Behind Bars

Prisons are an odd thing in modern democracy; in some ways the pillar of our justice system, a testament to a way of doing things that means we can endeavour to transform criminals into productive members of society and a way of punishment that allows us to hold the moral high ground over serious criminals to whom we do not do the whole ‘eye for an eye’ thing. But on the other hand it is, when you think about it, a somewhat barbaric practice; to take a fellow human being, another person born free and equal, and to take away not only their freedom for the immediate future, but in some respects their equality for as long as their criminal record lasts. If crime is a contentious issue, then ideas concerning punishment are even more controversial.

The idea of imprisonment was invented less as a tool of justice and more one of political convenience; whilst an opposing warlord is locked up, he can’t orchestrate a war or rebellion (as I have found out whilst playing Crusader Kings II). Indeed, throughout medieval times, common criminals were never punished by imprisonment; they were either fined, had body parts (usually hands) removed, or were executed (usually by hanging; the chopping block was for noblemen right up until the guillotine, which was a great social leveller when it came to execution). Locking someone up meant they needed feeding and housing, which was only really worth the cost for noblemen who one could ransom. It was also considered somewhat dishonourable to kill noblemen in most cases, even more so the higher rank they were; indeed, there was much outrage when Oliver Cromwell ordered King Charles I executed despite the fact that he had been convicted of treason and was highly unpopular (as well as, by all accounts, something of an arsehole).

Quite a good way of tracking the history of imprisonment as a punishment is to study the history of the Bastille in Paris; a fortress built in the 1300s, it was first declared a state prison in 1417. Originally, it held whichever landed gentry and noblemen had pissed of King Louis the Whicheverwasinpoweratthetime, but over time this role changed, and the commoners started to find their way in too. This was fuelled by the fact that people often got very angry at seeing certain types of often petty criminals, many of whom were barely out of childhood, getting strung up on a gibbet, and riots were generally things to be avoided. Particular bones of contention concerned those who had Things To Say about the French monarchy and government (especially once the state tried to censor the material spewing from the newly invented printing press), and people whose religious alignment disagreed with whoever was in power, but would certainly agree with large sectors of the mob. To try and placate the populace, therefore, the Bastille began to take on more ┬áprisoners who the ruling classes felt would cause… a disturbance were they to be publicly hanged. Increasingly, the Bastille began to be used as a place to hide away those who had spoken out against or in some way fought against the state (whose death would really infuriate the mob), and the prison increasingly became a bone of resentment, a symbol of the stranglehold those in power had over their subjects. As such, it was a natural target for rioters when the French Revolution broke out in 1789, and Bastille Day (14th of July) is still a national holiday in France.

The chaos following the French revolution and the social upheaval of the next few centuries did change the balance of power and the role of imprisonment within society; it was the punishment of choice for many crimes, the old days of hacking a thief’s hand off gone, and execution was now the reserve of the kind of people who the public felt deserved it. However, right up until the Second World War, the justice system was brutal in a lot of countries; dungeons were generally small, packed with poorly-fed prisoners and infested with disease or rats, and many countries still operated forced labour camps and penal colonies. There were two reasons for this; firstly, prisoners were still expensive to maintain and were not seen as worth expending any great effort for, so any way the state could get some use out of them was seen as all well and good. The other reason concerned the role that prison had to play. Imprisonment was in those days (as today) to prevent criminals from committing more crimes, to punish them for the crimes they had committed and to scare others into not performing the scare crimes; but what wouldn’t come along until much later was the idea of rehabilitation. Our modern justice system is such that almost every criminal, regardless of their crime, will return to the outside world one day, and we can all agree that it would be preferable for everyone if, upon said return, they didn’t commit any more crimes. Trouble is, prison does not do that role any favours; by simply throwing someone in a grotty cell for several years, all you are likely to build in them is resentment against you and the system, and since human beings are remarkably stubborn people, this is likely to lead to re-offending. We have also come to realise that prison on its own is frequently ineffective as a deterrent for serial criminals, who are generally less sorrowful about committing their crimes as they are about getting caught. Once released, they are most likely to just go right on with their old life, the life that was exciting and (in some cases) profitable to them before the law caught up with them. And then, of course, there’s the problem posed by a criminal record, making people far less able to find work and often forcing them back to crime just to keep their head above water. This has given rise to the fourth role played by the modern prison and justice system; that of rehabilitation.

I am no legal expert, nor have I ever spent time in prison, so I am undoubtedly underqualified to talk at length about how comfortable prisons ‘should’ be, the correct way to treat prisoners, how to correctly implement the role of rehabilitation, etc. But I think we can all accept that the role of the justice system nowadays is, primarily, to reduce the amount of crime in this world, and unfortunately, bars and guards ain’t gonna cut it on their own. And we must also remember that, whatever they may have done, prisoners are people too. They still have rights, they still deserve at least some respect; many are victims of circumstance as much as anything else. And in any case, there’s a reason that we don’t hang prisoners any more; because our moral code must be stronger than that of a murderer, because we must show at least a modicum of love to those who would give us none, because we must be better, nobler people than they.

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The Prisoner’s Dilemma

It’s a classic thought experiment, mathematical problem and a cause of much philosophical debate. Over the years it has found its way into every sphere of existence from serious lecturing to game shows to, on numerous occasions, real life. It has been argued as being the basis for all religion, and its place in our society. And to think that it, in its purest form, is nothing more than a story about two men in a jail- the prisoner’s dilemma.

The classic example of the dilemma goes roughly as follows; two convicts suspected of a crime are kept in single custody, separated from one another and unable to converse. Both are in fact guilty of the crime, but the police only have evidence to convict them for a small charge, worth a few months in jail if neither of them confess (the ‘cooperation’ option). However, if they ‘rat out’ on their partner, they should be able to get themselves charged with only a minor offence for complicity, worth a small fine, whilst their partner will get a couple of years behind bars. But, if both tell on one another, revealing their partnership in the crime, both can expect a sentence of around a year.

The puzzle comes under the title (in mathematics) of game theory, and was first formally quantified in the 1950s, although the vague principle was understood for years before that. The real interest of the puzzle comes in the strange self-conflicting logic of the situation; in all cases, the prisoner gets a reduced punishment if they rat out on their partner (a fine versus a prison sentence if their partner doesn’t tell on them, and one year rather than two if they do), but the consequence for both following the ‘logical’ path is a worse punishment if neither of them did. Basically, if one of them is a dick then they win, but if both of them are dicks then they both lose.

The basic principle of this can be applied to hundreds of situations; the current debate concerning climate change is one example. Climate change is a Bad Thing that looks set to cause untold trillions of dollars in damage over the coming years, and nobody actively wants to screw over the environment; however, solving the problem now is very expensive for any country, and everyone wants it to be somebody else’s problem. Therefore, the ‘cooperate’ situation is for everyone to introduce expensive measures to combat climate change, but the ‘being a dick’ situation is to let everyone else do that whilst you don’t bother and reap the benefits of both the mostly being fixed environment, and the relative economic boom you are experiencing whilst all the business rushes to invest in a country with less taxes being demanded. However, what we are stuck with now is the ‘everyone being a dick’ scenario where nobody wants to make a massive investment in sustainable energy and such for fear of nobody else doing it, and look what it’s doing to the planet.

But I digress; the point is that it is the logical ‘best’ thing to take the ‘cooperate’ option, but that it seems to make logical sense not to do so, and 90% of the moral and religious arguments made over the past couple of millennia can be reduced down to trying to make people pick the ‘cooperate’ option in all situations. That they don’t can be clearly evidenced by the fact that we still need armies for defensive purposes (it would be cheaper for us not to, but we can’t risk the consequences of someone raising an army to royally screw everyone over) and the ‘mutually assured destruction’ situation that developed between the American and Soviet nuclear arsenals during the Cold War.

Part of the problem with the prisoner’s dilemma situation concerns what is also called the ‘iterative prisoner’s dilemma’- aka, when the situation gets repeated over and over again. The reason this becomes a problem is because people can quickly learn what kind of behaviour you are likely to adopt, meaning that if you constantly take the ‘nice’ option people will learn that you can be easily be beaten by repeatedly taking the ‘arsehole’ option, meaning that the ‘cooperate’ option becomes the less attractive, logical one (even if it is the nice option). All this changes, however, if you then find yourself able to retaliate, making the whole business turn back into the giant pissing contest of ‘dick on the other guy’ we were trying to avoid. A huge amount of research and experimentation has been done into the ‘best’ strategy for an iterative prisoner’s dilemma, and they have found that a broadly ‘nice’, non-envious strategy, able to retaliate against an aggressive opponent but quick to forgive, is most usually the best; but since, in the real world, each successive policy change takes a large amount of resources, this is frequently difficult to implement. It is also a lot harder to model ‘successful’ strategies in continuous, rather than discrete, iterative prisoner’s dilemmas (is it dilemmas, or dilemmae?), such as feature most regularly in the real world.

To many, the prisoner’s dilemma is a somewhat depressing prospect. Present in almost all walks of life, there are countless examples of people picking the options that seem logical but work out negatively in the long run, simply because they haven’t realised the game theory of the situation. It is a puzzle that appears to show the logical benefit of selfishness, whilst simultaneously demonstrating its destructiveness and thus human nature’s natural predisposition to pursuing the ‘destructive’ option. But to me, it’s quite a comforting idea; not only does it show that ‘logic’ is not always as straightforward as it seems, justifying the fact that one viewpoint that seems blatantly, logically obvious to one person may not be the definitive correct one, but it also reveals to us the mathematics of kindness, and that the best way to play a game is the nice way.

Oh, and for a possibly unique, eminently successful and undoubtedly hilarious solution to the prisoner’s dilemma, I refer you here. It’s not a general solution, but it’s still a pretty cool one ­čÖé

Awkward questions

I have previously on the blog delved into the moral implications of murder and other such despicable crimes- I would put a link in, but I have no desire to send an otherwise innocent audience into reading what ended up being a retarded, unjustified tirade by someone who really wished he had planned his writing beforehand. Today, murder will once again be on the agenda, but contrasted against another, equally if not more distasteful, crime- sexual assault.

My most recent encounter of the whole “Rape v Murder” thing came from a gaming (yes, gaming again) perspective, asking the question ‘why is it considered so inappropriate and such taboo to include rape in a game when the majority of games are centred around killing and murder?’. However, today I wish to take some arguments I have encountered on the subject and contrast them to another fact surrounding the two issues- judicial sentencing.

In English Law, murder carries a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment (in one of its various legal names), with the average offender serving 14 years behind bars. By contrast, the maximum sentence for sexual assault is just 10 years (although it can be, depending on situation, far less than that) and their name on the sex offenders register- a comparatively balmy punishment.

This may seem a fair cop according to the ‘traditional’ idea of ‘murder is the worst thing anyone can do ever at all’- but is that in fact really the case?

Let us consider the facts. One point certainly in that idea’s favour is the simple fact that murder is, by its very nature, pretty damn terminal- the perpetrator cannot seek forgiveness from his victim, pay back his debt and agree that a terrible mistake was made but it’s alright now. Once it’s done, it’s done, and no amount of advancement in medical technology is ever likely to change that. There is also the huge breadth of its impact- one life attaches to a lot of others and is thus especially noticeable when it suddenly disappears, leaving a gaping void unfilled that touches the lives of many. By contrast, rape tends to be a crime against an individual whose resulting┬árepercussions┬ámay not extend much further than them, particularly given the fact that the majority of sexual assaults go unreported.

However, to contrast against this we have huge swathes of modern life & culture- soldiers and the action-hero protagonists of many films & games are among the most idolised heroes of our age, despite the fact that they are professional killers. In these situations, those of war both real and fictional, against a country or a faceless, nameless power, the killing of the enemy is seen as a regrettable but justifiable loss given the circumstances at least, and as deserved, purposeful justice against ‘the bad guys’ at the other end of things. Then, of course, we consider that not all murders are premeditated acts of viciousness. Some policemen can tell story after story of young kids, always dipping in and out of trouble, who end up hanging around with the wrong group of friends. It can be easy for them to pick up a gun, pick up a knife, for them to get scared and panicky and have 5 seconds of madness. All more accidental than anything, but it means that some are almost deserving of sympathy. And then there is the very nature of death. It is the one universal constant, transcending race, gender, wealth, lifestyle, career, everything- as Robert Alton Harris quipped on his way to the ┬áSan Quentin gas chamber ‘You can be a king, or a street-sweeper, but everyone dances with the Grim Reaper’. Death comes to everyone eventually, and as such we spend large proportions of our lives learning to accept it. Murder is not just sometimes either justifiable, unintentional or both, but it is in some ways nothing more than an acceleration of the natural order of things.

Contrast that to sexual assault, which is an entirely different prospect. Yes, it may not be as terminal as murder, but the psychological effects can and more often than not do last a lifetime- a murder victim does not have to relive the experience in their nightmares. Rape also does not, of course come to us all (although the number of women who are estimated to have been sexually assaulted over the course of their lifetime is quite alarming, even in the developed world), and men’s risk of it is almost as close to zero as it is possible. It is not as universal as death, and in that way is particularly unfair- victims are target specifically because of their gender & appearance, singled out from the crowd and made to think forever afterwards ‘why me’? This individuality is also experienced in the action’s consequences- because no obvious physical damage is usually done, the memory or even knowledge of the incident is often absent from even those closest to the victim after a relatively short space of time, leaving them feeling alone and abandoned inside the maze of their own mental distress. And then… there is something fundamentally and premeditatively evil about sexual assault. It is not something that can be done by accident over the space of a mad, panicked 10 seconds- it is not something that can be done by accident, or justified in anyway. There is never a ‘them or me’ situation, it is never ‘for the greater good’. There is no good reason for doing so that shows adequate respect towards the human race- it is simply always wrong.

So then- why does sexual assault carry such a lesser punishment than murder, if both are morally equally despicable at best? Some have suggested it is to appease the families of murder victims, others that the legal system is out of touch- but in fact the reason is a lot more practical than that. If murder and rape both carried (say) life sentences, then there would be no reason for a rapist not to kill his victim afterwards in order to bury the evidence- therefore by having a higher sentence for murder, the legal system is trying to save the lives of rape victims. Is the system just? Perhaps not. Does it work? In this context, certainly.