Can Prisons Stop Crime?
Do Convicts Enter Deformed and Depart Reformed?
“PERHAPS what we need more than anything else is not a new approach to sentencing, but a new approach to morality,” were the words of Senior Judge Alan Huggins of Hong Kong.
At a time of a skyrocketing crime rate and the clamor for more laws, or at least revision of the criminal code, Judge Huggins really got to the core of the matter.
What can be done to stop crime, or at least reduce it? Where is the weakness in the war on crime? A cry is heard from some quarters for heavier penalties and stricter enforcement. Others advocate less severe laws and more leniency in sentences handed down. Many agree that the prison systems are not a cure for criminality. Consequently, some governments have, in the last decade, reexamined their laws and penal systems. Most hotly disputed has been the subject of capital punishment. A number of countries have abolished the supreme penalty, but now there is a demand in some lands to reinstate it. Crimes such as adultery have become so commonplace that there is a sentiment in some areas toward totally abolishing punishment for it.
Some students of the problem of escalating crime say that it is not the severity or the leniency of the laws that determines the degree of increase. Rather, they say that disrespect for law is created by the inequality in judgments handed down by the courts, that corruption in judicial process is a big contributory factor, and that the jails themselves are, in many instances, breeding places for criminality.
Bad Prison Conditions
A journalist’s report from a prominent South American country, regarding a large prison there, states: ‘Acts of sexual violence became routine practice. A young inmate, in order to escape being cruelly treated, preferred to be put in a cell only one meter (3 ft.) square. What can one expect of the behavior of men who live on the margin of society, separated in a prison in which the number of inmates has trebled (about 5,200, in quarters built for maximum capacity of 1,800), crowded by the dozens in the cells with the most incredible promiscuity. The delinquent cannot be recovered if, at the end of his prison term, he leaves prison more perverted than when he entered.’
Similarly, a man who served 20 months in a European jail made the observation: “The daily theme of the conversation was the crimes that one had committed and the future crimes to be committed when one got out. There was an interchange of experiences, ability and methods, equipping the prisoner to make crime pay the next time.”
A Christian who served in four different prisons because of his Christian neutrality said: “Prison, rather than being a reform institution, is a school for delinquents. A current saying was: ‘To be reformed you enter, and deformed you depart.’ There were cases of persons who entered prison for the first time for some common crime, such as thieving or embezzlement, and who then returned as second offenders and finally as multiple repeaters. I knew one prisoner who spoke five languages fluently and was an author of novels. He was in prison for repeated crimes. He explained that society had rejected him, so also had his family and friends, that he was out of work, so what was he to do? Commit another crime and return to prison, where he could work, eat and sleep.” Of course, his philosophy was wrong, but his frustrations gradually made him a confirmed criminal.
Some Rehabilitation Efforts Being Made
Concern over such alarming conditions, which exist in nearly every country, has stirred efforts to better the situation by rehabilitation programs. If these were conscientiously carried out, a great number of criminals, especially first offenders, would be reformed to become creditable members of society, contributing to the general welfare. Also, the great burden of expense brought upon the public by the prison system’s failure to rehabilitate the criminal would be measurably relieved.
Such reform programs are having limited success—determined by the zeal or lack of zeal on the part of legal and criminal administrators, and by the financial support allotted to them. In some of the larger prisons in most of the 19 countries considered in a recent survey, better prison conditions have been brought in. The jail is cleaner; there is a separation of those convicted of minor crimes, especially first offenders, from those committing major felonies and the hardened, habitual criminals. Regulations have been established giving judges more latitude in fixing sentences, making them lighter in cases where there are extenuating circumstances, with a view to creating a climate that will give the offender inducement to reform.
Organizations have been formed to provide Bibles and religious gatherings for the inmates. Prisoners are given “occupational therapy” so that they may improve themselves by learning a profitable trade. Some prisons provide school courses. A few inmates take advantage of the provision, but the majority ignore it.
Thus, in spite of well-intentioned efforts, not much accomplishment is seen in reducing crime by the prison system. Is there a form of law or a penal code that can do it? Will stricter laws or more relaxed laws do it? What about religious law? Can righteousness be legislated into people? Is there any hope for the elimination of crime and for the relief that this would bring? The following articles consider these matters that affect all of us.