I’ve been doing some research for various projects lately. One of the areas I’ve been researching is the spectrum of punishment that a society uses for transgressors. In today’s “civilized” countries, there’s been a steady movement away from physical, corporal punishments into more of a rehabilitative kind of action. Of course in the United States, we just lock everybody away and let them turn into worse criminals by congregating and learning from each other (and having easy access to drugs). But it’s interesting to study the pattern and change over time and the prevailing “wisdom” of each civilization.
It seems that the field of psychology is mostly where the modern notions of abuse and cruelty emanate. Even as recently as the 1950’s there weren’t concerns about causing trauma (either physical or mental) for wrongdoing. This was true if you were a murderer or a boy who had been caught with his hand in the cookie jar. Beatings were common, and so was the death penalty. Institutions such as Alcatraz were deemed necessary for the safety of the public, yet the public had little regard for the treatment of prisoners there.
So here’s my question. Why did we suddenly start caring?
For kids, I know it came about in the 1970’s with new advances in learning about child abuse and self esteem. Since then, studies have come out and have been posted in all the major news outlets that spanking (corporal punishment) harms children in various ways, including diminishing their intelligence and encouraging them to violence later in life. And yet, shows like “Scared Straight” and “Beyond Scared Straight” show that scaring the hell out of a kid who is on the verge of becoming a criminal through boot camp-like regimes can have a positive effect. We’re not talking a simple time-out here.
So what about adult corporal punishment?
Apparently with the surge in prison populations and lack of funding for rehabilitation programs, some people are starting to think bringing back corporal punishment for adults might not be that bad a thing. Ten lashes or a five year stint in jail? Which would you pick? I read an article that states the U.S. has over 2.3 million people in prison. More than China. Think about that for a moment. More than the authoritarian nation with over a BILLION people. That can’t be good.
The ultimate question is this notion of “civilized” vs. “cruel” Civilized nations don’t want to use cruel punishments, and perceive things like canings or floggings as violent and cruel. But what about living for several years in a prison cell with only an hour of sunlight a day, no wages, possibly daily rapes or threat of death, and easy access to drugs to make things only worse? That’s kind?
I just find it interesting how society changes and how what seemed wrong could seem right under different circumstances. Also how we continually redefine what it means to be “civilized.”