Thursday, August 28, 2003

Readers who are familiar with my views on capital punishment, rough police conduct, and even (in extreme circumstances) torture, might expect my reaction to the death of former Catholic priest and convicted pedophile John Geoghan to resemble that of PMStyle's "Mr. PMS" rather than that of Ted Conover. The former (who appears not to support the death penalty, incidentally) wishes that the offending priest had instead been locked in a cell for the rest of his natural life with a burly prison rapist, while the latter is appalled that the prison system once again turned a blind eye to violence perpetrated against a sexual offender in prison.

In fact, I find Conover's point of view far more convincing. What disturbs me most about "Mr. PMS"' wish is that his willingness to impose a brutal punishment is utterly unaccompanied by a willingness to accept responsibility for it. As an opponent of capital punishment, he would surely be no readier to see the state hire an official state rapist than an official state executioner. And yet he's perfectly willing to have the state forcibly hand a prisoner over to a fellow criminal willing to do the same job on an unofficial basis.

Now, as my other stated views demonstrate, I am not necessarily opposed to the imposition of harsh punishments upon criminals. However, I believe that such punishments must be imposed directly, intentionally, and with a clearly understood purpose--not as mere revenge--and that society should be willing to bear the burden of responsibility for imposing them. For example, I believe that capital punishment, in the case of a certain class of murders, serves as both a powerful deterrent and an expression of the seriousness with which society reviles the crime of murder. And the use of stun belts to incapacitate unruly prisoners (another recently raised issue) strikes me--pace Jonathan Turley--as a legitimate, if unappetizing, means to effect the reasonable goal of preventing courtroom disruptions.

On the other hand, I'm not convinced that the threat of prison rape is much of a deterrent to sexual deviancy (or any other crime, for that matter). And I certainly don't believe that dodging responsibility for punishing criminals expresses society's seriousness about combatting crime.

If we believe that prison without inmate-on-inmate brutality is too cushy to be an effective deterrent (and in some cases, I suspect it might be), then I heartily encourage discussion of how to make it more unpleasant for convicts. However, effectively encouraging them to rape and murder each other would be very, very low down on my list of explicit techniques with which to engineer that outcome, and I doubt that many other people's lists would rank it much higher. Yet it seems to be the default technique of choice--mostly because society hasn't yet properly come to grips with the necessary ugliness that is punishment, and prefers to embrace a convenient psychological escape rather than face some harsh truths about controlling human evil.

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