The furore over the European Court’s decision that the UK must allow prisoners the right to vote continues.
This morning Roy Jenkins waded in on BBC Radio 4’s Thought for The Day reminding us that we are all equal before the law. Well, yes, we are all supposed to be equal before the law but we are not supposed to be equal after the law has taken its course. After being sentences by the law some of us are supposed to be locked up.
Prior to the 20th century prisons were ghastly places; cold, bad food and full of bugs. Thankfully today in many Western countries it is widely accepted that it is the restrictions on liberty of physical movement which is the prison sentence and therefore there is no justification for prison being ghastly in itself and conditions have improved. A further driver for improvement is that keeping the prisoners content means less trouble for the guards and so TV, libraries and exercise are commonplace.
All this is well and good. However, due to one thing and another individuals in Western countries are not doing a whole lot of physical movement anyway. Excepting our intermittent jetting off to the sun, I suspect that we are more sedentary than most of our forebears and the trend looks set to continue. From what I hear many young people prefer to sit in front of their computers all day to going out into the world. We have exercise machines in our homes, we have wide screen TV, we have Wii Fit and the groceries are delivered. Why would we want to go out? Even our social needs can now be met via social media and online virtual worlds such as Second Life and World of Warcraft.
Science Fiction has long predicted a time when people will not leave their homes at all. The Machine Stops by E.M. Forster in 1909 is a good example. All their needs will be fulfilled by machines. When that time comes we will have to ask ourselves what the difference is between being free and being a prisoner.
With that in mind it is worth challenging the assumptions that state sanctioned punishment should consist only of restrictions on physical movement and fines. For some reason we seem to think that these are the only two punishments that are justifiable in a liberal society.
While not advocating hanging or flogging I suspect that the these limitations are arbitrary and can be ineffective. Consider the idea that prisoners should have the right to vote. Why? Some of these prisoners are paedophiles, fraudsters or corrupt businessmen or politicians. It is fairly safe to assume that such people vote in such a way as to maximise their ability to get away with their crimes. Additional punishments other than incarceration may be legitimate and removal of voting rights seems to me to be one of them.
Perhaps there is scope for removing the right to vote on serious offences?
When considering social issues I often think of the African saying: “It Takes A Village”. The meaning of this is that the whole of society is required to raise a child. So I imagine the issue in the context of a small village where everyone knows each other. This is an environment more natural that the anonymous towns and cities in which most of us now live.
If a man beat up a granny in a village he would suffer the opprobrium of all those who he considered friends and I think that this is a suitable and appropriate form of punishment.
In 21st century society a man may beat up a granny in one town, pay his fine or serve his jail sentence in another and then strut around with his friends like a hero in yet another town. He need never suffer the public humiliation which would naturally occur in a village environment.
Medieval England had a device for imposing public humiliation on convicts: The Stocks. Yes folks I am suggesting that we bring back the stocks.
After further consideration medieval England also had the ducking stool and trial by ordeal. Perhaps the advantage of limiting punishment to fines and imprisonment is that it prevents cruel and unusual punishments and that can only be a good thing.