As our civilization develops, so do our social structures and institutions. There’s daily news about all sorts of innovative ways technology is used to improve everything about our society ranging from transportation and agriculture to healthcare and education. But… what about prisons?
Oh, there’s news about prisons too: riots, overcrowding and dismal results when it comes to actually convincing criminals that it’s better to respect the rules of society. So, when do those that have the most need of a guiding light get to see some improvement in how we help them rebuild their lives?
Prisons have evolved, as illustrated by countries such as Norway^. For the most part, however, detention institutions are still stuck in what will be looked at by the historians of the future as one of the longest-lasting vestiges of an unenlightened past. In a century or two, we will look at the prisons of today just like we now look at torture chambers.
Varying degrees of crime, varying degrees of success
Prisons can and have saved people. Violent criminals should be temporarily removed from society. But in this day and age, we’re smart enough to make the difference between a thief, a mass murderer, a person that was in the wrong state of mind at the wrong time and a corporate scumbag^ in need for some education in empathy. Yet, they all end up in pretty much the same system, being dealt the same treatment. It’s exactly like prescribing varying quantities of the same old aspirin to all patients, regardless if they’re suffering of cancer, flu, hernia or depression.
Some time ago, torture was widely accepted while the capital punishment wasn’t even remotely considered ethically wrong. Today, many countries on Earth have abolished^ the death penalty. In some time still, depriving anybody but the most violent criminals of their freedom will be considered nothing short of barbaric. Neither humans nor animals belong in cages^.
Most people that go to prison end up costing the society even more, as recidivism^ rates are absurdly high. Imprisonment isn’t working the way it’s supposed to if the result is that a person is, in reality, permanently stigmatized and traumatized in such a way that they can rarely rejoin society.
Punishments such as solitary confinement are inhumane. The behavioral corrections they instill in an individual are rarely a sign of true improvement. More often than not, these changes in the prisoner are just a form of training that will disappear soon after the individual realizes the threat of punishment is gone: humans are harder to train than other creatures.
A major prison reform is long overdue
Norway is definitely onto something when it comes to “open” prisons. Wouldn’t it be more useful for society if those that committed a crime can actually continue or start contributing to society? This doesn’t have to bear the stench of forced labor and oppressive regimes on it. Imagine a city where those that broke the law can live freely while guided and assisted by both professionals and volunteers from the outside, including their own families.
And besides, in the surveillance age^, who needs walls and bars? Sure, certain very dangerous individuals or the criminally insane might need to be committed to a special institution where they can be cared for by psychologists while they play violent video games^.
Speaking of surveillance, were you aware of China’s Social Credit System^? It sets a dangerous precedent. It shows what a police state can do once it gets its paws on sufficiently advanced technology. However, what if the same technology can be used to give individuals a fair chance at rehabilitation?
Imprisoned while free, free while imprisoned
Consider that a large portion of today’s prisoners have not directly hurt another human being. They are not rapists, nor murderers. They are thieves, petty criminals, misguided (hate) ideologists or simply people that ended up in the wrong entourage (due to social segregation^) only to eventually get caught up in a cascade of unfortunate consequences.
What if instead of depriving these people of their potential, we would allow them freedom of movement and action, but under a regime of tight surveillance? Let’s not forget that the surveillance methods of today are extremely capable and efficient. What China is getting ready to apply to most of its citizens^ (read: the workers, the powerless) has been available in many other democratic countries as well, albeit with the notable difference that there’s a slightly tighter regulatory framework. In democratic countries they usually require a warrant to put somebody under surveillance.
But, taking a page from China’s book, wrongdoers that have not directly hurt another human being can be sentenced to surveillance for a number of months or even years. Their actions will be tracked and evaluated by automated algorithms, subject to verification by human supervisors. In other words, a human-computer parole officer that, at the end of the sentence, can observe and guarantee that the former criminal is no longer a criminal, but a person that has a positive contribution to society, a job and perhaps even a healthy social life.
A new life?
It would be naïve to assume that all criminals would take advantage of the opportunity to start a new life. But it’s logical to assume that recidivism would decrease, as people wouldn’t be forced to live in a confined space alongside gangs that preach the worst of criminal practices.
Convicts that end up committing further crimes could still remain free, although confined to ever-tighter areas, eventually having to live and work in the afore-mentioned prison cities.
Regardless of the specific way prison reform is implemented, it is not only necessary, but the humane thing to do. We invest a lot of energy in fighting for the ethical treatment of animals, for the environment, even for favorite sports teams, brands or politicians. But how about investing some energy in fellow human beings that have slipped between the cracks of our society?
Isn’t forgiveness a virtue preached by most cultures? How can we truly say we wish to make the world a better place if we throw people away from sight, lock them up, failing to realize that perhaps it is our own society’s fault^ that they ended up behaving in a violent way?