Prison & prisoners

There has been a hellish fire in a prison in Honduras. More than 300 prisoners have been killed. In the year 2012, we still haven’t worked out what it is that we do with miscreants & others who break the social norms.

It turns out that many of the prisoners burnt to death were not convicted of anything. Many of them were awaiting trial. It is likely that many of them were in fact not guilty of anything. In Honduras, the prisons are full to overcrowding; but are they not everywhere? What is it that has made society so dysfunctional?  Instead of crowing over this person or that, this bad person or that bad person being locked up, would it not make more sense to try to look at the causes? Religion is at the root of much that is wrong. Religion can teach people, especially children the difference between right & wrong. But it can also give people the sense that they cannot be touched.

The cry is lock them up lock them up. It is as though that solves something. It is as though miscreants are not real people. In a sense, we have come some way. There was a time when the death sentence was almost de rigueur for almost anything. When the Press Gang prevailed. When everyone, especially the poor & downtrodden knew their place. Until quite recently, the 18th century, public hangings were commonplace. But many of the prisons are the same ones that existed in the 18th century. Apart from anything else, they have never been aired, inside is the same stale air that has been there for over a hundred years. It is difficult to know what is the worst aspect of the prisons themselves but the necessity for them, prisons, is a failure of society. People do not appear to have a moral education; that is they leave school without knowing the difference between right & wrong. Is it possible to change bad people into good people; perhaps sometimes it isn’t. But they are members of the same species as us for all that.

Most of my friends believe that it is wrong to lock up fellow human beings for long periods, for life even. Often young people. In USA life means life. Life in a US prison is well documented. It is like some sort of hell. It is somehow death before life, except that inmates as they are called do tend to die in prison.

Prisoners, themselves, are considered some sort of sub species. They are considered to be not like us, somehow they are considered not human beings.

In the Honduran prison, some of them, maybe the vast majority of the prisoners, have indeed done some terrible things. It is understandable that in general people want them locked away. But it is not the answer. The prisons are getting bigger or at least more overcrowded. At this rate, there are going to be more people in prison than not. The law of the jungle prevails in many prisons & the prisons appear to be in fact in the control of the criminals. Drug dealing is rife & indeed much organised crime is directed from crime lords inside prisons.

It is true that nobody has yet come up with a better alternative to prison for really dangerous criminals. But the problem has never really been addressed. The will has never been there. Moral education doesn’t seem to exist.

Whatever the rights & wrongs of the situation, locking hundreds of people up & then setting fire to the building is not the answer. Presumably it wasn’t done deliberately but in a sense it was done by omission. There don’t seem to have been any precautions taken against fire breaking out. It seems that nobody on site had keys to the cells.

Crime & punishment is indeed a thorny problem as indeed is the question, what is prison for? Really prison is mainly a punishment. Punishment at least in this context is society’s revenge upon miscreants. But prison could be for rehabilitation. People get used to prison; indeed people get used to anything. That is the nature of the human mind.

There is much that can be done to rehabilitate prisoners. Many prisoners, very many, are illiterate. Many come from broken homes, probably the majority. Many come from crime families, many come from an environment where crime is considered the norm, where crime is not considered wrong. In Mexico, for example, it seems that the crime wave amounts to civil war, so well armed are the drug barons.

But the question which is always asked is, is it more expensive, expensive to the rest of us that is, to lock up people indefinitely or to do what is somewhat laughingly called rehabilitate them.

It does seem that violence in Honduras, especially drugs related crime is a very big problem, more so than many other countries, although Mexico for example has a bigger problem. But prisons over most of the World are getting bigger. There are more inmates in them & there are more prisons but even so they are becoming more overcrowded.

We, the inhabitants of the planet in the early stages of the 21st century seem to be caught in a circle of violence where there is more & more crime, especially violent crime. More & more people are being punished by being locked up but it is doing nothing to alleviate the situation.

There has been much soul searching about the fire in Honduras. Many who normally have no sympathy for prisoners whatever their condition & whatever crime they have committed seem in this case to be expressing some sympathy for them, the inmates. Many have no sympathy for prisoners even if they are proved to be not guilty. But for all that, for the really terrible things they may or may not have done they are human beings. With luck, a lot of luck it must be said, this could be a new beginning.

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