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What is the purpose of prisons?
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Prison means justice for victims

Criminal activity violates the social contract and harms one or more victims. We must hold people accountable for these actions.
Justice Prison Social Contract


When Brock Turner, the Stamford swimmer who sexually assaulted an unconscious woman, was released from his comfortable prison after a mere three months, there was a mass outcry. Even though we had little evidence to believe he would ever commit a similar crime again, for many people the punishment he faced was not enough. We wanted to punish him more and get retribution for the victim. These impulses are valid and important when building our criminal justice system.

The Argument

The crimes we prosecute often shine light on the darkest facets of human depravity. Whether that be murder, sexual violence or grievous bodily harm - these crimes have victims that may never be able to recover from the assault on their personhood.

There is a primal urge within many people to seek retribution for such crimes - to make the perpetrators suffer to match the pain that they inflicted upon somebody else. 
 Why formalise this into our laws and prison systems then? Because justice is often about making sure that punishments are commensurate to the crimes committed. We want good things to happen to good people and bad things to bad people - our religions punish the wicked while our television shows make sure the baddies always lose. The desire to see evil acts punished is ingrained into us as humans and forms a crucial part of how we see the world around us. It's also important for us to be able to provide victims both closure and support. Seeing someone who did you evil walking free often causes great distress to victims and their families. Given that they are innocent people who were greatly wronged, we ought to prioritise their feelings and allow them the closure of seeing perpetrators appropriately punished. To close off this argument imagine a scenario where a man commits unspeakable atrocities against a family, a gruesome murder perhaps. The man then has a religious revelation for example, and has without a doubt repented. Angels come down and tell us this man is changed, deeply regrets his actions and will forever be a force of good. The pain and suffering he inflicted are still very much there however, and we feel that it would be unjust for us to pardon this man entirely - after all, a family is still dead. This extreme example of perfect rehabilitation isn't achievable in reality, but even it was it shows how we are intuitively opposed to the idea of allowing certain crimes to remain unpunished.

Counter arguments

While it comes from a good place, this entire argument rests of a series of intuitive leaps. Why is it that the desire for revenge is such an immutable part of our character as a species? Just as we have a vengeful old testament God so too we have figures that urge us to turn the other cheek. For every revenge film we also have movie about the importance of forgiveness. Even if it were true that revenge is important for many people, this does not mean it is an ideal our criminal justice system ought to work towards. There are many human impulses that we work harm to repress after all - aggression and cruelty being just two. The second assumption this argument falsely makes is that all victims want the same things. It may provide closure for some to know that the person who harmed them is being punished. Others may find it enough to know that their perpetrator can harm no one else, something that rehabilitation can tackle. It is presumptuous and reductive to present victims as a single-minded block.



The desire for just retribution is deeply ingrained into the human psyche. Not achieving this retribution would be somehow morally bad and harmful to victims. We must achieve retribution or fail morally and fail victims

Rejecting the premises

The desire for just retribution is deeply ingrained into the human psyche. Factual dispute over this claim - is it really? Second objection is that even if it were true, just because it is an inherent human characteristic doesn't mean it is morally correct. Not achieving this retribution would be somehow morally bad and harmful to victims. Not all victims want the same thing. We might fail a victim more if the criminal isn't rehabilitated and commits a crime once more.


This page was last edited on Saturday, 9 Jan 2021 at 14:48 UTC