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Dehumanization and Punishment

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Two of the things I’ve paid some attention to, one more recently and the other as an ongoing area of interest, came together in an Instapundit update yesterday.

Glenn Reynolds linked to a video of a NYC cop who “threatens a man taking cell phone video with arrest.” This picks up the attention given here and here to the question of law enforcement and ‘citizen photojournalism.’

But what really struck me about this story was the threat attributed to the (apparent) cop, who said, “Guys in jail are going to rape you.”

This is beyond the pale in myriad ways. Reynolds points out in an update that “when you have a badge and a gun you should behave better than the average schmuck, rather than having a license to be a jerk.” Public persons, like law enforcement officials, have a higher standard of conduct than private individuals.

But this story also gets at the necessity of prison reform, and the importance of Christian engagement of the criminal justice system.

The term dehumanization gets used often to describe what happens to a victim, particularly of a violent crime. But it’s all often what happens in the realities of the American system of criminal justice.

Simply because people commit crimes, heinous, violent, or otherwise, it does not mean that they cease to be human persons.

No matter what someone has done there are simply things that are not to be done to them, and certainly not within the context of a legally-sanctioned system of justice. This moral reality is what stands behind a good deal of the principled Christian opposition to torture, for instance. And it’s also what lies behind the proscription of “cruel and unusual punishments.” There are just some things that you don’t do to human beings in any situation or context, merely by virtue of their status as human beings.

The prevalence of prison rape in particular is something that criminals should not be subjected to. Evangelicals have been particularly active on this issue, including groups like the NAE and Justice Fellowship.

Holding criminals accountable is part of what it means to treat them as human beings, as moral agents. But the dignity of human persons, in their victimhood as well as their victimization, also means that there are limits to forms of punishment or to acceptable contexts for incarceration. It also means that imprisonment is not the final word, even in cases of life sentences. Inmates are still people, and therefore need to be treated as such, with all the challenges and potential that face all human persons.

This has important implications for what prison and imprisonment look like. For instance, in the latest issue of Corrections Today, one of the “top nine” reasons to increase correctional education programs is that “From a humanistic viewpoint, education is the right thing to do.” The brief article (PDF) cites a UN statement:

Education should be aimed at the full development of the whole person requiring prisoner access to formal and informal education, literacy programs, basic education, vocational training, creative, religious and cultural activities, physical
education and sport, social education, higher education and library facilities.

(Thanks to Dr. John Teevan, director of Grace College’s Prison Extension Program for pointing out that article).

My own view is that the broad realm of criminal justice, including various accounts of restorative justice and the relationship of Christians, both organically and institutionally, to the government system of punishment is especially ripe for fruitful engagement. And the issue of prison rape is a concrete instance of where Christian activism is of utmost importance.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • gb

    You’re right in regards to our prison system & the SAME principle applies to illegal aliens in this country. I’ve been astounded at the good Catholics I’ve known for years who, when it comes to treatment of illegals, want them treated worse than they’d treat their dogs. When challenged, they say: “They’re illegals, they have no rights.” I’m sure this is the influence of talk radio speaking rather than the Catholic Church. The Church has ceded its influence on the day-to-day opinions of Catholics to the radio-talkers….sometimes this works out fine & sometimes, as in this case, it does not.
    Unfortunately, Catholics in the USA don’t seem to recognize that we are Catholics FIRST & Americans second.

  • TBlakely

    Wow gb, troll much?

  • crt

    gb: Good Catholics want illegals treated inhumanely because of talk radio? Raped, deprived of food, what?

    I’ve listened to lots of talk radio over the years and, while there may be a couple of “talkers” out there who suggest that illegals have NO rights, I have not heard any. Although several object to government programs which provide services to illegals as if they were citizens. There is less hostility toward private actions to care for illegals, but some ‘talkers’ may object to private programs encouraging more illegal immigration.

    One way to alleviate the disruption of society by millions of illegal aliens, some living in the shadows of society, would be to encourage changes in Mexico and other countries which would bring about better conditions for people there. The current system rewards the Mexican government for keeping conditions bad enough in certain regions to induce people to flee and send money back home.

    Back to the theme of rape: Rape of illegal immigrants from the South is a big problem in Mexico, where law enforcement is REALLY corrupt and where illegal immigrants face much more risk than illegals here. There are some signs of reform in parts of the Mexican government, but they seem to be rather overwhelmed at present.

  • Another Catholic

    I agree with the original post on “dehumanization and punishment,” but I’m not sure that I agree with GB’s comment on illegal aliens because I don’t know what GB’s point is.

    GB cites anonymous people who allegedly say that illegals have no rights. What does this mean? Who are these people and what rights are we talking about? The right to stay in this country? The right to be treated humanely as they are deported? What rights?

    If GB could avoid emotive carping about “talk radio,” perhaps he/she could make a reasoned argument about the specifics of the situuation. Do democratic countries have the moral right to determine who gets to live there? If countries do have that right, can they send people who are there illegally home?

    It seems to me that the illegal alien issue has only the most tangential relation to the prison rape issue that inspired the original post.

  • Koop

    So if we are truly a nation of laws, not men, then it is important to ensure enforcement of rape laws even inside prisons.

    Forward thinking prison administrators might even contemplate ways to discourage or prevent such things from happening instead of ignoring the issue?

    I’d love to see a more consistently ethical America.

  • There is an overbearing miasma of inmate-as-victim (or at least as commiserable sufferer) to much of this article. Prison rape is most certainly not a celebratory add-on punishment for those who have been convicted of crimes, and it should be actively policed and prevented, but out of a sense of justice and rule of order in and of itself. Preserving or restoring the human dignity of inmates is like restoring a person’s virginity – it sounds noble but is right impossible. Most of the inmates in the prison system are repeat offenders who have committed serious crimes. We have a duty to provide order and security in the prison, but to seek out to create moral righteousness in the hearts of sociopaths is trying to ice skate up a hill. We want to project our own morality and aspirations onto the prisoners, and too many romanticize the inmates like Shawshank Redemption (which was better when it was called Escape From Alacatraz, but I digress…). Prison is not about rehabilitation, no matter how achingly we desire to turn lives around. Creating a secure environment to house prisoners is our just duty, but there’s too much of a sniff of but-for-the-man romanticism on the rehabilitative nature of prisoners. People who are immediate victims of released inmates – Diane Maxwell Jackson, to name the latest name I came across just last night – pay too high a cost for our failure to recognize that repeat criminal offenders aren’t troubled souls who retain human dignity, they are sociopaths incompatible with society, and seeing them as people to protect, nurture, and salvage prevents us from seeing evil people for what they really are. Any change in their nature isn’t going to come from our efforts, it has to come from them.

  • NancyGee

    To me, Mohammad Atta was not a human person, nor are any of the rest of his jihadist ilk. Since they are also not Christians, I see no reason why I should worry in the least about how they are treated, if they actually live long enough to make it to prison.

    It’s thinking like this that makes it so inconvenient to take prisoners of war on the battlefield — just shoot ’em all right there and then, and avoid the whole Guantanamo Bay thing. Likewise, if we want to spend even MORE money on the animals who are currently incarcerated for behaving like animals, then perhaps we should void all the different punishment options, and just do death-penalty-only upon receipt of a guilty verdict. That would be so much more humane than having to worry about what happens to some psychopath serial murderer who is locked up for life.

  • I don’t think the vast majority of people who joke or threaten about prison rape are seriously indifferent to it when it comes to making real decisions about the penal system. Instead, I think they are simply pointing out one of the ugly realities of any penal system.

    Prison rape is second only to torture and murder as one of the awful possibilities of prison and people know it. More importantly, it is really the only circumstance in which an adult male faces a serious risk of rape. That seizes the male attention like few other things. Risk seeking young man are not deterred by the thought of loss of freedom, death or even torture but they quail at the thought of loss of masculine self-pride that is inherent in rape. When you want to impress a young male with consequences of their actions, you talk about rape, not other physical punishments that young men believe themselves capable of mastering.

    People may fantasize about rape being one of the punishments for the most vile criminals but the vast majority of people realize that its the 18 year old doing two years for pot possession that gets raped.

    Prison rape persist not because of social or institutional indifference but because it is very, very hard and very, very expensive to prevent. The only way to seriously reduce it is to segregate individuals almost entirely e.g. Private cells, individual showers and the elimination of any space not visible to guards or cameras. This requires rebuilding the entire prison and is very, very expensive.

    People don’t like the idea of prison rape but they are more concerned about other issues that require government spending. They think it is awful when an adult male who almost certainly committed a crime is raped but they think the rape of a child is much, much worse and they will divert resources from protecting the prisoner to protecting the child.

    Reducing prison rape has been an institutional goal of prisons since the mid-1800s. Generations of corrections officials have known that the rapist are usually the worst and cruelest of the prisons while their victims are usually the least offensive prisoners. Letting the cruel and sadistic find sexual pleasure in prison reduces the deterrent effects of imprisonment for these worst of the worst. Plus, it reduces the overall sense of order and control that the safe operation of the prison relies on.

    Prisons and prisoners are always going to be at the end of the line when it comes to the allocation of societies resources. It is not that people don’t care, it is that they have some many other things to care about. When those working to accelerate the ongoing reduction in prison rape wildly exaggerate people’s indifference to it they come of as sanctimonious and self-rightous and that alienates people.

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  • Wondering

    Illegal aliens should be deported. How is that “treating them worse than dogs?”

  • dustydog

    It would be easy and economical to reduce prison rape: simply house prisoners by weight class. Boxing, judo, the Ultimate Fighting Championship – all recognize that body weight is a strong indicator of who will win a fist-fight. Putting little guys in with big guys is an easily correctable problem. Then, if money permits, house first-time offenders away from repeat offenders and experienced criminals.

  • jgreene

    gb, again a liberal troll lies about the attitudes of Christians toward illegal aliens. I suggest you read the New Testament and get Jesus’ take on obeying the law.

  • John Paterson

    Society’s tolerance for prison rape is a consequence of our liberalized justice system that has systematically sought to remove real punishment from the justice system.

    When a person does horrible things to men, women, and children gets three square meals a day, a bed, tv, radio, exercise, the right to sue, education, etc, people have a sense that proper justice wasn’t done and therefore, become tolerant of the terrible things that happen to prisoners on the inside as a substitute for the justice that isn’t being done up front.

    Real justice is like a three legged stool. There is Retribution, Restitution, and Rehabilition. Any one of these that goes missing or is minimized or is maximized, real justice is not done.

    1. Retribution – The punishment must fit the crime. If a serious crime is done, than some serious time must also be done. At the same time, if the crime really isn’t that serious, we shouldn’t be throwing away the key just because a convicted person has done it a few times prior.

    Because the purpose of retribution is largely to encourage somebody convicted doesn’t want to do that crime again, I think it’s reasonable to expect prison life to be unpleasent, but it shouldn’t be dangerous.

    2. Restitution – Somehow, it has worked itself into the justice system that the victim is not owed anything when they have lost something in the commission of a crime. It should be standard procedure to require a criminal to give the victim, if it is possible, what they have lost. Is it really unreasonable, that if I’ve lost my tv set in a robbery, that the criminal shouldn’t be required to give me back my tv or replace it with an equivalent? Yes, insurance will cover my loss, but my neighbour shouldn’t be required to give me restitution for something they were not guilty in doing.

    Yes, if the crime is so great, like taking one’s life, there is only one penalty that is appropriate for such a crime.

    3. Rehabilition – When people do wrong, they place themselves outside permissable society and it’s protections and provisions. People need the ability to work themselves back into a position of respectability in society if we want them to stop committing crimes and be productive members of society.

    I think that there are several components this third part.

    a. People who commit crimes tend to be immature and impulsive. It is up to society to help them become mature and more self-controlled. I think that prisons should be a place where life is regulated, with strong emphasis on schedules and priviliges. Anything that makes life more pleasent within the prison system should be earned, not given. Anybody who acts up, should lose those priviliges because they are showing themselves less ready for civilized society.

    b. Education – As the author of the story has pointed out, they also need a well-rounded education so they might be able to move beyond who they were heading into prison and become different people on the way out.

    One point the author did not make, it should be recognized that there are individuals who cannot be taught to be part of civil society and as long as they choose to be a part of the uncivilized, we should not bend. The process of teaching them to be part of society should be constant and unrelenting.

  • John Paterson

    Also, one thing that should change is that we shouldn’t be mixing violent and non-violent offenders together. Most criminals, who commit non-violent crimes, are quite content to cause minimum problems and will usually serve their time in peace, if allowed.

    All we end up with, when we mix the violent ones with the non-violent ones, is more violent prisoners.

  • Rob H

    Wow, MEC2 and NancyGee. What sweeping statements. There are many who are beyond rehabilitation and maybe beyond redemption. Some are in jail. While society must make prudent judgments to incarcerate criminals, and permanently incarcerate some, only God knows who is beyond redemption. Three months ago, I was asked to mentor a man who has since been paroled having spent the last 30 years of his life in prison, most of those years on death row. Now, at age 56, he just wants to take any job he can, be productive, and care for his wife who is 62 and in ill health. If you saw him released into his wife’s arms, while she carried a leather purse he tooled for her over 30 years ago; if you saw the art he donated to the children’s hospital while he was in jail, I doubt you would call him an animal. If you ate with him, and helped him church shop; if you got to know him and his wife, I doubt you would judge him a sociopath. At his half-way house I met some men who are probably already back in jail. But I can tell you there are also men in his prison, whom the state will prudently never allow to be released, who are just as human, just as redeemed, and just as rehabilitated as the man I have been helping now on the outside. There is evil behind that fence, but Christ is at work even there. You are in no position to condemn that work as beyond hope. Join a prison ministry, and perhaps you will see Christ at work where you least expect.

  • wpw

    crt – render unto Caesar

    I’m no Biblical scholar, but I don’t believe Jesus weighed in much on immigration law. People deserve to be treated humanely and fairly, but nations have the right to make and enforce laws that do not conflict with basic human rights. Just because you define these as including the right to cross borders at will and get free medical care and schooling from my tax dollars does not make it so.

  • Patrick

    I am not good enough or voracious enough to be a great criminal. I cannot say I have the principled strength of character of Jesus, Gandhi or Martin Luther King to be imprisoned or killed. On the other hand, I am not voracious enough to become a celebrity, politician or abortion doctor to reside beyond the reach of law.
    As an employer, I wish I could find someone with even a fraction of the dedication, creativity and loyalty of those in the drug cartels. I wonder if we mightn’t defeat the drug gangs by unionizing them. Is union membership superior to drug trafficking?
    Getting into prison isn’t easy. It usually takes a lot of arrests, and convictions before society decides it’s worthwhile to spend tens of thousands of dollars a year to declare someone a criminal and lock them up. Both society and the criminal ‘actually’ agree to the nearly covenantal agreement between brother and keeper. The rates of recidivism suggests that prison rape is exaggerated, or the price one pays for the privilege of being a convict, or perhaps some form of sadomasochistic pathology.
    Those more delicate souls that believe we can expect more from the corrections system, might consider whether the post office, dmv, or any government administered enterprise functions satisfactorily.

  • Tonestaple

    Dustydog has a very good idea, but it needs a little development. Step 1 in the sorting process is to weed out the sociopaths. It’s not a completely exact science but a decent forensic psychologist should be able to put quite a dent in that crowd. Any for whom the description is not clear can be stored at a way station for a while until they make their colors clear. You cannot fix a sociopath; you cannot make someone grow a conscience so there’s no point in pretending that they can be rehabilitated or in any way improved by the prison system. Just store them, by weight class as Dustydog suggested, and hope that a parole board doesn’t let them out too soon.

    Offenders who are not sociopaths can then be sorted by weight class, but I bet there aren’t going to be too many rapes in this group with or without sorting. But go ahead and divvy them up by weight class to play it safe.

    The problem with the article above is it talks as if all offenders are the same and as if all offenders can be rehabilitated. They can’t and that’s all there is to it. You cannot force someone to develop empathy and a conscience when he’s an adult. The best you can do for the sociopaths is to keep them away from civilized people for as long as possible. Any other pretense is naive and foolish.

  • arctic_front

    if you commit a crime and are sent to prison, it should be so horrible that you would never want to go there again. I don’t suggest torture or other forms of abuse, but having TV, a gym, access to sue or any right of ANY kind except 3 hots and a cot. Nothing else. When word gets out on the street that prison is actually really awful, then maybe these petty thugs will realize that the true deterrent is not going in the first place. the Arizona sheriff has the right idea. Pink underwear, chain-gang labor, and sleeping in a tent. I think I read somewhere that his return guests are way less than other jails.

    I don’t think jail is where you are educated. Community college and the GED is where you learn. If you chose not to do that, then you will pay the price by ending up in jail.

    God helps those who help themselves. The people and the Government are not here to babysit. Personal responsibility seems to be lost.

    as for child molesters, rapist and murders, the gallows line should be 2 steps outside the courtroom.

  • H Kirk Rainer

    In the larger context of the criminal system, incarceration has grown at an unprecedented rate since the “war on drugs” — where the US now leads the world. As with other programs, the basic question: how long can this continue…?

    Speaking of due-process, the plea bargain has been a primary instrument in this statistic (of growth) — whereby the defendent testifies against self. From an article from the Cato Institute, “The Case against Plea Bargaining”:
    The truth is that government officials have deliberately engineered the system to assure that the jury trial system established by the Constitution is seldom used…”

    In conjunction with “Dehumanization and Punishment”, such breaches of due-process and the unprecedented growth of incarceration are allowed on the basis that each (and all) have worked (have kept the public relatively safe); but the question remains: how long can this continue…so as to rationalize (and accept) more Draconion forms of injustice?

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