A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors


Elsewhere—Prison Edition

The New York Times explains why it's been so hard for the Obama administration to close the Guantánamo detention center, and notes that the place is falling apart:

Parts of the wartime penal colony, intended to keep detainees only temporarily, are fraying. The unit that houses the most notorious detainees is built on unstable ground — a floor is described as buckling — and will need replacement for any long-term use. In the kitchen building, temperatures soar to 110 degrees at midday, steel supports are corroded, and workers must cover dry goods with plastic tarps during storms because of a leaky roof. In the troops’ quarters, some guards are required to live six to a small shack, with poor ventilation and no attached bathrooms.

Over at the New Republic, Judge Richard A. Posner recently argued, persuasively, that we won't have better prisons until we have fewer prisoners. You might be surprised at some of the thing Posner thinks we should decriminalize:

Some criminals are at once dangerous and incorrigible, and for them there is no practical alternative to long prison terms. But it is demonstrable that too much conduct has been made criminal in this country, and that many prison sentences are far too long. About half our prison inmates are drug dealers: were the purchase and sale of illegal drugs decriminalized, the prison population would plummet, and as a result prison conditions would improve dramatically. Oddly Ferguson does not advocate decriminalization but merely amnesty for those drug offenders “who conquer their addiction in prison.” There are also other candidates for decriminalization, such as prostitution and copyright infringement (which should be just a civil offense); and it is time that the age of consent were reduced to 16 or even 15, in recognition of contemporary sexual mores. Gambling should be decriminalized, and probably environmental offenses as well, such as killing a migratory bird; such offenses should be left to the civil law, with its financial sanctions.

At First ThingsStephen H. Webb has some interesting things to say about how our attitudes toward prison (and prisoners) relate to our attitudes to the afterlife: 

Perhaps restorative justice is given such little opportunity in our prisons because we do not make room for it in our accounts of heaven. Too many Christians think of heaven as an all or nothing affair. You are either completely in or absolutely out, and once in, you are immediately a perfect version of your former, fallen self. We don’t want to think that heaven might give us time (and the tools) to do the hard and joyous work of healing broken relationships. We do not want to think of levels of heaven that might invite us to grow closer to God by becoming part of God’s plan to heal each other’s wounds. We think of heaven as a place where perfect love will render justice unnecessary by showing how impossible it is to achieve in human terms, rather than as the place where the power of love will make justice finally possible.

About the Author

Matthew Boudway is an associate editor of Commonweal.



Commenting Guidelines

  • All

"We don't want to think that heaven might give us time (and the tools) to do the hard and joyous work of healing broken relationships.  We do not want to think of levels of heaven that might invite us to grow closer to God by becoming part of God's plan to heal eacher other's wounds." Actually Catholics have been thinking of those things for a long time in the form of Purgatory. It's one of the teachings which makes too much common sense not to believe (at least for me). 

And yet purgatory shows up nowhere in the NT - the thief on the cross was to go to paradise straight away - and when Jesus spoke of what people in the afterlife were like, he says they would be "like the angels" (Matthew 22"30)

By that I don't mean I think there is or should be a place like hell.  I'd rather believe meeting God fixes everyone enough that everyone ends up in heaven.

No one should be in jail for killing a migratory bird.  In fact, jail should only be used to protect civil society from those who would inflict physical harm.

As its currently administered, prisons exacerbate drug addiction, sexual assualt, violence, etc.  

I don'y know if civil cases would deter all non-violent craimes.  There are big companies who routinely commit crimes that only have fines as punishment and they just consider that part of the cost of doing business.

Add new comment

You may login with your assigned e-mail address.
The password field is case sensitive.

Or log in with...

Add new comment