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Political thought and commentary by Mark F. Sharlow
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A Pressing Moral Necessity:

Statement on the Reform of Prison Conditions

In modern nations, imprisonment is the most common punishment for serious crime. Many people believe that imprisonment is an improvement over the torturous punishments used in earlier times. However, the truth is not that simple. Modern prisons often hide horrors and atrocities that remind one of the tortures of the Middle Ages or of the intimidation methods of modern fascist dictatorships.

Prisoners routinely suffer from violence, both from guards and from other prisoners. This happens even in so-called "advanced" countries. Any nation that tolerates frequent prison violence is, in effect, using that violence as a punishment. If a judge cannot sentence a criminal to be physically attacked, then a judge cannot put a criminal in a prison in which such attacks are likely.

Governments sometimes try to make excuses for bad prison conditions by pointing out that prison systems are underfunded or understaffed. However, this is no excuse for rampant prison violence. Paying for the safety of prisoners is one of the unavoidable costs of having prisoners. There is no moral way to dodge this cost. If a government cannot control the violence in its prisons, then that government has no business sending more people to prison.

Violent punishments always are morally wrong. The fact that the law does not specifically mention the violent punishment does not change this. If violence is a known part of prison life, then a prison sentence is a violent punishment. A truly civilized nation should not hand down such a punishment.

All of this has nothing to do with what criminals supposedly "deserve," or with the supposed "effectiveness" of punishment. There are certain acts that truly civilized societies simply must not do. The abuse of captives is among those acts.

The most hateful form of prison violence is sexual abuse. Any sensible person would regard this act as horrifying. Yet in some countries, prison sexual abuse, both homosexual and heterosexual, has become so common that it is an implied part of the punishment. Any nation that knowingly allows such a punishment has lost its standing as a genuinely civilized nation. The fact that the punishment is not in the written law does not remove this blemish of shame.

Another common prison atrocity is the denial of health care. In many prisons, it is impossible for inmates to get necessary health care. Usually the excuse is the sorry state of prison funding or staffing. However, the moral principle is clear: any government that takes a prisoner must provide for the basic needs of that prisoner, no matter what. Providing for basic human needs is part of the price one pays for having a prisoner. There is no way to escape this price. Any nation that allows a captive to sicken, become maimed, or die through lack of health care is morally guilty of a torturous punishment.

Punishment is a complex institution that raises many serious questions. One even can ask whether punishment itself is right or wrong. (We have asked this question elsewhere.) But whatever one's views on this question, there should be no doubt that violent and barbaric punishments are wrong. The rejection of violent and torturous punishments is one of the hallmarks of an enlightened person or nation. By any reasonable standard, many prison sentences amount to torture.

We call for an end to the mistreatment of captives, no matter what form that mistreatment may take. We endorse the quest for humane prison conditions throughout the world.






Page updated 12/10/08


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