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Jail time is NOT a Punishment

Jail time is NOT a Punishment

The word punishment originally comes from the word pain, essentially, in order to punish, pain must be inflicted or felt. Punishment is what was used by societies to deter crime. In many ways human beings have shown both extremes or brutality and leniency in their punishment systems. A lot of social dynamics have shown themselves to be at play when punishment is inflicted, i.e. race, tribe, religion, even industrial demands. It is for this reason that I find it extremely important and interesting what the choice of punishment systems in various communities are. It is clear that punishment is not a ‘one size fits all’, so are we satisfied with what we have chosen to rely on? Does jail time really address Africa’s rehabilitation needs, or has it been blindly adopted along with our assimilation of Western culture?

People oftentimes talk about “He deserves to go to jail to pay for what he did!” In furious tones, they utter statements like “The only way we can prove that the justice system works is if he goes to jail!” It all makes me wonder, why do people think that jail time is a punishment? Jail time, contrary to popular belief is neither punishment, nor justice. Our perception that  justice is served is actually but a flaw in the human mind’s aptitude for rationalising. For generations, our brains have sold us to believe that revenge is good, in fact it’s done so well at this clever trick that revenge actually does feel good most times. International bestselling author, Dan Ariely explained it best in his book ‘The Upside of Irrationality’ when he said, “Revenge is one of the deepest-seated instincts we have. Throughout history, oceans of blood have been spilled and an endless number of lives ruined in an effort to settle scores- even when nothing good could possibly come of it.” So what, exactly are the mechanics and motivations underlying this primal urge? Basically, it all comes down to the fact that trust and revenge are opposites of the same coin. The more you trust someone, the more upset, and likely to extract revenge on them you will be when they betray you. If you have ever experienced a bad break up or divorce, then you relate best! The more trusting societies are, the more extreme their punishment for crime is; because you see humans have more to gain from trusting societies; good business, no drugs, no rape, no theft, no murder; the need to protect this freedom will drive us to great extremes to punish the people who threaten it. This need is embedded in our genes. I invite you to consider a research conducted by Swiss researchers that had people play a ‘trust game’. In this game you and a stranger are placed in separate rooms, and the experimenter gives you each $10. You get to make the first move. You have to choose if you would like to put your trust on the stranger in the other room, or keep it, both of you get to keep your money and the game is over. However, if you choose to pass on your $10, the experimenter quadruples the amount, leaving player 2 with their original $10 plus $40. The other player now has a choice: (a) to keep all the money ($50), or to (b) send you back half the money since he is fully aware of your investment, in this case you would end up with $25. The experiment revealed that most people sent the money back, but a few did not. In which case you are given to chance to use your own money to punish the greedy fellow. For each dollar of your own money that you give the experimenter, $2 will be taken from the traitor. So say you decide to spend $2, you partner will lose $4. Spending $25 will see your partner go home with nothing! While making decisions, participants brains were simultaneously being scanned by positron emission tomography (PET). The scans revealed that when participants decided to take revenge, the area of the brain which is related with feelings of pleasure, the striatum, recorded increased activity. What’s more, those who had a high level of striatum activation punished others to a greater degree. All of this suggests that when we seek to punish people, our biology is also at play, to give us feelings of pleasure when we have struck back, even though whatever we do to strike back may not necessarily have much effect. In the above illustration, the participant who essentially loses more is the one who chooses to punish. He is the only one who spends his own money!

Now for a closer look at the concept of jail time. To understand this, we may need to take a look into criminal behaviour. First, of course, what is criminal behaviour? Some psychologists have preferred to speak to crime/criminal behaviour using the term deviant; to encompass the social and demographic variables in unacceptable mannerisms. However, the term crime is used to describe behaviour that endangers an individual’s life and or violates the rights of others.

Deviant behaviour can be summed up to have just two motives (a) the lack of consciousness of what is right or wrong; e.g. terrorist, or people with extreme personality disorders, and (b) the lack of self control; e.g. people who commit crimes like rape, assault, or murder. Therefore, when you commit a crime, what it communicates to the community is that you are incapable of being accountable for your morality and or self control. This prompts the community to then take protective measures to spare themselves from your wrath. These measures are supposed to restore the predictability and safety of the environment, and avoid the upset caused by you possibly repeating the deviant/criminal behaviour.

Through  time, we have come up with very creative ways to protect people from criminals and deviants. If you look back at history, all the way back to the beginning of human life in the Christian religion doctrine’s first book: Genesis, we read that of an incident that prompted  a practice that quite closely resembles the concept of our modern day prison system; we called it exile. The story of Adam and Eve’s is believed to be the first record of human existence; being created on the seventh day following God’s creation of earth. Adam and Eve are told to have had two sons: Able and Caine. Caine was older than Able and he was envious of God’s recognition of his brother. Vexed by all this emotion, one day while out in the garden, Caine murdered his brother Able in cold blood. The family was devastated by what happened. Adam and Eve became the first people to hold a funeral, the first people to lose their child’s life to violence! After the murder occurred,  God asks Caine where his brother is. Caine denies knowledge, so God curses him, and then Caine says ,”My punishment is greater than I can bear” Genesis 4:13. “Behold, thou hast driven me out this day from the face of the earth; and from thy face shall I be hid; and I shall be a fugitive and a vagabond in the earth; and it shall come to pass, that every one that findeth me shall slay me.” Genesis 4:14 KJV.

Nigerian novelist, Chinua Achebe in his book ‘Things Fall Apart’, a story book that describes life in precolonial Nigeria speaks to this practice in Africa. At a funeral, the main character, Okonkwo’s, gun accidentally goes off and kills Ezeudu’s sixteen-year-old son. Killing a clansman is a crime against the earth goddess, so Okonkwo must atone by taking his family into exile for seven years. Okonkwo gathers his most valuable belongings and takes his family to his mother’s natal village, Mbanta. This shows that for a time, exile was the standard punishment for serious crime. In pre-colonial Europe, the Roman Catholic church played a critical role in the beginning of the jail system. The churches were usually built with large and incredibly strong basement rooms. These rooms were used to store food in case of emergencies and attacks. When priest were found to have committed serious acts of violence such as rape or murder, they would send them to live in these bottom rooms; they looked at it as time needed for solitude and praying; this was the beginning of the jail cell concept. The British then adapted the system to lock away political rivals. Eventually the political unease in Britain caused many people to be poor. Many people began living on the street; engaging in petty crimes like theft and prostitution to survive. Soon the King gave away an old abandoned castle called, Brighthouse, to hold all the criminals in a system they called ‘workrooms’. In here, convicts were made to labour under strictly organised regimes for little pay. Eventually many ‘Brighthouses’ began to spring up all around Britain; this practice would become the first the recorded convict labour; which later became much more brutal and wide practiced in the United States of America.

Tracing back our practices, exclusions were used to protect the community from criminal behaviour, by sending them away. I believe that in the beginning, even in Western communities, that may have been the case. Somewhere, something different occurred, and the prisoner went commercial. It became important to keep as many people in jail as possible. Black people were flooded into jails to create more, and stronger labour through convict labour; a side effect of this practice is that crime became racialized, the results of which stereotypes we still believe in and live out today. My point is, it is time we evaluate this prison system for ‘punishment’. It serves no real justice; it is expensive and ineffective as there is a high rate of repeat offenders, even for serious crimes like rape and murder. The truth is it is neither economically nor socially strategic for Africa to take part in this practice that was actually designed to enslave us for exploitation. It is time we made thorough use of our mental health workforce and revert to indigenous systems of rehabilitation to restore trust and unity in our communities.

Written by:

Letsha Kgotla


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