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Prisons and Punishment

Gnosticism imagines that the disorder and conflicts of earthly existence can be overcome with gnosis – special knowledge; insight and learning. Ruth Gilmore Wilson, a prison abolitionist with arguably gnostic tendencies states: “Instead of asking whether anyone should be locked up or go free, why don’t we think about why we solve problems by repeating the kind of behavior that brought us the problem in the first place?” Wilson suggests that prisons “model” cruelty and vengeance. She admires Spain’s policy of incarcerating even cold-blooded murderers for just seven years. “Which is to say…in Spain people have decided that life has enough value that they are not going to behave in a punitive and violent and life-annihilating way toward people who hurt people. And what this demonstrates is that for people trying to solve their everyday problems, behaving in a violent and life-annihilating way is not a solution.’”[1]

Murderers are locked up in prisons because leaving them free represents an intolerable danger to innocent people. This is not itself “violent.” It is not violent to imprison someone in the interests of public safety. Nor is it “life-annihilating.” It could be considered actually life-affirming. We care enough about people to try to protect them from those who wish to murder them, rape them, rob them, and assault them. If there is a punitive aspect to their incarceration, then that might be acceptable as a possible deterrent to this kind of behavior. The claim “for people trying to solve their everyday problems, behaving in a violent and life-annihilating way is not a solution” is an odd and misleading one. Imprisoning cold-blooded killers is not what is plausibly meant by the harmless-sounding phrase “people trying to solve everyday problems.” Such a locution suggests activities like locating a plumber to fix a sink, or finding enough time to exercise, not dealing with killers. If it is in fact dealing with killers that is being referred to, then behaving violently in self-defense, for instance, is completely reasonable.

Wilson may not be expressing herself cogently, but most probably she is motivated by an understandable feeling that there is something distasteful and even ungodly about prisons, which are unavoidably punitive.  God, if he exists, is good and wise and does not engage in this kind of behavior. According to “rational theology,” he neither punishes nor rewards but leaves us to punish and reward ourselves. Avicenna (980-1037) writes that what we call “reward” is really pleasure in the soul corresponding to the extent of its perfection and what is imagined to be “punishment” is pain in the soul consonant with its deficiency. These kinds of rewards and punishments are intrinsic, not extrinsic. They are not conferred by someone exterior to you. This is related to the observation that “wherever you go, there you are.” If someone happens to be a thoroughly awful person, no matter what activity he chooses, or where he goes, or who else he might be with, he will also always be with a nasty scoundrel. A murdering rapist is shackled permanently to himself and is condemned to the worst company as a result. At the earliest levels of moral and cognitive development, where people are exclusively egocentric, the negative results of being a horrible person and behaving badly, if there are to be any, are imagined to come from the outside – in the form of punishment coming from someone else – rather than being intrinsic to being that kind of person and behaving in those ways. The difficulty is that for benighted, undeveloped souls, the lack of extrinsic punishment means to them “getting away with it scot-free.” It is in their interests not to give in to pathological impulses but that is not within their understanding.

This is the kind of thing Plato often tried to communicate in his dialogues, with Socrates conversing with cynics and bullies who try to argue that doing what you want when you want to whomever you want is the best possible existence. If a person feels like torturing, exiling, murdering, or stealing the property of someone, he, as a tyrant, could do it. Socrates points out, and Boethius for that matter, that if someone wants to do good, he needs no special powers or even help from others. A good person can do what he likes, when he likes, to whomever he likes too – and does not need to assume political power to do so. Rhetorically, the difficulty is that Socrates is effectively arguing with a morally preconventional person who cares nothing for morality and is scared only of punishment conventionally conceived, whereas Socrates welcomes punishment should he ever need it. Socrates argues that to suffer wrong, though horrible and to be avoided if possible, is better than to do wrong.

Lawrence Kohlberg identified three levels of moral development. Preconventional, where  someone is not moral at all but will often avoid grossly immoral acts for fear of punishment; conventional, where someone knows the moral rules and follows them as a form of moral legalism, not knowing why the rules are the way they are, and postconventional, where a person understands why the rules are what they are, and will sometimes break a rule if an even more important consideration is threatened, following the spirit of the law rather than the letter. A preconventional person can understand the concept of moral legalism, but is completely nonplussed by the postconventional, since there are no cut and dried rules being followed. To them, the postconventional seem preconventional – both are non-rule following.

In an ideal world, existing only in an afterlife, all people would be left to their own devices. The consequences of being the sort of person you are would be one’s entire “judgment.” Wilson, having an eternal soul like the rest of us arguable do, intuits this utopian ideal summed up by Isaiah 11:6, paraphrased and referred to as “the lion laying down with the lamb.” “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.”  This lovely and consoling vision is not to be thought of as taking place on earth in any straightforward sense. The crucial job of the philosopher and thinkers in general is to try to carefully distinguish the heavenly and the earthly, and to make sure that things that are only possible in heaven are not projected onto earthly matters in the manner of the Gnostics. Human life has a pain at its core because of the contrast between heavenly perfection, of which we have strong intuitions, with what is actually possible on earth. And what we call “intuition,” is a name for non-infallible knowledge that we have without being able to explain it. For instance, we intuit what people are feeling much of the time, without necessarily being able to explain how we are doing it.

Wilson also evinces a strange compassion for murderers and rapists and a complete neglect for their victims; a tendency that became widespread in the anti-prison movement which was prominent in the 1960s and 1970s with disastrous results. The murder rate went up 400% in fifteen years, leading to voter initiatives for increased sentences for habitual offenders in the 1980s.[2] Incarcerating violent criminals, it turns out, benefits their prospective victims.

So, in this new way of thinking about things, it is the violent murderers and rapists who are the “victims” of society and circumstance. So, Wilson, in her concern for criminals and her relative blindness to the murdered, robbed, assaulted, and raped is following this recent trend in thought. For her, it is the criminal who is the “victim.” It is his destiny; his punishment and the supposed vengeance taken against him, that concerns her. The perpetrator of crime is imagined to be the victim of social forces and the actual victim of his actions disappears out of sight.

The philosophy of Nikolai Berdyaev offers insights into how to distinguish the heavenly and the earthly. Wilson with her goal of eliminating prisons arguably projects the transcendent onto the immanent. But, there has been the opposite trend too.  Berdyaev often criticizes the way in which social life gets interpolated into religious matters. Socially, we have had kings, rulers, and lawmakers, so we erroneously imagine God in such a role. Men have devised tortures and punishments for other men, and rulers have made use of these things, so we imagine God employing such techniques, thus projecting sociomorphic ideas and categories onto God, heaven, and the transcendent.  Wilson is doing the opposite; immanentizing the eschaton – thrusting heavenly things, that can only exist in heaven, onto earthly affairs. Eschatology is the name for heavenly judgment and the destiny of the human soul. So, to “immanentize the eschaton” means to take the heavenly and transcendent and to try to make them immanent – the here and now.

Eschatologically, there is no need to punish criminals or lock them away. Their punishment is their own existence, which will be unbearable to them. Human beings want love, trust, and respect, and to deserve them. Being loved, trusted, and respected when one knows oneself to be an untrustworthy liar is to be loved for something you are not. The lover is not loving you; he or she is loving an imaginary being. Having people speak admiringly about you for having invented the theory of relativity when you are not Albert Einstein, for instance, would simply be embarrassing. You would be a phony and an imposter.

Crucially, here on earth, however, the vulnerable need to be protected from the violent and unscrupulous. We have to lock criminals away for our own protection. What is being described here has nothing to do with revenge and any cruelty involved is incidental. Plato describes perfect justice as imprinted on our soul in such a way that we remember it. The eternal part of us has a heavenly origin and heavenly destiny, but in the mean time we have to cope with the imperfections and contradictions of earthly existence. Attempting to immanentize the eschaton, while often well-meaningly attempted, is actually evil. Likewise, pacificism is arguably evil. Pacifists, like the prison abolitionist, plan not to defend the vulnerable and innocent from the predations of the evil. It is evil to leave people to die or to be enslaved. Picking up weapons and shooting people is almost unbearably awful and evil-seeming, but it is even worse to simply permit the Nazis to take over the world. Both A. A. Milne and Albert Einstein abandoned their pacificism when confronted with Hitler. Pacificism seems godly but, at least on earth, is actually in error.[3]

Someone like Wilson appeals to this heavenly intuition about the way things should be. However, they are only the way things should be and actually are in heaven. We get confused because prisons seem barbaric and involve literally locking people in cages or cells. There is something hellish about them. However, the alternative, letting criminals simply run free is much worse. It is important to visualize not just prisons, but criminals terrorizing neighborhoods and mugging, murdering, raping, and destroying the local quality of life with the poorest most vulnerable begging for protection from their predations. It is the people living in the worst neighborhoods who are the most enthusiastic about the police because the police represent their only protection from their ghastly neighbors who prey on them. Reporters, however, tend not to be interested in hearing from such people. They are perhaps more likely to see the police as an occupying force (an idea that has actually been proposed) making life worse for those in ghettos. Since actual data does not generally support this point of view, they like to find individual cases of police mistakes or actual misbehavior and use them to condemn the entire police force.

Rudolf Giuliani, with the help of William Bratton and others, successfully drastically reduced crime in New York City in the 1990s.[4] He took the murder rate from over two thousand two hundred at its highest to six hundred and thirty-three in the space of a few years.[5] Under his leadership, Compstat was employed. Police chiefs throughout the dozens of NYC precincts collated crime data, shared it with each other, which was an innovation, and could see where shootings and other crime was being committed. Large teams of police were, if necessary, then sent to where the crime was actually occurring, in many cases actually preventing crime, not merely trying to solve crimes once they had been committed. Instead of just counting arrests, commanders would be asked “Why are there still shootings at this housing estate?” The quality of life of the residents of many of the worst neighborhoods was tremendously improved. However, rather than focusing on this, the media spent a tremendous amount of time on just two cases. One was an example of stupid, ugly, outrageous cruelty, involving the anal penetration and thus torture of Abner Louima with a broken broomstick by Justin Volpe,[6] and the other was a terrible accident involving the shooting of an individual, Amadou Diallo, who was thought to be reaching for a gun, and even firing a shot, but was not. For the reporters, it was as though all the good news did not exist; just one psychopathic policeman who felt disrespected by someone he was trying to arrest, and some other policemen who did not follow proper procedure but made an honest mistake. These two incidents were used to claim that the entire New York Police Department, numbering over 40,000 at the time, were brutal and racist.  The shooters of Amadou Diallo, who were looking for an armed rapist known to be operating in the area, should have taken cover behind cars before engaging the suspect. When they mistakenly thought that he was reaching for a gun, (it was a wallet), one policeman fired a shot, and the others imagined that a gunfight was taking place. Being exposed, their options were limited to what they thought was firing back. The shooters of Amadou Diallo were charged with second-degree murder. The punishment for the brutal policeman was immediate and much of his precinct was disbanded. These isolated errors and aberrations do not invalidate massive improvements in crime reduction that had been taking place. But the media attention was huge. The New York Times wrote 3.5 articles a day for two months on the Diallo case, hitting a peak of 9 stories on one day.[7]

California in particular has been the target of prison abolitionists, or at least those who desire much lower incarceration rates. The Prison Law Office, a prisoner rights group, has been involved in litigation against California since 1995. In Coleman v Brown (1995), it was declared that California’s prison mental healthcare system was so poor that it constituted “cruel and unusual punishment.” As a result, the entire prison system was put in the hands of a federal regulator. In Plata v Brown (2001), the claim of inadequacy was extended to healthcare in general. In Brown v Plata[8] (2011) the US Supreme Court, led by Justice Kennedy, on record as a critic of incarceration policies, decided that the supposed healthcare problems were the result of overcrowding. However, the information they based this decision on was fourteen years old in some cases and out of date. One facility cited, for instance, had been demolished and replaced. A picture of bunkbeds in a gymnasium was used in the case, though those conditions had long been rectified. The judges referred to the “design capacity” of the prisons based on one prisoner per cell, though the prisons were designed for double celling, as are most prisons around the country. This meant that the prisons were artificially regarded as having lower capacities than they really did. Despite California spending over one billion additional dollars on healthcare and suing to get out of the control of federal regulators, spending three times the amount of New York and six times the amount of Texas on healthcare, neither of which states are under federal management, all attempts to regain control of their own prisons have failed. Californians voted for Proposition 47 which retroactively downgraded a range of property and drug felonies to misdemeanors, including the forcible theft of guns, purses, and laptops, providing the cost of the items is below $950. In May 2015, three thousand felons were released from prison as a result. Burglary, car theft, and larceny surged in LA county. Criminals in California know that there are no real consequences for committing property crimes anymore.[9] Proposition 47 had been sold as putting less pressure on jails and prisons – a situation created by the Prison Law Office. With the lowered imaginary “design capacity” of prisons, California had been forced to put prisoners in local jails which are used for holding prisoners awaiting trial and serving sentences of one year or less. Designed for short term stays, jails do not have all the facilities of prisons. The Prison Law Office then attacked the jail’s provision of healthcare. Proposition 47 was thus a response to attacks on prisons, followed by attacks on jails, and the attempt to reduce prisoner numbers to a much smaller number. The money saved by not imprisoning criminals was supposed to be rerouted into truancy, treatment and mental health programs starting in 2016.[10] However, this did not happen. After the jail population temporarily declined, it rose again due to an increase in crime. In LA, crime rose by 20%. Property crime was up 11%, shooting victims up 27% and arrests down 9%. In nearby Costa Mesa, violence crime increased 47% and theft 44%. In Santa Ana, felony crime was up 33% in May 2015 from 2014, violent crime up 28%, property 43% and robbery 89%. It is to be noted, however, that crime around the country was going through a period of increase.




[2] p. 186, The War Against Cops, Heather MacDonald.

[3] My MA thesis was on pacificism. I badly wanted to be a pacifist but found that it was immoral.

[4] Crime was going down elsewhere around America, but not nearly as fast as New York City. Some of the later downturns in crime in other places seems to be related to other cities following the lead of NYC.

[5] p. 43, Are Cops Racist? Heather MacDonald.

[6] Married to a black woman and who regularly socialized with her side of the family.

[7] p. 40, Are Cops Racist?

[8] In court cases the plaintiff’s name goes first and the defendant’s second. Hence, Plata v Brown becomes Brown v Plata on appeal.

[9][9] p. 57, The War Against Cops.

[10] p. 224, The War Against Cops.

Richard CocksRichard Cocks

Richard Cocks

Richard Cocks is an Associate Editor of VoegelinView and has been a faculty member of the Philosophy Department at SUNY Oswego since 2001. Dr. Cocks is an editor and regular contributor at the Orthosphere and has been published at The Brussels Journal, The Sydney Traditionalist Forum, People of Shambhala, The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal and the University Bookman.

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