Is the prison a deterrent or just a punishment?

What if there were no more prisons?

Justice, Deterrence, and Rehabilitation. For around 200 years, the detention system has only kept its promises to a very limited extent. It is time to discuss alternatives.

From Georg Diez

Prisons are not the norm. Prisons don't have to be. Prisons are only one way to implement the law, to maintain social order, to establish justice, and, that is the thesis of this text, not the best, most just, most productive, most emancipatory and not even the most efficient.

That’s why we’re talking about in this issue today what happened if about prisons. Images of society and people can be described here as they are - and how they could be different. To open up this space, this imagination space, that is the idea behind what happened if. It's about concrete utopias. Prisons are an example, a concrete example of a world that could be different from what we have, very different and better, we believe.

To understand this, one needs to broaden the focus a little and look at the historical and philosophical premises for today's prison practice.

A product of modernity

Punishment is something that has accompanied people from the earliest times - but the specific form of punishment depends on the concrete historical circumstances. Prisons are not just an expression of certain ideas about society. They have a social, political, economic reality with specific characteristics that depend on various factors, such as the political system, on the scale from democratic and open to authoritarian and closed, concepts of freedom and the economic function of punishment.

In short, it is not a given that people lock up other people. And it wasn't always like that. In ancient Greece, for example, there was a different system of punishment - forced labor, exile, corporal and death sentences, pillory, loss of honor, all of these were possible consequences for breaking the law or transgressive behavior.

Even the Romans did not know about imprisonment. Corporal punishment, honor and fines were just as common as they were in the Middle Ages. The system of imprisonment was only introduced in the 16th century, ultimately in connection with a political concept of freedom that still shapes us today. Prisons as we know them are thus a product of the modern age and can be analyzed and rethought according to the criteria of modern criticism.

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Prisons and Slavery

The French philosopher Michel Foucault described this process in his 1975 work “Monitoring and Punishing”. In the 16th and 17th centuries the modern conception of the individual was developed, in the 18th and 19th centuries, according to Foucault's thesis, the mechanisms were developed to guarantee control over the individual. The prison was only part of a larger surveillance context. Factories, schools and other institutions also played their part in securing the repressive order through the practices of inclusion and exclusion, parceling and allocation of the respective place in a society, and finally through hierarchization according to rank and status.

The "birth of the prison", so the subtitle of the book, would therefore be closely connected with the birth or emergence of an economic and social system called capitalism, which developed at the same time and is in many ways based on these mechanisms of domination, as it is in show the purest form in the prison system - most clearly in the USA, where the origin of the not so free market economy is increasingly closely linked by historical research with the institution of slavery; Without the unpaid labor of blacks, so the thesis of the historian Joshua Rothman in his book "Flush Times and Fever: A Story of Capitalism and Slavery in the Age of Jackson", America's economic rise would not have been possible.

The continuation of this system is today, as the lawyer and activist Bryan Stevenson describes in his book “Just Mercy”, the cosmos of American prisons that are disproportionately occupied by blacks: “The racial terror of the lynching was in many ways the forerunner of the modern death penalty, "writes Stevenson." One of the reasons the United States chose 'legal' executions was to channel the violent energy of lynching and to signal to Southern white men that blacks would atone for their deaths in the end. "

USA is the leading prison nation

Racism remains an integral part of the penal system in the United States, where more people are in jail than in any other country on earth: the likelihood that a black American man will go to jail at least once in his life is about five times as high like that for a white American. Every 15th US citizen born after 2001 is imprisoned for a while, it is estimated that for black citizens the ratio is one to three. Even more clear: every third black American boy will end up in prison.

Georg Diez is a journalist, book author and works as director for strategy and media at an independent research institute. He wrote the column "The Critic" on Spiegel Online and is a co-founder of the graduate school School of Disobedience.Most recently Diez published "Power To The People" (Hanser Berlin), a collaboration with Emanuel Heisenberg.

It is a real prison industry that has developed in the USA, where many criminal institutions are privately operated, which is why there is also an economic interest in punishment. Between 1920 and 2016 the number of prison inmates exploded from around 100,000 to around 2.1 million, although the real increase did not begin until 1980, coupled with the tougher criminal policy of the Reagan administration, its “war on drugs” and the aggravation of society conditions in general, growing poverty and inequality, more harshness and egoism in society - the prison is an expression of these circumstances.

In a global comparison, the numbers are even clearer: According to the World Prison Population List, almost eleven million people were incarcerated in prisons in 2016, which means that the proportion of US prisoners is around 20 percent, while the proportion of US citizens is of the world population is only 4.4 percent. 655 out of 100,000 Americans are in jail, but it is not just the number that is noteworthy here, it is, as they write it New York Times, especially the length of the prison sentences. And Adam Gopnik notices im new Yorkerthat more Americans are being monitored and punished than in the Gulag archipelago of the Soviet Union under Stalin.

Even today, Russia is not a particularly good example of a liberal country in terms of prison policy. Around 402 out of 100,000 citizens are serving prison sentences, although the dire conditions of the detention - overcrowding in cells, for example, which led to a veritable tuberculosis epidemic - have improved somewhat in recent years. In China, where around 118 out of 100,000 citizens are imprisoned, until the 1980s, forced labor was the predominant form of punishment and the social inclusion of inmates was the goal, also in order to keep costs to society low. Since 2008, the number of prison inmates in China has been steadily declining, with death sentences without a fair trial, torture and forced confessions being part of daily human rights violations there.

What is clear from all of this is that the prison serves more than just the obvious purpose of law enforcement in a society. It's about power. And if you want to change that balance of power, the prison system is a good place to start.

Other contributions to this debate

People end up in prison because they are poor and stay poor because they were in prison. Social policy offers instead of imprisonment could break this connection.

In the USA the protest movement against the prison system is particularly large. But how would a society where lawbreakers are no longer locked up work?

Criminal trials often mean an additional burden for victims of violent crimes. Lawyer Christina Clemm explains how proceedings could be designed in her favor.

During his time as prison director, Thomas Galli became an opponent of the institution itself. A conversation about the myths of the prison system and its alternatives.

More humane architecture, open execution, therapy: prisons present themselves differently today than they used to be. But too often symbolic politics prevent real change.

Pedro Holzhey killed his wife with a hammer. He was imprisoned for this for 15 years. But who is helped when violent crimes are followed by repressive punishments?

Sara Steinert and Georg Diez talk about what functions the prison has for our society and discuss alternatives to the current prison system.

The punishment in the 21st century

The surveillance and punishment of the individual is at the beginning of the prison in the modern age, in the industrial age. In the world of the 21st century, in the age of digitization, not only is the concept of subject and individual changing, the ideas about how a society should function and be made up that is fairer and better are also changing. This has more consequences than the discussion about whether punishment should focus on deterrence, revenge or rehabilitation, as classic legal philosophy does. This discussion is important, and it is precisely the aspect of rehabilitation that has disappeared somewhat from the debate in Germany in recent years.

So what should punishment look like in the 21st century? What is the utopian potential of a society without punishment? What is the price of prisons - transferred for the people, very specifically for the economy? What would a political system be that has different ideas about inclusion and exclusion, surveillance, freedom and control?

These are all questions that we discuss and reflect on. The philosophy professor and activist Azzurra Crispino uses the example of the USA to describe why a world would be better without prisons and goes into two concepts of justice, “restorative justice” and “transformative justice”. The long-time prison director Thomas Galli describes in an interview how he understood from his own experience how dysfunctional the current prison system is and what compensation for guilt could look like. The group KNAS [] shows how prisons primarily punish and reproduce poverty, and that a more social society does not need this. The lawyer Christina Clemm explains how narrow, in her opinion, the understanding of guilt and forgiveness is in the prison system and how victims of crime would often support other punitive options. The convicted murderer Pedro Holzhey describes from his point of view how little the prison is a place of insight and humanity and what alternative forms of rehabilitation already exist in other countries. And the journalist Lena Kampf gives an overview of reform attempts and reform failures in everyday German prison life.

This process, the question of reform, or rather the abolition of prisons, has only just begun and will be with us for a long time to come.