The American Philosophy of Incarceration
Table of Contents
Ancient Retribution 5
The Code of Hammurabi 5
The Oresteia 5
From Body to Soul 7
Tool of Social Control 10
After Prison 16
“Ceci n’est pas une pipe” 20
Throughout history, the view on how to establish justice has often changed. However, in all their different ideologies, civilizations have never disregarded that a system of justice is crucial to the control of society. But, most importantly, they have always understood how punishment, or an unpleasant consequence to undesirable behavior, is even more valuable to the maintenance of that system. When dealing with human nature, the 18th century criminologist Cesare Beccaria claims that “neither the power of eloquence nor the sublimest truths are sufficient to restrain, for any length of time, those passions which are excited by the lively impressions of present objects” (9). Driven by these “passions,” or instincts, men are just like children; no warning of danger or parental plea is more compelling than a threat of punishment when trying to stop a child from acting upon an impulse. The effectiveness of punishment as a tool of control is sustained by the fact that the desire of self-preservation lies at the very core of human nature.
There are two main philosophies regarding the use of punishment: retributivism and utilitarianism. The retributive approach is based on the idea that someone who has done something detrimental to society deserves to be punished, and, usually, suffer in proportion to the crime committed. Immanuel Kant, for instance, was among these supporters of punishment for the sake of punishment. As he argued in favor of the “sacredness” of justice, he claimed that whoever compromised another man’s rights should be punished to suffer the consequences of his/her actions and, therefore, respect the value of “justice.”
In contrast, utilitarian philosophers consider punishment to be inherently evil, but necessary to avoid injurious conduct in society. For them, punishment should serve the purpose of deterrence (discouraging criminal behaviors), incapacitation (impeding law offenders from acting again), and rehabilitation (helping criminals lead a new life, free of their former behavior). But, most importantly, utilitarianism relies on the effectiveness of punishment rather than its harshness.
In this paper I will start by exploring how ancient times were dominated by extreme ideas of retributive punishment, and how history developed to create a more utilitarian – and humane – system of crimes and punishments. I will use the foundations of utilitarianism, exploring the writings of philosophers like Michel Foucault and Cesare Beccaria, and more recent documents like the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, to expose how the American Penitentiary System has deviated from its initial utilitarian purposes and transitioned to a failed system of retributive punishment.