Punishment and ‘the horizon of reintegration’

This guest post comes from Javier Velasquez Valenzuela who is a doctoral research in the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research where he is studying the culture and practice of sentencing in Scottish courts. Javier previously worked as a prosecutor in the Chilean criminal courts. In this post, he reflects on the implications of some fascinating and challenging remarks made by Pope Francis during a visit to a women’s prison in Chile, as part of his recent visit. The post is a translated and adapted version of an article published in a Spanish language Chilean digital newspaper, which can be found here: http://www.elmostrador.cl/noticias/opinion/2018/02/19/el-horizonte-de-las-penas-de-carcel-en-chile/

Earlier this year Pope Francis, during his pastoral activities in Chile (my home country), he visited Chile’s largest prison for women. In his speech to the women, he said:

“A prison sentence without a future is not a human sentence, it is torture. Every sentence being lived out to pay a debt to society must have a perspective, that is, it must have the horizon of reintegration and preparation for being reintegrated. This is something you must demand of society”.

I want to explore the implications of these thoughts within the Chilean context — and for how we think about punishment and reintegration more generally. This requires an examination the meaning and the purposes of prison sentences, not least in Chile.

I will start by advancing my conclusion: In Chile prison produces nihilistic suffering, that is, suffering which lacks meaning or purpose. The practical reality of the conditions in the Chilean prisons are inhuman and should not leave anyone indifferent. In fact, at this point no one could claim ignorance of this situation. Not only are there various reports and new stories that have informed us about the miserable conditions caused by prison overcrowding or about the violence that is experienced inside the prisons and which the prison staff cannot control. If reports on the violation of human rights of the inmates were not enough to alert us to this reality, the San Miguel’s prison fire – where 81 prisoners died – gave a human face to this reality.

This is why the recent reflections offered by the Pope should make us consider the contradictions in our ways of thinking about punishment. Because Francis is right — a “sentence without a future is not a human punishment, it is a torture”. And the way in which we have tried to do justice is mainly through the imposition of a nihilistic punishment, which is just a manifestation of power; power that dehumanises individuals we seem to believe undeserving of being treated as human beings. It is difficult to pretend that any punishment suffered in this way may be able to teach ‘offenders’ anything about morality or citizenship. Critically, the fact that Chileans acknowledge the misery of imprisonment, and knowingly allow it, shows that we accept it. Whatever religion you profess and whatever your political preferences, it is not acceptable in a democracy to tolerate a punishment that has become a de facto form of torture; a punishment that denies individuals, who have committed crimes, their humanity.

The ethical-moral argument that asks us for consistency in respect of human rights is not the only consideration that compels us to reflect on the urgent need for reform of the prison system. Recently, a press release reported that the cost to the Chilean State of maintaining a prisoner is £868 per month. However, and this is critically important, anyone who has visited any Chilean prison may have asked where that money goes because the conditions do not reflect the amount of money that is spent. During the last few years, the Chilean Prison Service annual budget has been on average around £540,000,000. However, such a significant amount of funding has not been able to end the violence inside the prisons — the homicides and other violent crimes; nor has it been able to prevent drug dealing orchestrated within the prison walls through the illegal use of mobile phones. Moreover, we also need to consider the prison’s in/ability to reduce reoffending. Several studies carried out in Chile with adult and juvenile populations found that after three years at least half of those released had committed a new offence or offences. These findings are broadly consistent with the comparative literature on the effects of custodial sentences and their relation to recidivism. Custodial sentences which not allow people to access to treatment, education, rehabilitation or work programmes; that do not prepare people for re-entry, fail to reduce recidivism.

Perhaps the most fundamental problem of our punitive nihilism is that it means imposing degrading punishments that mean not only a level of suffering which is incompatible with modern democracies – since we deny them humane and dignified treatment – but that these degradations so obviously and inevitably fail to rehabilitate or reintegrate. If they produce anything, it is purposeless pain, dehumanization and violence. Moreover, most of the people that are subjected to imprisonment are going to be released within ten, five or two years. How can society expect that, whenever they regain their freedom, they will have -magically- learned a moral lesson about good and evil, about human rights, about compassion? They are expected to be reintegrated, but, again, in most cases, no support is given for it, or that which is provided is not enough.

The challenge we have as a society — which is the same in Chile as in Scotland (where I currently work) and around the world — is that we must confront our duty as humans to rethink the horizon of punishment — to understand that we cannot continue allowing this nihilistic punishment that ultimately degrades our fellow citizens, wastes our collective resources and fails to solve the problem of recidivism. We have find our way towards more constructive response to crime which communicate to the person who has offended the consequences of their crime and at the same time provide tools so that reintegration can be achieved in a way that benefits both the individual and society. And this purpose, as the Pope posits, must include the possibility for anyone who has offended to build a dignified future beyond crime in a society that will offer them real opportunities for reintegration.

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