Category Archives: Punishment theory

Congratulations, Massachusetts!

Huge kudos to the Massachusetts House of Representatives which on Tuesday voted down a bill introduced by Governor Mitt Romney that sought to re-introduce the death penalty into the state.
The vote was 99 to 53.
Romney claimed that the bill he introduced had mandated so many safeguards that it would, “[take] out the risk of executing someone who is innocent, and it does put in place the ultimate penalty for those who carry out the most horrible crimes in society.” A majority of legislators disagreed.
State Representative Eugene L. O’Flaherty, Democrat of Boston, was quoted as saying, “No system that relies on scientific evidence can truly be developed that flawlessly and with no doubt separates the guilty from the innocent.” Other death-penalty opponents noted that the death penalty,

    was unfairly applied to the poor and to members of racial minorities, that it was too expensive and that it ran counter to the trend in which increasing numbers of countries have abolished capital punishment.

Quite right.
My home state of Virginia, meanwhile, remains one of the killingest states in the Union. I think we have two executions coming up: one for Robin Lovitt on November 30, and one for Daryl Atkins on December 2.
Massachusetts last executed someone in 1947.
The chart on this web-page from the Death Penalty Information Center seems to show that the death penalty is very much “a southern thang”… The sixteen named “southern” states there– yes, that includes Virginia– have accounted for roughly 80% of all the country’s executions since 1993.
As you can learn here, twleve states and the District of Columbia do not have the death penalty in their penal codes; 38 states plus the federal government do have it.
This disparity allows for some interesting comparisons. For example, regarding the alleged “deterrent” capacity of the death penalty. If you go to the table around 2/3 way down this web-page from the DPIC, on the left, you can see that:

    in 2003, the murder-rate in DP states was 44% higher than in non-DP states;*
    in 2002, the murder-rate in DP states was 36% higher than in non-DP states;
    in 2001, the murder-rate in DP states was 37% higher than in non-DP states; etc…

So why, oh why, do we do it? This truly feels like a medieval country sometimes.
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*In an earlier version of this post I wrote these facts exactly the wrong way around. Oops, sorry about that. ~HC

Incarceration in Africa

The New York Times had an excellent, fairly long piece of reporting today on the situation in many (or most?) of the prisons in Africa. (Also here.) Michael Wines, who wrote it, focuses much of his attention on the situation in one prison in Lilongwe, Malawi– his dateline. But the article also has some other more general info about the terrible state of people caught in the carceral system elsewhere in Africa:

    This is life in Malawi’s high-security prisons, Dickens in the tropics, places of cruel, but hardly unusual punishment. Prosecutors, judges, even prison wardens agree that conditions are unbearable, confinements intolerably long, justice scandalously uneven.
    But by African standards, Malawi is not the worst place to do time. For many of Africa’s one million prison inmates, conditions are equally unspeakable – or more so.
    The inhumanity of African prisons is a shame that hides in plain sight. Black Beach Prison in Equatorial Guinea is notorious for torture. Food is so scarce in Zambia’s jails that gangs wield it as an instrument of power. Congo’s prisons have housed children as young as 8. Kenyan prisoners perish from easily curable diseases like gastroenteritis.
    When the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights last visited the Central African Republic’s prisons in 2000, it heard that officers had deemed 50 prisoners incorrigible. Then, dispensing with trials, they executed them.
    Even the African Commission’s special representative for inmates has not visited an African prison in 18 months. There is no money, said the representative, Vera Chirwa, a democracy activist who herself spent 12 years in Malawi jails under a dictatorship.
    “The conditions are almost the same,” Ms. Chirwa said. “In Malawi, in South Africa, in Mozambique, in almost every country I have visited. I’ve been to France, and I’ve seen the prisons there. In Africa, they would be hotels.”

Anyone who’s ever read Foucault should understand there’s an intimate connection between “modernity” and the practice of large-scale incarceration. Incarceration, I would add, is an extremely expensive option for societies to choose. In the classic model of it, prisoners are totally removed from society and therefore have to be fed, housed, and clothed by the government. Because they are removed from productive labor, and becauise they are generally able-bodied men of breadwinning age, the incarceration of one individual can result in up to ten family members losing their main means of support… Large-scale incarceration has bad enough longterm social and economic effects in a country like the US, where there are currently more than two million people incarcerated, and a further million employed in guarding them. Imagine what a burden a policy of incarceration places on a very low-income country in Africa…
I first started reflecting deeply on this subject about five years ago, when I learned that in Rwanda, the main policy the government had chosen in order to deal with the aftermath of the 1994 genocide had been one of detaining and incarcerating suspects– and that at that point more than 130,000 of that country’s 7.5 million or so people were still, six years after the end of the genocide, festering in their prisons with only a tiny number of them ever having seen the inside of a courtroom. (If you want to read my really long Boston Review article on that subject, you can find it here.)
When I was working on that article– and later, when I went to Rwanda to check out the situation for myself– I became very impressed with the work being done in several African countries by a small NGO called Penal Reform International. Michael Wines quotes the Malawi-based regional director of Penal Reform International, Marie-Dominique Parent, as saying: “Most African governments spend little on justice, and what little is spent goes mostly to the police and courts… Prisons are at the bottom of the heap.”
He also notes this very disturbing relationship:

    Paradoxically, democracy’s advent has catalyzed the problems of Africa’s prisons. Freedom has permitted lawlessness, newly empowered citizens have demanded order – and governments have delivered.
    Malawi’s prison population has more than doubled since the dictatorship ended in 1994. But its justice system is so badly broken that it is hard to know where to begin repairs…

So what is the answer? To urge governments in Africa to spend more on their prisons and court systems? Or to urge them to find alternatives to incarceration as the main “punishment of choice” in their societies.
I would say: both. But especially, given that the prison systems in most of those countries are in such a rudimentary and inhumane condition, western aid donors should be looking to explore and support the upgrading of the widest possible kinds of alternatives. I mean, there is no particular reason that “modernity” always has to come fully equipped with large prison systems, is there? And at least, in Africa, in most countries there are still some fairly robust indigenous justice and conflict-resolution mechanisms that could be conserved, modernized, and upgraded.
… Anyway, I’m glad that Michael Wines wrote that piece, and that the NYT gave it such a lot of space. So often, liberals in the US think that all that’s needed for people in low-income countries is that we should export all our own kinds of instituions there and then everything would be great. But at the same time we here in the US know that there are a lot of things terribly wrong with our own, ultra-punitive criminal-justice system. So why on earth would we want to export that to anyone? What we should do instead is proactively go out to identify, and seek to strengthen, a whole range of alternatives.

Ghosh on prisons and social control

I’ve had a (strongly critical) interest in punishment theory for some years now. Many months ago I rashly agreed to write an article on mass incarcerations and political control for a friend of mine, who graciously reminded me a couple of weeks ago that the deadline was either highly imminent or actually overdue… That’s part of the reason I’ve been reading Caroline Elkins’ detailed study of the exact and complex dynamics of the mass punishment of Mau Mau suspects in British-controlled Kenya.
Today, I read this excellent article by the (subcontinent) Indian-American anthropologist Amitav Ghosh, who draws a direct line between British carcereal practices in colonial India and the practices of the US GI’s in Abu Ghraib. (The piece was written to mark, roughly, the anniversary of the Abu Ghraib revelations.)
Here are some of the similarities he identified:

    some of the Abu Ghraib images are eerily reminiscent of photographs taken by British prison officials in Asia in the late nineteenth century. In these too, the prisoners are naked, men and women, and they stand with an arm outstretched and their genitals facing the camera; although their clothes have been removed, many wear fetters and chains. The difference is that these pictures were taken for officially sanctioned projects of documentation, and the jailors were absent from the frames…
    Another continuity lies in the marriage of incarceration and cultural theory. The methods employed in Abu Ghraib and Guant