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23.4.06

Public Humiliation For Your Own Good (Really)

Proposals for reviving "public" punishments, a la the stocks, usually focus on their negative impacts on the criminal. It is said that the shame associated with public punishments will be harder for the punish-ee to bear, and hence they will form a more effective deterrent to future criminals, and force for rehabilitation of the current one, than locking them up out of sight. But I think an argument can be made for public punishments that's based on the welfare of the criminal.

The modern prison system is hugely abusive toward its inmates. Guards often beat prisoners and deprive them of food or medical care -- or stand idly by while prisoners abuse each other. This happens because prisons have no incentive to treat prisoners like human beings. It's not like a hotel, where if you don't like the way you're treated you can go somewhere else. Prisons are paid by the government. The expense and hassle of closely monitoring inmate conditions encourages the government to turn a blind eye. NGOs could, in theory, play a watchdog role -- but their access to prisons is so tenuous that they dare not speak out very loudly. And even if they do, the average non-prisoner doesn't listen -- after all, it doesn't have a direct impact on their life.

Ex-prisoners are also no help. The way the prison system warps people's social networks and skill sets, plus social stigma against ex-convicts, means ex prisoners are unlikely to stay ex for long. And felons are stripped of their rights to vote, depriving them of what little clout them might have had. And non-felons who manage to stay clean are likely to have learned from their time in jail that the system is cruel, cold, and capricious -- hardly a recipe for feeling empowered to work for social change.

Public punishments would have the advantage, then, of putting prisoner treatment out in the open. If a prisoner is mistreated, it's happening on voters' doorsteps. Guards and other inmates can't hide their abuses. And what's more, voters can't hide from the consequences of their preference for unproductively vindictive "tough on crime" policies.

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