Punishment has taken many forms throughout human history. Binding to a stake, ritual cursing, stoning, barred social interaction—that’s what pre-Common Era justice looked like in some parts of the world. Old Testament justice, epitomized by the idea of ‘an eye for an eye’, was designed to maintain tribal unity, a step in the development of social systems—the establishment of a body of justice whose purpose was to enact retaliation and claim exclusive right to punish.
Sub-Saharan Africa dealt with those who broke the social code through beatings, banishment, or poison, but the focus was on victim compensation, especially through restoration of property. China, until the third century, employed beatings and executions.
In England, confinement in workhouses did exist as early as the 17th century, as a cure for the ‘idleness’ of the poor. But banishment, whipping, hanging, and fines were more common and these carried over into early American justice.
Colonial America was composed of small, tight communities, built around ideas about God, punishment and the social order, under obedience to a hierarchy of fathers and ministers, Lawrence Friedman writes. Punishment often consisted of public shaming, like putting people in stocks. Scarlet letters, famously, were sewn onto clothing for some offences. Crimes against morality, including the crime of missing church, could get you punished. The poor and slaves were whipped regularly; the wealthy, rarely.
But a society short on labor was reluctant to put people away and the practice of incarceration was still rare.
With the American Revolution came reform. The Bill of Rights codified ideas about fair trials. “English criminal justice was a patriarchal jumble, a peculiar mix of extreme legalism and extreme discretion,” Friedman writes. “In a republican criminal justice system, all crimes and their punishments would be embodied in a clear definitive code.” Reformers began to push for prisons as an enlightened alternative to earlier harsh punishments.
As the US entered the 19th century, two competing visions of incarceration held sway. One, centered in Pennsylvania, encouraged the isolation of prisoners in small cells, clothed in scratchy uniforms, alone and with no distractions, so that they could meditate on their sins and become penitent (hence the word ‘penitentiary.’) Based on the ideas of reformer Benjamin Rush, who saw the need for ‘houses of repentance,’ this vision was grounded in a Christian, especially Quaker, worldview.
Unfortunately, the isolation drove people crazy. Charles Dickens visited some of these prisons and said the prisoners were “dead to everything but torturing anxieties and horrible despair.”
“I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain,” Dickens wrote, “to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body: and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye and sense of touch as scars upon the flesh; because its wounds are not upon the surface, and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore I the more denounce it, as a secret punishment which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay.” These words are applicable to the current-day practice of solitary confinement, a practice that has also been shown to scar those who are subjected to it.
In contrast to the penitential system was the congregate system, developed in Auburn, N.Y., where inmates could mingle while at hard labor, though there was enforced silence at all times and they were separated into small cells at night. This system seemed to win out in the debate over the future of the U.S. penal system and gave birth to America’s first maximum-security prison, Sing Sing.
By the time of the Civil War, the congregate system was in place throughout the North and Midwest. The prevailing notion was that people turned to crime because of defective background, weak wills, and bad company. Prison addressed these problems by providing “backbone.”
But maintaining even the congregate system was expensive; it was cheaper to let prisons get noisy and crowded. And states couldn’t resist making money off of prisoners by leasing them out to local manufacturers and farmers. This practice raised protests from unions, who saw prison’s cheap labor as a threat to the power of organized labor.
Reformers organized a national congress on reformatory discipline in 1870, ushering in the “second great penal movement.” Wielding a declaration of principles, an emphasis on professional guard training, religious instruction, and moral regeneration, the movement focused on reforming inmates’ characters.
The river of incarceration in the U.S. has a muddier tributary: prison system as slave plantation. Though some states in the south used penitentiaries, many, like South Carolina, the most conservative state in the slave belt, never did. Chain gangs were more common there and convicts were sent out to work for plantations.
According to historian Robert Perkinson, “Two ancestral lines come into view: one reformatory, one retributive; one integrative, one exclusionary; one conceived in northern churches and the other on southern work farms…”
“The Southern argument is that prisons today operate in a retributive mode that has long been practiced and promoted in the South,” Perkinson continues. There are, for example, still a number of prison farms on the grounds of old plantations, such as Angola Prison in Louisiana. Such prisons, he writes, hold a racial charge, with white supremacy as their real aim. The idea of revenge, not rehabilitation or restoration, as the main focus, seems to be deeply rooted in many of these Southern prisons, even today.
The 1960s saw the single largest reduction ever in prison populations. When Nixon was elected President, though, he began to build prisons at an unprecedented rate. Raids, wiretapping, and mandatory minimum sentences increased. Local crimes like drug dealing and gambling became federal offenses. SWAT teams were formed to raid Black Panther headquarters. The RICO act allowed federal agents to interrogate anyone, anywhere, for any reason.
By the mid-‘70s only 10 percent of the billions spent on corrections went to rehabilitation, and prison populations surged. A get-tough attitude on crime surfaced in the ‘70s and ‘80s, which gave rise to fixed-length or determinate sentences, and later, to the three strikes law, starting in California in the ‘90s.
According to Robert Perkinson, both presidents Reagan and the first Bush built a punitive legacy; under their watch, the federal prison population doubled, mostly due to drug crimes. On the heels of this, President Clinton announced that in order to qualify for federal support, states had to increase their prison budgets, and cut back on sentence reductions for good time and parole.
It was Democrat Clinton, with the Omnibus Crime Bill of 1994, who presided over the most intensive incarceration boom in U.S. history.
Any Proutist policy must be rooted in an understanding of Neohumanism. This philosophy sees all human beings as having the potential for growth in all spheres of life, and as inherently capable, for the most part, of relating to one another primarily through the lens of compassion and well-being. Environment is key. (Of course, some people are born with glandular defects or predispositions disposing them toward negative behavior, but even these people can, with time and patience, move toward more positive outlooks).
A Neohumanistic society is one in which each person has scope to thrive, while the society as a whole balances these individual interests with a strong collective cohesion. The outlook also privileges the existential rights of animals and plants and nature as a whole. The fundamental principles of Prout are coherent with this philosophy.
For those people who have imbibed a criminal mentality, reformative, healthy environments must be provided to help them change their behavior.
These ideas are rooted in Prout founder P. R. Sarkar’s views on justice. Sarkar takes a global view, nesting justice reform into the larger human project.
“In every sphere of life,” he writes, “there must be an ongoing effort to progress from imperfection to perfection. This effort will, if only indirectly, make social progress and all-round welfare more accessible to the human race.”
“I am personally of the opinion that since flaws will always unavoidably remain, no matter how good the judicial system, it is not the intent of nature for one human being to penalize another.” Moreover, he writes, the act of punishing often leads to a feeling of vindictiveness in the minds of those administering the punishment.
All such action should be corrective, not punitive. “If a system of corrective measures is introduced, a person who is definitely guilty will benefit from a system of corrective measures, and even a person who is not guilty will benefit from such a system…Far greater damage will be done if an innocent person is penalized because of a defective judicial system.”
He also draws a distinction between the role of government and that of the judiciary. “Judges can and will frequently temper the merciless attitudes of the administration with humane reasoning; the verdicts of humane judges will therefore be more acceptable to the populace of a state than the pronouncements of an insensitive administration.”
The question of capital punishment is one that each society grapples with. However, from a Neohumanistic perspective, the answer seems clear.
“The system of capital punishment is unacceptable from the moral viewpoint,” Sarkar writes. “It does not contain any corrective measures and has no purpose other than to instill fear into people’s minds. Therefore the practice of taking a life for a life out of anger cannot be accepted in a civilized social system. Even if somebody is a genuine criminal who has no public support (no matter how notorious a criminal he or she may be, he or she is still a human being), should not he or she have an opportunity to become an asset to society? It is possible that although the person fails to evoke our sympathy because of the seriousness of his or her crimes, he or she may sincerely repent and be prepared to dedicate the rest of his or her life to the genuine service of society. Furthermore, if those who commit crimes are afflicted with a mental disease, is it not our duty to cure them of their disease instead of sentencing them to death?”
Some argue that if criminals who commit serious offences are not given capital punishment, they will have to be sentenced to life imprisonment, because few countries have the facilities to cure them of their mental disease. But such a decision may cause overcrowding in the prisons. Is it possible for the state to provide so many people with food and clothing?
Sarkar believes a program of work and reform is the best approach. “I would ask, “Why should such criminals live off the state at all?” The state will have to see to it that it receives suitable work from them. And after the completion of their sentence, the state should sincerely make arrangements to find them employment so that they will be able to earn an honest living.
“A prison should therefore be just like a reform school, and the superintendent should be a teacher who is trained in psychology and who has genuine love for society. Hence a jailer should possess no less ability than a judge.”
The situation of the defendant’s family must also be considered, so that they do not fall into a life of crime, absent the breadwinner. The state will have to provide them with the means to earn an honest living.
Though he was writing in part about a specific time and place, Sarkar’s prescription to increase the number of judges may be useful in other contexts.
This requires “a thorough examination and careful selection of candidates. Relatively simple and ordinary cases can even be entrusted to responsible citizens or honorary magistrates. However, they will also have to exhibit a highly-developed sense of responsibility.”
Prevention is better than cure. “Civilized people today should be more interested in preventing base criminal propensities from arising in human beings in the first place, than in taking corrective measures to cure criminals’ mental diseases.”
He writes that defects in various glands often are the cause of criminal behavior, and that collective efforts to remedy these in harmony with human psychology can have very beneficial effects on reform.
“Without a spiritual ideal, no social, economic, moral, cultural or political policy or program can bring humanity to the path of peace. The sooner humanity understands this fundamental truth, the better.”