Spiked! had an article about prison smoking bans earlier this year.
Of course, if prisoners were able to enjoy every freedom they enjoyed in the outside world, then incarceration would make a poor deterrent against criminal behaviour. But forcing prisoners to give up smoking is nonetheless paternalistic and unfair. It’s an unnecessary, and cruel, punishment. It treats inmates like children to be supervised rather than adults who have committed crimes. The ban strips prisoners of one of the few activities they can legally participate in to relieve stress and pass the time. It also creates a new prohibition for already overstretched prison staff to monitor.
I was glad to see someone using the exact same words I did in my letter to my MP: Prisoners are being forced to give up smoking.
In my letter I didn’t make either the point that this was additional punishment, or that it treated prisoners like children. I perhaps didn’t do so because I think that Tobacco Control wants to punish smokers, and wants to treat people like children. So if I had pointed it out, they would have said, “Wonderful! That’s exactly what we want!”
The same response might have been made by them to the point that if prisoners enjoyed the same freedoms as they would outside the prison, prison would not act as a deterrent against crime? “Wonderful! That’s exactly what we intend.”
But what is the point of prison? As I’ve seen it, a prison primarily simply removes criminals from the world outside, and thereby reduces the amount of crime taking place there. You collect all the bad apples, and you keep them all together in one barrel.
But this approach isn’t one of deterrence. If you wish to deter people from going to prison, surely you should make prisons as horrible places as possible? Shouldn’t you maybe keep prisoners chained up the whole time in cold, damp cells, with a meagre diet of stale bread and water? Wouldn’t that make prison into a much more powerful deterrent against crime?
In my approach, the prisoners are simply removed from the wider society. They are well-treated. My prison would hardly be any deterrent at all. But I think that the idea behind deterrence is that criminals make rational calculations balancing the potential gain from some crime (e.g. robbing a bank) against the possible loss (e.g. spending several years in prison). But do criminals make such rational calculations? Are they just like businessmen weighing up the likely gains and losses from one business enterprise or other?
Perhaps many of them are, and they are more or less indistinguishable from other law-abiding businessmen. Perhaps they wear well-cut suits, and have offices with secretaries and computers and files. Bernie Madoff floats into mind.
But aren’t a great many criminal acts crimes of passion or opportunity, in which no rational calculations are being made? The man who punches somebody in the face, immediately after he’s been taken a swing at, is someone who is reacting spontaneously, without prior planning. The same also might be true of rapists, suddenly aroused by a passing woman. And the casual thief who notices an unattended bag in an airport, and picks it up, may also be reacting spontaneously to opportunity. If such people perform rational calculations, it’s most likely after the act, rather than before it. And are such people, who are reacting spontaneously to the circumstances they find themselves in, going to be deterred by the rational prospect of prison?
A further consideration, which I set out in my letter to my MP, was that if prisons are also supposed to reform prisoners, and make them into law-abiding citizens, is it likely that maltreatment of them could ever achieve such an aim? Isn’t forcing prisoners to stop smoking any different from forcing people to part with their wallets? Isn’t it doing to them what they did to others, and which resulted in them being sent to prison in the first place?
And if reform is deemed impossible (once a bad apple, always a bad apple?), why not just execute all criminals, on the grounds that once the rot has set in, it will only get worse? In Britain, at one time, more or less exactly this actually happened.
And aren’t a great many of the things for which prisoners are sent to prison not really crimes at all? For example, Al Capone was a bootlegger in prohibition America, transporting and selling alcohol that people wanted to buy. Is that any different from selling them bread or cars or houses? Isn’t the same true of all other drugs, like cannabis and opium and cocaine? What’s wrong, furthermore, with prostitution, if the women partaking in it do so of their own free will? And the same with gambling? Isn’t it the case that it is just that some people disapprove of other people smoking and drinking and gambling and whoring? And these people can also disapprove of people doing more or less anything else – including holding knives and forks in the wrong hands.
Prisons seem anyway to be relatively new social institutions (much like psychiatric hospitals). Was there some sudden upsurge in crime (and madness) at some point in the past that necessitated their construction?
I have other problems with prisons. In Idle Theory, crime is something that reduces social idleness and freedom. But sending prisoners to prison reduces their freedom (and hence also their idleness). So we respond to one loss by compounding it with another loss. What good is that to anyone?
I ask all these questions because they’re ones that bubble up when I start thinking about prisons. I have plenty more of them. And I don’t have answers to most of them.