Does a Prison Need a Tennis Court?

Image Caption: the source of all my cultural knowledge about prisons. That and John Oliver.

October 13

Philodemic Room

Turning its collective eyes to the realm of criminal justice, this Thursday the Philodemic gathered in Healy 208 to debate “Resolved: prisons should be intended to punish.” On the affirmation was Mr. Thomas Shuman (COL ’17) of Massachusetts, and on the negation was Ms. Mattie Haag (COL ’18) of Ohio.

Mr. Shuman began the night by stating that the affirmation is deeply concerned about prison reform. In fact, Mr. Shuman argued that focusing on prisons as a means of punishment (rather than as a means of rehabilitation) would necessitate a more careful definition of appropriate and inappropriate forms of punishment. On a very fundamental level, prisons cannot perfectly rehabilitate criminals, although they can apply just punishment. A prison sentence, which separates an individual from family and from society, is inherently punitive, and indeed this punishment is necessary to serve justice. Exacting retribution, furthermore, serves two clear goals: retribution provides clear deterrence to others, while also providing tangible justice to the victims of criminals. Nonetheless, the affirmation firmly holds that reforms must be undertaken to make sure that prisons punish fairly and well.

To counter Mr. Shuman, Ms. Haag responded that, yes, prison is inherently punitive, but the burden of the affirmation is to prove that this is good and not simply necessary to achieve other goals: deterrence, or protection of society, for example. The affirmation holds that punishment fulfills a debt and creates justice, yet this sort of justice is only a psychological feel-good that does not help the victims of a crime. On an empirical level, the recidivism rates in the United States (as high as 76.6%) demonstrated that a punitive system does not make society safer. Furthermore, a punitive prison system defines prisoners by the worst moment of their lives—instead of this, we should seek a system of restorative justice that permits criminals to atone for their crime without harsh punishment. At its core, the negation holds that human nature can change over time and inclines towards the good. 

Throughout the course of the night, the Society grappled with multiple large questions, each of which were carefully and scrupulously dissected by a few speakers.

First, what is justice? This question was originally raised by Mr. Ernst, who argued that justice stems from our human empathy for the victims of a crime, but that wrongdoing need not be met by further wrongdoing in the name of punishment. Mr. Marrow objected to Mr. Ernst’s question, stating that the more important question is “what is punishment?” but nonetheless also maintaining that justice is a transcendental value, not just an action. Ms. Weissman gave a bit more articulation to Mr. Marrow’s image of transcendental justice by stating that punishing violent offenders in prison does not simply cause “a nice feeling,” but rather creates actual justice. Mr. Hinck continued this line of thought by suggesting that because criminals deprive their victims of flourishing, justice is served when criminals are in turn deprived of potential flourishing. Only later in the night did Mr. Perez-Reyes mount an attack on this conception of justice by arguing that only forgiveness, and not punishment, can wholly set aside the debt created by a crime and thus achieve justice. Ms. Friedmann supported Mr. Perez-Reyes’ argument by discussing the Jewish conception of justice, which holds that atonement for a crime against another person must be sought from the wronged person’s forgiveness—she nonetheless spoke on the affirmation against Mr. Perez-Reyes by arguing that prisons can keep criminals accountable to those they have wronged.

On a slightly less conceptual level, what constitutes punishment in the realm of prisons? Vice President Fletcher defined punishment as something that is intentionally done for it’s own sake—separating a criminal from society is only a punishment if done for its own sake and not, say, for the protection of society. Ms. Cuppari suggested that punishment in prisons is legitimate if prison is reserved only for those who cannot be deterred through other means. Yet Ms. Emma Vahey (COL ’20) retorted that separating an individual from society is inherently punitive, as is the quest of prisons to instill a sense of guilt in criminals. But wait! responded Mr. Robert Dias (SFS ’19): taking someone’s time and depriving them of liberty is not necessarily punishment—after all, public schools do the same thing in the interests of education.

Drilling down further, what is the goal of the state itself? Ms. Landau provocatively argued that the state’s function is to create wealth, and if time is money, then depriving criminals of their time needlessly threatens the objectives of the state. Mr. Bassey argued that prisons are a tool of a state structure which has always privileged elites and has existed for the propagation of the elite class; therefore, they will always wrongfully punish criminals. Ms. Rachel Greene (SFS ’17) posited that the state seeks to provide the conditions for human flourishing, and that, to this end, prisons should seek to correct the wrongful breaking of the social contract without depriving an individual of their potential flourishing. Nonetheless, although Ms. Landau, Mr. Bassey, and Ms. Greene all spoke on the negation, Mr. Haik Voskerchian (COL ’19) countered that the primary purpose of the state is to maintain justice through the use of punishment; to this end, Norway is in fact a failed state because its prisons favor rehabilitation over punishment.

Going into even greater specifics, what is the role of prisons within the criminal justice system? This distinction was advanced by the affirmation: Mr. Pullin originally introduced the distinction by arguing that while rehabilitation can be a part of the criminal justice the system, the role of prisons as only a part of the criminal justice system is to uphold the rule of law through punishment. Mr. Jackson Dalman (COL ’19) used the distinction to argue that second chances can still be supported by a system which includes a set of prisons designed to punish. Mr. Harden argued that, because punishment must be an option to addressing crime, it should be localized to one cog in the criminal justice system. Prisons must punish, therefore, but they must also not be envisioned as the only means of addressing crime. Encapsulating this thread of the debate, Mr. Soltis argued that punishment should be the goal of prisons, but that prisons should be only one of many options for guiding convicts to more productive lives.

Finally, at the crux of the debate, what should be the primary intention of prisons themselves, if not punishment? Ms. Spira listed the five goals of prisons as described by criminologist Bob Cameron: retribution, incapacitation, deterrence, restoration, and rehabilitation—none of which are punishment. Multiple other negation speakers highlighted the goal of correction and teaching. Sergeant Ludtke introduced the topic by stating that her sense of right and wrong developed more from careful conversations with her parents than from unexplained punishments. Mr. Mullaney continued this line of thought, saying that just as a time-out to a two-year old is designed to teach what is wrong and not simply to punish, so too our prisons should seek to provide instruction. Ms. Claire Smith (COL ’19) conceded that punishment is a part of prisons, but upheld the position that prisons ought to provide corrections in order to pave the way for a second chance. President Thanki, highlighting the unending stigma produced by a prison sentence, argued that our primary goal should be to educate in order to prevent crimes from happening in the first place.

Nonetheless, the affirmation mounted an attack on the conception of prisons as education. Attacking the parent-child analogy, Mr. Gonzalez argued that adult citizens should already have knowledge of right and wrong, and that viewing prisons merely as a corrections facility denies criminals any moral agency in their own decisions. Mr. Ma argued that while the criminal justice system should educate, prisons may not be the best institution to do so—the awareness that one has done something wrong, for instance, should be produced by the courts. On a different line, Mr. McCarthy responded to the question of stigma after prison by suggesting that society imposes punishments on convicts only if it believes that criminals have not been sufficiently punished while in prison.

Ms. Haag began her closing keynote by again reminding her audience of the value of restorative justice. She responded to a number of points from the affirmation: even though prisons are only a part of the criminal justice system, the two are deeply intertwined and cannot be neatly separated; the mentality of prison as a punishment does inevitably lead to societal punishment after prison; the primary purpose of prison is, as many on the negation had suggested, to produce learning. Ms. Haag ended on a point of high optimism: people never deserve to be punished, and this sort of reasoning leads to an acceptance of capital punishment.

To close out the night, Mr. Shuman argued that punishment seeks the acceptance of responsibility, not suffering for vengeance’s sake. Mr. Shuman proposed the following question: is crime a failure of society or of the individual? If you believe the former, there is still a role for prisons to use punishment, especially against violent offenders. If you believe the latter, then you must stand on the negation to keep individuals accountable for their crimes. Finally, responding to Ms. Haag, Mr. Shuman stated that people can change, but that does not absolve them of responsibility for their wrongdoings.

With a vote of 18 affirming, 1 abstaining, and 23 negating, this resolution was negated! I entreat all those Philodemicians who object to anything I have written in this blog post to take up Mr. Perez-Reyes’ position and respond to the crime I have committed with forgiveness, not punishment.


Micah Musser

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