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"Cruel and Unusual" - Phil's Rambling Rants
October 7th, 2007
10:35 pm

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"Cruel and Unusual"
On Friday, I was playing board games with my Friday night group, and we had a couple of kids who were the hosts' relatives there.  One of these kids was, I guess, about 12, and an OK gamer.  But he had a trademark phrase: any time someone did something in the game that he didn't like, he would say "you are cruel and unusual."  The cognitive dissonance this caused made it moderately funny (although a bit less so after several repetitions).  But it bubbled up out of my subconscious this evening that his misapplying the notion of cruel and unusual to anything he didn't like strikes me as awfully similar to the way we treat convicted criminals today.  Any time they find anything unpleasant about their incarceration or other punishment, they yell "cruel and unusual!", and most of the time, it seems like the courts listen.

We do need to fix our justice system so that we're not so quick to convict, and especially so that we're not so quick to intimidating people into agreeing to be punished without being convicted, but once someone is convicted, their experience (assuming they ever come out of the system) is such that they will not be willing to go back again.  Criminals in jail should not be allowed any contact with other inmates.  When they're not working at a prison job, they should be in solitary confinement.  Drugs (tobacco, alcohol, and caffeine as well as the illegal ones) should be banned, and they should not have enough privacy to be able to effectively avoid the ban.  (Guards who provide such substances should be sentenced to the same prison they cheated in.)  Commercial entertainment should be banned too; they can have genuinely educational reading material or TV if they want.

Once a criminal has served his sentence, though, we need to be fair and actually allow them to rejoin society -- no job discrimination, no limited rights, no putting their convictions on public websites.  If we can't safely let them out on those terms, then we didn't punish them properly; there certainly are those who we'd never actually trust to be our neighbors or working in our kids' schools -- but if we really can't trust them, we shouldn't let them walk the streets.  Executing such people is not cruel and unusual punishment, it is rational and appropriate when the alternative is locking them up for the rest of their lives.  Allow the condemned a choice of methods of execution.  For every appeal or request for clemency that's denied, strike off the generally most pleasant method from the list.  That should cut down on the level of complaint about lethal injection.

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From:daev
Date:October 8th, 2007 09:27 am (UTC)
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When I was in Philadelphia I visited the Eastern State Penitentiary, the first prison in America. When it was built just after the Revolution, it was on the outskirts of town, but now it's a massive hulk in an otherwise undistinguished neighborhood. It hasn't been occupied in fifty years, and you can simply go in and wander around its halls and cells and open spaces.

What makes Eastern State interesting is that it was constructed by Quaker utopians exactly on the lines you suggest in your second paragraph. The term penitentiary is not a figure of speech: the purpose of the design was solitary confinement to induce penitence, to make the prisoner reflect on his crime. The setting wasn't particularly inhumane -- each cell had a door to a small private yard outside where a prisoner could exercise. One book to read, of course: the Bible.

And yes, when you'd served your sentence, you were free to go. As a result they don't have information on how well their spiritual/psychological approach worked to prevent recividism. But it wasn't more than a few decades before the prison population grew too large to give them all the full penitential experience. From then on it was just a jail.

If you're ever in Philly, go check it out. I think you'd find the place raises a lot of troubling questions. Which was, of course, its job.
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From:jerusha
Date:October 8th, 2007 04:15 pm (UTC)
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One of the concerns with the new Supermax prisons (constant lockdown/solitary confinement) is that the extreme limitation on human contact can trigger psychotic breaks. (It's probably akin to the result of sensory deprivation, but slower because it's incomplete.) Punish, yes, but how is justice or society served by driving the inmates crazy?
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From:pir_anha
Date:October 8th, 2007 06:23 pm (UTC)

Re: "Cruel and Unusual"

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solitary confinement is a great idea if you want to drive people crazy, not if you want to better socialize them. i want the latter. i've been to prisons through outreach programs, and once because i met a prisoner online (remember roy wahlberg? insight/homework?). i'd bet you anything you wouldn't want to be in any of them, not even the so-called "country club" variety. i think most people are vastly underestimating the toll imprisonment takes on its inmates.

the death penalty would be sensible for certain people (like child molesters who're not even getting it right now), if we were actually certain we're killing the guilty. i think it's been proven beyond a reasonable doubt that we're wrong all too often. at least as long as we let them live, we're able to say "sorry" some day and let them go. i am ok with the greater cost that incurs; i pay for so many things already that i don't want to pay for (such as wars of aggression).

i just wrote this elsewhere: i can't get het up about criminals who end up in prison when people whose willful decisions kill hundreds of thousands not only live the comfy life but get encouraged by voters to do it some more. this society is fucked up and it's no surprise we have as much crime as we do. i see no better solution, so i pay for prisons and advocate education and treatment as much as possible.
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From:tigertoy
Date:October 9th, 2007 03:36 am (UTC)

Re: "Cruel and Unusual"

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Solitary confinement isn't a great option, but allowing criminals to use prison as a training camp and a networking opportunity is insane. No inmate should be allowed to communicate with any other inmate; if non-inmates want to communicate or interact with them, they should probably be allowed to.

In any case, I don't think very long prison terms are going to significantly reform any meaningful chunk of the population. The way I'd run things would be: one felony conviction, a very short term, perhaps a week. Second conviction, several months. Third conviction, select your method of execution. Those short terms of imprisonment would be unpleasant. One big difference, though, would be that people who are being held but haven't been convicted yet would be treated very nicely. The right to a speedy trial should not be something the defendant can wave, though -- society has a right to see speedy trials too.
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From:pir_anha
Date:October 9th, 2007 04:37 am (UTC)

Re: "Cruel and Unusual"

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a week to several months? for any felony conviction? you do know that there are different classes of felonies now?

we throw people in prison for several different purposes (i'm not commenting on how useful i think each reason is, and yes, i know some are interfering with each other):

1. to punish them.
2. to keep them away from society.
3. to rehabilitate them.
4. to take revenge on them.
5. to discourage others.

your solution up there barely fits #1. and what, you want to execute people for being convicted of grand theft 3 times (in california that kicks in at $400, and i think that some jurisdictions start at $100)? why not just cut thieves' hands off. and you'll let a fellow out after a week of solitary for his first rape conviction?

well, i know i don't want to live in your world. the system we have here is far from perfect, but at least there's some serious thought behind it, and it's not quite this eager to put people to death (a barbaric notion anyway, that the US shares with such human rights giants as china, iran, and saudi arabia -- and has it made y'all safer? no? surely it'll improve if you just kill more people and kill them faster! more brown people especially.).

*gah*. i should know better than to discuss this when the premise starts out like yours.
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From:tigertoy
Date:October 10th, 2007 12:58 am (UTC)

Re: "Cruel and Unusual"

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I'm not actually trying to present a fully formed program here, I'm just lashing out at the fucked up nature of the system we have today, where most of the people who are in prison aren't guilty of anything that should be a crime at all (non-violent drug offenders), while as a society we collectively distrust the system to the point where we deny criminals any real chance of having a normal non-criminal life once they get out (try to rent an apartment or get a job in the US with a felony record) and then act shocked when they end up in the system again.

But I do want prison to be something that would make a person crazy after 5 years, and I don't want anyone to be there that long.
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From:pir_anha
Date:October 10th, 2007 04:18 pm (UTC)

Re: "Cruel and Unusual"

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i apologize. i didn't actually see the "rant" tag, or i wouldn't have started in on this at all, because i believe we all need to rant now and then without being called on the stuff we spew about; it's just frustration speaking.

i know you're not a thoughtless arse aching to kill more people. :)
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