fear. But we also consider our choices rationally. This is the cognitive side of our decision making and is done on a much more conscious level. However, this too is taught to us both by others and also by ourselves. This is the rational consideration of consequences and is devoid of emotions but yet this is how we empathise with others best. It is the root of our morality which is usually based on the effect our actions have on ourselves and others. When we consciously consider whether something is right or wrong the first thing we are likely to think of is who it could help or hurt. This is why there is far less social aversion to crime viewed as ‘victimless’ than to those with very clear victims.

So, if we are all taught to have both subconscious emotional reactions and cognitive, moral reactions, why do any of us commit crimes at all? There are a number of reasons for this. The truth is that not all of us are able to process things in these ways. It is notable that children with severe learning difficulties affecting both their emotional and cognitive processes are found to be far more violent than those whose brains develop normally. Similarly, people who experience brain damage in later life often become more volatile than they ever have been before. These physical obstacles to proper processing are in most cases untreatable and have to be endured but there are other obstacles too which are entirely avoidable.

There has been much debate on the effect of violent media. From rock music and hip hop to computer games and films such as ‘Grand Theft Auto’ and ‘Kill Bill’. When you experience stage fright one of the best ways to overcome it is to practice and perform as often as possible. This is because you will eventually become used to the experience and begin to associate it more with the times you have been successful than with your original fear of failure. You become desensitised. Similarly, when your parents teach you that crime doesn’t pay, you start to fear its negative consequences. But if you listen to music, watch films and play games which all show crime as an exciting way to gain money, power and influence (and rarely showing the consequences) you subconsciously begin to replace the negative associations you twin with the thought of crime, with positive ones. The effect of this is that you cease to have a fearful reaction, and start to have an excited one.

The effect of this is exploited on a wide scale by the armed forces, the police, and even in training prison officers. They are all repeatedly made to complete the same tasks such as handling a riot. In doing so they become used to the task and their anxiety decreases. They are desensitised to the fear of running into a hot conflict situation as the chief association in their subconscious minds is that of success.

But while desensitisation explains how we overcome our emotional processes it doesn’t explain how we overcome our cognitive, moral processes. This is because we don’t. This isn’t to say that you will never do anything you know to be wrong, of course you will, but not by overcoming your morality. If you truly believed stealing in any form to be entirely wrong with no exceptions – period, you would never do it. But if, on the other hand, you believed it was wrong unless the other person deserved it, or stole themselves, or if you believed it was wrong unless it was from a faceless company, or unless you were stealing to feed your family or so on, then you don’t have to overcome your morality in order to steal, you’ve already got your loopholes built in.

Society in general reflects this. Whilst we would all agree that killing someone is immoral, a large proportion of the population agree with the death penalty. They don’t have to overcome their own morality, it is intact and it tells them that the loophole lies in ‘a life for a life’. But that isn’t to say that a person’s morality cannot change over time. Morality changes as easily as an opinion – that’s all it is, but you can’t will yourself to do it. It has to be learnt, and once it has been, it cannot be unlearned.

So how do we bring ourselves to commit crime? It’s a two stage process. Firstly we must overcome our emotional aversions to crime and teach ourselves subconsciously to value the benefits we reap from crime more than we fear the consequences. Secondly, we must operate within our own morality, telling ourselves that ‘victimless’ crimes are okay but crimes against the person are not, or that robbery is okay but violent crimes are not, or that violent crimes are okay but not sexual violence. Whatever we privately believe is permissible under our own morality, that is that we let ourselves get away with.

But if this is the case, what can prison do to stop us re-offending? Does punishment deter us at all? Can we truly be rehabilitated? The answer to both is yes. Punishment restores fear to us. The unpleasant experience of being in jail becomes associated with our experiences of crime and so the harder our time in jail is, the more we will fear committing crime again. Meanwhile, rehabilitation teaches us why we were mistaken in thinking there was a loophole that justified the crime we committed. By examining the effects of our actions on ourselves and others, we learn that what we once considered acceptable might not be – even by our own standards.

However, whilst punishment restores our fear of the consequences of crime, we have already overcome that fear to commit crime in the first place. There is nothing stopping us from overcoming the fear again and going right back to the same crimes. Prison as a punishment can make you think twice, but it cannot stop you re-offending on its own. It is only a short term solution. Rehabilitation on the other hand is a completely different story. Since rehabilitation focuses on the cognitive reaction, teaching us a morality which cannot be unlearned once we’ve got it, it never goes away. Rehabilitation is more than just a long term solution; it is the only true solution.

The only demand is that this rehabilitation is truly effective. Ticking boxes just doesn’t do the trick. And yet that is exactly the result of our Justice System attempting to administer both punishment and rehabilitation at the same time. Punishment builds resentment in prisoners and undermines any efforts at rehabilitation. Tell a man he should be compassionate whilst also denying him compassion yourself, and he’ll only call you a hypocrite. At best he’ll smile and nod, agree with what you say, and then roll his eyes and carry on as he did before. If those in power want a truly effective criminal justice system, they have to decide which is more important; being able to say that they punished those who did wrong before releasing those people to re-offend, or actually rehabilitating those people so that they never do it again. Attempting both at the same time can only result in failure on both counts. Only after we have seen a complete overhaul of both how rehabilitation is delivered and of how prisoners are treated in person and politically can we hope to start seeing a consistent fall in the rates of re-offending.

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