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Punishing The Guilty

Atul Gawande has a fine piece in this week's New Yorker which describes some of the conditions in U.S. prisons, specifically the conditions of prisoners who end up in solitary confinement. Gawande's thesis is that human beings are social creatures who face extreme psychological distress when confronted with a complete lack of human-to-human contact. In fact, Gawande makes the case that such conditions can plausibly be called torture. He mentions that few if any other countries keep their prisioners in such conditions, and regrets this unfortunate example of American exceptionalism. However, he leaves one important point out of his otherwise exhaustive case. He writes:

Commissioners are not powerless. They could eliminate prolonged isolation with the stroke of a pen. So, I asked, why haven’t they? He told me what happened when he tried to move just one prisoner out of isolation. Legislators called for him to be fired and threatened to withhold basic funding. Corrections officers called members of the crime victim’s family and told them that he’d gone soft on crime. Hostile stories appeared in the tabloids. It is pointless for commissioners to act unilaterally, he said, without a change in public opinion.

This makes sense, of course, but Gawande never considers the idea of punishment as an end in itself, and it is here, I think, where liberal  writers tend to miss a major motiviating factor in our crime policy. There are numerous historical and religious reasons for this belief, and without getting bogged down in too many details, it is worth pointing out that many people believe wrongdoers "deserve" punishment for bad deeds. Others like, I would assume, Gawande, see no value in punishing people unless it serves distinct ends (keeping criminals off the street, deterring crime, etc.). Now, I happen to agree with Gawande, and I see no value in punishment for punishment's sake, but it is probably safe to say this is not a majority opinion in America. It also might help explain the sad state of our criminal justice system and prisons.

--Isaac Chotiner