The crime of punishment

Il Uomo Roccia, Carceri d’Invenzione, by Giovanni Battista Piranesi

In 1931, Margaret Wilson writes The Crime of Punishment, a fierce and informed critique of the whole catalogue of punishment invented by humans, a critique of man-inflicted pain on earth. An American novelist with little interest on the matter of punishment, she married in 1923 George Douglas Turner, a Scotsman who served as prison governor of the (in)famous Dartmoor Prison, and starting in 1927 when Margaret moved with her husband to live in the house on the prison wall, she eventually started to develop her long life commitment. The year after the book came out, in 1932, there was a violent riot in the Dartmoor Prison, and even though her husband was assaulted by the inmates, Margaret remained resolute in her views on the prison system. In this reflection, I bring forward some of those views in a dialogue with those of Norwegian criminologist, Nils Christie.

Men and only men

The main difference between Nils Christie and Margaret Wilson is that Nils was a criminologist who wrote like a novelist, and Margaret a novelist that wrote like a criminologist. They follow different paths, to reach the same conclusions: there are no criminals, but only men.

Margaret tells this of her starting interest on the prison: “I had no intention of being interested in prisons. I had no interest in crime. There was no mystery and no charm for me in law breaking, or in wickedness. I had not the least fear of the prison depressing me, or of criminals interesting me, when l went to live in that house. But the strange thing about the place was – there were no criminals there! Those grim walls were full of the things that interested me most – human beings.”

In the Roots of a Perspective, Nils talks at length about what he calls ironically ‘a negative finding’: the lack of monsters in his country. He says he started his search at the history of the concentration camps, when talking to Norwegian guards who had killed and committed atrocities: “But I did not find any monsters, just ordinary people.” Later he says he has looked for them in and out of prisons, among drug users and importers, among people sentenced for violence, and people sentenced for disgusting sexual behaviour, but he still couldn’t find any. According to Nils, it is ‘possible to understand nearly everything without concepts that push the offenders outside the family of man’.

He does in that piece give one further hint, the thread of which can be found throughout his work. Despite the lack of monsters, there is nevertheless a fertile ground for creating them. It is not that the guards in concentration-camps were monsters, but who among them killed or tortured the prisoners saw the prisoners as monsters. That insight belonging to the past, he sends a prophetic warning: ‘with the resurgence of the concept of ‘dangerous classes’, combined with military technology, the ground is fertile for the reappearance of monsters – dangerous non-humans as seen by those in power.’

Questioning exactly the existence of that concept of ‘dangerous or criminal class’, Margaret writes: “Of course the group of people punished does not consist of the people who commit crimes. It consists of people who are convicted of having committed crimes and sentenced to prison. A criminal then is one who has broken the law in the presence of witness in such a way that the jury finds him guilty and the judge sentences him-, one usually who is not able to afford skilful defence. Criminals are a matter of luck. They constitute a class in the same way that people born on the 29th of February constitute a class, or people with red hair.”

The negative finding then is that there are no criminals, and certainly no monsters. How shall we call then the men and women behind bars, how shall we think of them, or talk about them?

Simply, with words of our home.

Words of our homes

Another striking link between Margaret and Nils is their passion for simple words, words of our homes. Margaret writes in her book: “We shall use the words our homes, rather than words of laboratories and lecture rooms. We shall not think of categories of delinquents, or of classification of criminals. We shall think of people punished as men who have had a definite babyhood, childhood, and manhood. We shall think of them as Hughie, and Robert, and Phil.”

Nils has often made this point in his writings, conferences, and conversations. Besides the danger of writing ‘the men’ off through a scientific jargon, which Nils has consciously avoiding, he additionally backs his decision again in Roots of a Perspective, by what he called an ‘accidental factor’ in his life: “It has so happened that I often lecture to people seen by most people as dumb, retarded or feeble-minded. I call them extraordinary. This experience has helped to strengthen a deep conviction that I have nothing of importance to say that cannot be understood by most people.”

His advice to student and colleagues alike was to ‘write with your favourite-aunt in mind’, because ‘favourite-aunts are willing to give your ideas a try, but do not finish reading if points are mystified in scientific jargon.’

Margaret could have been Nils’ favourite aunt. And what a try she gave the ideas she stood for! She writes unabashedly of her womanhood: “This is a woman’s book, and we shall be as shamelessly romantic as we please – that is to say, we shall not think of law of the reform of law or justice or expediency or safety or any other abstraction apart from the whole value of life, apart from their bearing on the men and women and boys and girls we love”.

Obsessed with the scales

The most absurd idea on which punishment, as man-made infliction of pain, is based on, is the idea that we can weigh human pain. The human race may someday devise a way of measuring pain, joy, good and evil, but it has not yet. ‘By what conceivable measure can you weigh a moral wrong against a physical pain?’ asks Margaret. Making a tour of crimes in time and space, she shows how ridiculous their ‘pseudo natural reification’ seems when either a crime not even recognised today was punished with the death penalty yesterday, or when the same crime in Norway gets 3 years of imprisonment and in US 30 years: “The value of weights have differed so greatly from generation to generation, from place to place that the mind gets dizzy considering them”.

To make the calculation easier and to reach some legal clarity, imprisonment has become the standard means of punishment. Commenting on this fact Christie wrote in Limits to Pain that ‘we let the poor pay with the only commodity that is close to being equally distributed in society: time.’ He has pointed out that prison has offered a legal clarity because it allows for exact quantification of punishment in relation to time. Punishment becomes time, and time becomes punishment. Whatever the act, punishment is the same, what differs is only its duration.

Calculations have always been made, but ‘the outcome is absurd, as the ideal proportion is never found’ writes Ana Messuti in Time as Punishment. Geoffroy de Lagasnerie in Judge and Punish refers to the ritual of ‘scaling’ in the courts as “social magic”, since it transforms crime into time and money. But he notes that this presumptuous transformation of harm that has been caused into punishment and expressed by the formula ‘therefore I give you such and such years in prison’, underscores in fact the impossibility of establishing such a connection. The only link that can be made unambiguously between crime and punishment is that are both injuries, and that’s the only equivalence that Margaret confirms through her title the crime of punishment: “Considering the history of our cruelty, it seems that what we need more than anything else is to cleanse our minds from the idea of judicially exacting suffering for wrongdoing, to realise that our habit of punishment is as great as evil as any crime.”

We stand blindfolded

The law, as we know, concerns itself with the general good, the great general happiness, that no one ever has seen, felt, or experienced. Our eyes are therefore closed to the concrete case, the man and woman behind the face, the family behind the man, the child behind the woman. And nevertheless, while we can accept that punishment and prisons are necessary for the general good when it comes to others, asks Margaret, ‘why are we all so quick to see how prisons would be so blighting to our own? And who are these creatures in prison but mothers’ sons blighted for the sake of society?’ And how come that ‘those who are made an example of are always the friendless, the unknown, the unimportant?’

Finding the blindfold excuse absurd, Margaret writes that ‘it is fantastic nonsense to say that the law takes no cognisance of the status of its citizens’, and that ‘like most things purchased by the poor, even justice is coarser in fibre and cheaper in quality.’ So she, like Jesus, refuses to deal in generalities: “The second earmark by which all the Pharisees in every age may be identified- the first being too great respect for the law- is the fear of considering the individual case”.

But, it is not man that was made to serve the law, but the law that was made to serve man, therefore ‘let the law repent of its blasphemous claims to sanctity, let is throw its pretentious crown, and get into overalls like any other servant and do its job for the community, and then we will honour it endlessly.’ Law acts as if the real human of flesh and blood does not exist, as if he or she has no finitude. But one’s man punishment is not equal or abstract but his own, and so is his time, his life, his death.

Our sword is ready

First, we have the illusion we can weigh the moral wrong, weigh the human pain or suffering, and then balance them on a scale. Secondly we close eyes to the concrete case in the name of the general good. Thirdly we sentence harshly our boys and girls to imprisonment because they have done wrong, and continue the absurd arithmetic of punishment: minus plus minus equals plus. Do we really believe that if a man is antisocial we must condemn this behaviour by making the man even more antisocial? If the man has fallen out of law or society, then we must push him even further out? That if the man has shown sexual problems, then we inflict an irreligious celibacy en masse? These are some of questions Margaret asks. They might sound innocent to the expert, but they are still today some of the most profound questions that must be asked with regards to punishment.

In the words of Margaret, ‘I had supposed that prisons exist because there are criminals. I began to see that criminals exist because there are prisons’, or the ‘prison system is well suited to turn men into devils, but not to turn devils into men’ or ‘many men come out of the prison a second time, because we put them there the first time.’ But judges send men to prison without any idea about what prison is, and often without sharing any of the realities, contexts or the moral values of the men they are judging. The habit of severity grows with time, therefore Margaret argues that ‘judges ought not to go on too long in their career’, and that ‘states ought to limit the term of any man’s power to inflict pain.’

She points out that the fallacy of the modern day punishment is that the most severe the punishment, the lesser the crime. But reality is different and exactly opposite to our current beliefs and discourses according to Margaret. It is the ‘severity of punishment that creates crime’ and ‘the more violent the law, the more violent the law-breaking.’ “Crime decreases in every country as the pain inflicted for it is diminished.”

Likening the state of art of crime control to a civil war, Christie in the Roots of a Perspective, reflecting on the extremely high percentages of people in USA under control in the penal systems, writes ‘this comes close to a civil war. A civil war where the privileged have created their protected territories and use the state machinery or private police as their soldiers and the prisons as places for internment. We are back to the great internment.’ Margaret reflecting on similar realities in 1931, writes ‘will Ohio someday have to increase her militia to protect herself from the internal enemies which her overcrowded and mutinous prisons create for her.’

Back to moral dignity

So crime and criminals are legal artefacts, facts and subjectivities manufactured by law. Both Nils and Margaret insist on returning instead to acts and wrongdoing. In a Suitable Amount of Crime Christie writes ‘Crime does not exist as a natural phenomenon. Crime is just one among several possible ways of looking at deplorable acts. We are free to choose, and the variation in punishment levels over time in individual states and also between states is an illustration of that freedom.’

Turning her gaze on morality, Margaret questions the effects of punishment or the threat of it on ourselves, our children, and the men and women we punish. Telling a child, that stealing will send him in prison, destroys his morality. “The question that children must be made to consider is not whether they will commit crime if they are sure to be punished, but whether or not they will commit crime if they are sure not to be punished. As long as the emphasis is laid upon punishment, we can’t hope to have a law abiding nation.” Likewise, ‘if you let a child think of all the pain he will be inflicted rather than the pain he will inflict, you start him on the road of crime.’

Today we punish the most those whose lives have been broken from the start. But according to Margaret ‘if there was any fairness in the idea of justice, the more noble a man’s life had been the more severely he would be punished for doing wrong, and the more wicked it had been, the less he would be punished.’ “It is not by destruction of tenderness, or by exciting revenge that we hope to generate virtuous conduct in those confided in our care”. We have tried everything and anything, but what remains is that we have never experimented with the ‘effect it might have upon criminals to be subjected to the company of someone whom they immensely respect and admire?’

As little and less prisons as we can handle

Both Margaret and Nils are minimal abolitionists, who do not believe in the total abolishment of the penal institutions, but ‘that can go a long way in that direction.’ The ‘coerciveness as liberty restraining’, writes Margaret is something ‘we can heartily respect in its minimum application, and we can submit to the practice of it as submit to the inevitable tragedies of life.’

Margaret recognises the damage that the prison life does to a person, and that is regardless of the prison conditions, on which she comments that ‘molehills in prison inevitably become mountains, and cracks abysses.’ “What men think about in prison is not what cage they are in, but that they are in a cage. It would be no more humane to imprison men for a long term in the White House than it is to imprison them for a long term in a prison”.

Long sentences and overcrowding make a prison hopeless. Arguing for something she calls constructive emptiness, Margaret writes that ‘the smaller and emptier a prison is the more can be its moral, ethical and political value.’

The right to strive for a reduction of man-inflicted pain on earth

Margaret dedicates her book to all those who do not gain a delight in punishment. Nils would have welcomed the dedication had he been aware of it. In Limits to Pain he replies to people who charge him with being a moralist: “Let it therefore be completely clear that I am also a moralist. Worse: I am a moral imperialist. One of my basic premises will be that it is right to strive for a reduction of man-inflicted pain on earth.”

Claiming her right and duty as citizen to criticize prisons, Margaret writes ‘as long as our money goes to support these disgraceful institutions, we ought to know exactly what is going on within them’ and ‘if one is to be anything better than an obedient horse, one must challenge and estimate the value of the laws one continually obeys. Integrity of mind implies a refusal to admire or respect unworthy things, whatever priesthood exacts our admiration.’