In western societies, the general punishment meted out to convicted criminals is time in prison. A person convicted of manslaughter or wounding or attempted murder may be sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison. Less serious offences carry shorter sentences depending on several factors, including the circumstances in which they were committed, the sympathies of the presiding judge or magistrate and his perception of the needs of society. There are a number of accepted reasons claiming a moral basis to justify the use of imprisonment as a form of punishment of convicted criminals. All of these reasons fall into two general categories: retributive and preventative.
The former approach – retribution – involves a moral connection between wrongdoing and punishment, and considers that natural justice requires that a wrongdoer should be punished for his actions. Glanville Williams calls this justification “a refinement of the primitive urge to take revenge for injury, which has a biological explanation.” Indeed, the urge to retaliate against a wrong may have the effect of dissuading or disabling the wrongdoer, thus justifying the use of imprisonment to deter those who would otherwise commit crimes (general deterrence) and to make it less likely that those who serve a prison sentence will commit crimes after their release (individual deterrence). This is the second, preventative, category.
A third, more idealistic, more desirable, and more difficult to implement, approach encourages the personal reform of those who are sent to prison. This approach sees prison as more of a reformatory, where a prisoner can be rehabilitated so as to go forth when his sentence is served and sin no more.
It is to be hoped that, as a society, our resort to the imprisonment of criminals is not merely to vindicate our sense of justice that the wrongdoer should be punished. If that is the sum of our beliefs, we have yielded to our ‘primitive urge’ and have lost our humanity. To punish a wrongdoer for the sake of revenge makes us no better than the wrongdoer himself.
It also does not seem that the use of the penal system as a preventative deterrent to other potential criminals is working. Writing four hundred years ago, George Savile adopted that justification for punishment: “Men are not hanged for stealing horses, but that horses may not be stolen.“ The theory does not work in Guyana. Given the prevalence of crime in our society, notwithstanding the frequent conviction and incarceration of criminals being highly publicized in our newspapers and televisions, it appears that trying to scare citizens straight by imprisoning convicts is not an effective tool. The penal system does not deter those who would commit crimes. Crime springs from lack of education, poverty and unemployment. If a man does not have a job, and has not the means to attract a job, his options become narrower, even if he knows that others before him have been hanged for stealing horses.
If we are to justify on a moral basis our imprisonment of criminals, we must show first and foremost fairness. Prison ought to be a place where the prisoner can access education or training, if he chooses, and is guaranteed his security and minimal comfort in any event. No one will suggest that prison should offer five-star treatment; it is not meant to be a luxury resort. But all are aware that in Guyana there is no danger of prisons being compared to resorts. The prisons are old, poorly maintained and decaying. Overcrowding is chronic. Violent convicts are thrown in with non-violent, felons with petty thieves and careless drivers. No distinction is drawn between crimes of moral turpitude and those of pure accident and there is no high security or minimum security distinction; everyone goes to the same jail. This cannot be right. This is not acceptable in a just society.
Bentham defined morality as the maximising of human happiness and welfare. Punishment does not make anyone happy, and therefore “all punishment is mischief. All punishment in itself is evil. It ought only to be admitted in as far as it promises to exclude some greater evil.” There is no doubt that imprisonment of offenders is a necessary aspect of the administration of justice in any society, and the importance of the punishment as a deterrent both to the convict himself and to the public at large is not to be ignored. But in Guyana, the greatest evil is not done by the wrongdoer; the greatest evil is done by our society, which is unconcerned at the state of our prisons. As usual, when confronted with an injustice which does not immediately affect us, we look the other way.
Many of the reforms needed may involve financing and a conscientious effort, two commodities which are not plentiful in our institutions. Some reforms can be made more easily, without the need for a high priced analyst from a foreign country or a sixty page report. In our next article, we will make some suggestions concerning the enormous problem of overcrowding in our prisons.