Punishment is the pandemic

Charlie Weinberg
Tuesday, 21 April 2020

Over recent weeks there have been several calls for people in prison and detention centres to be released, largely framed as a ‘public health’ response and a way of keeping whole communities safe.

There have been demands that some people in prison merit release due to their ‘low risk’ to the public, their age, health condition or proximity to a release date anyway.

Whilst this is an obvious and sensible measure to be taken and indeed one both the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies and Safe Ground have supported, releasing people from prison in order to ‘save us all’ does little to challenge any of the underlying ‘health’ issues so clearly identified in a social system that does not automatically see the imperative to undo detention in the epicentre of a pandemic.

Containment and control

Few people are yet willing to publicly claim they know what has caused this global pandemic. It is widely suggested, whatever the causes, that the virus needs to be carefully ‘contained’ or ‘controlled’.

Containment and control both hold important meaning and effect in therapeutic practice and in psychological theory. The words have many meanings and can be experienced as helpful, soothing, safety measures; and as harmful, hurtful, exacerbating factors. Bion’s idea of containment in the1950s and 1960s extended Melanie Klein’s work into infant development.

Very simply, containment is the idea that the ‘mother’ is capable of helping the infant cope with unbearable emotion by herself ‘containing’ it and allowing the baby to ingest it in smaller or easier pieces. Containment is a fundamental component of a ‘stable base’ for all human beings. We grow to contain our own emotional needs having experienced consistent and reliable containment as infants.

Just as the radical anti-psychiatrist RD Laing described one of the family’s most significant functions as ‘control’, It is perhaps ironic that a need for containment and control lies at the very core of a cultural belief in and reliance upon, punishment as a response to some of the acts defined as criminal or anti-social. There is no denying that many criminal acts are horrendously violent, abusive and unbearably harmful. Many ignored and vilified family members, particularly those of the victims and perpetrators of crime, regularly testify to that.

It is also fair to say that, given the commonly cited statistics of successful prosecutions for sexualised assault, UK society does not necessarily criminalise or indeed, ‘punish’ the vast majority of ‘serious’ ‘offenders’. Rather, we are surrounded by each other, often too close for comfort, as evidenced by the prevalence of intimate partner violence and the murder rate of women in most countries around the world.

Emergency measures

Using the release of people from prison as a ‘temporary’, risk based or ‘health protection’ response to a pandemic contains a danger. The danger is that we are effectively falling prey to the ‘cops in the mind’ so perfectly described by Augusto Boal:

...Boal also realised that the absence of a sense of being oppressed has a social underpinning. Boal believes that today’s societies, such as America, Britain and Brazil, are fundamentally authoritarian. They cause oppression of various kinds. And such oppression profoundly damages people who live in these societies. But the sources of this oppression are invisible. In Latin America, oppression would often be enforced by police and soldiers in the streets. But in more profoundly oppressive societies – and here he means the global North – such forces are not necessary. “Cops in the head” perform the same role.

And so the ‘cops’ in our own heads allow ‘release’ only under certain circumstances, for some people and as a ‘temporary’ or ‘emergency’ measure. In this way, we sustain a superficial attitude to what the same ‘cops’ reinforce as being our punitive nature, rather than considering the fact that punishment is not a useful way to contain harm. Punishment is, by its nature, not benign. It is malignant and it causes secondary lesions.

Unless we resolve to reconsider and ultimately radically overturn our approaches to punishment, we will only find ourselves in a situation where people continue to be risk assessed, valued and permitted freedom according to a set of criteria that directly established the very vulnerabilities that lead to prison; and that have thrown into starker contrast than ever, the rampant inequalities both spotlit and underscored by Covid.

Unless we are willing to address the dependency on punishment and its priority in our social fabric, all we will manage to achieve is a shifting of social harm from one squalid, inhumane, ill-prepared and dysfunctional set of institutions to another. The sickness merely mutates.

For many years, many eloquent writers have been providing a great deal of hard evidence for the need to release people from prison and to stop using punishment as a containment or control mechanism for crime. Instead, they say, we need to commit to addressing crime as a social issue.

As civil society, we need to collaborate to genuinely create alternatives to punishment. Alongside us, political parties need to work hard to design and implement a ‘trauma informed’ governance structure and establish an environment hostile to both viruses and the inequalities they thrive upon.

Punishment is not a cure, but a symptom and a cause of crime. Punishment is pandemic, as are its impacts. If ever there were a time to consider our relationship to punishment, our social contract and in doing so, develop our capacity to contain our collective anxieties, surely this is it.

Charlie Weinberg is Chair of Trustees at the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies and Executive Director of Safe Ground.