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Are Prisons Morally Desirable?

I’m off on a short excursion this week, though hopefully it’s pretty easy to see how this fits with the overall direction of the last few posts. I’ve just read and am now studying a book by John J. DiIulio, Jr. entitled Governing Prisons: a comparative study of correctional management. He makes a fine point at the end of his book concerning future research. I can’t say it any better than he states it, so here’s the deal:

Future prisons research must address two basic sets of issues, one empirical, the other philosophical. The empirical issues concern the governability of prisons and the conditions under which prisons can be improved. At this stage, the need is for comparative evaluations of prison practices that have already been tried. The present study may serve as something of a model for such works, but only in the way that the Ford Model-T served as a model for the Ford Mustang. The philosophical issues concern the legitimacy of imprisonment as a form of punishment. Even if we knew how to improve prisons, this would not in and of itself justify their existence. At present, the bulk of contemporary writing suggests that imprisonment is a cruel and unusual form of punishment. It remains to be seen whether a compelling case can be made that – given the possibility of prisons where levels of order, amenity, and service are indisputably high – imprisonment is a morally desirable form of punishment.

Now, I’m a big fan of empirical research that can actually be used for the purposes of developing policy. Making policy decisions based on an old fashioned crunching of the numbers and finding valid statistical significance in well formed research projects seems more appropriate than making observations and policy decisions based on untested theoretical systems. That’s just me, but what really caught me was DiIulio’s starkly honest statements concerning the moral desirability of prisons in the first place. After spending an entire book poking holes in the sociological model/perspective concerning prisons and showing that a political science perspective answers more questions and predicts more results than does the sociological perspective, he questions the validity of having the prisons in the first place.

It’s an excellent book. Even though some sociologists believe he was hitting below the belt, they also acknowledge that his book is one of the top three books written on prisons over the past 50-60 years! Unfortunately, I believe you must have a subscription to the Prison Journal to access the article The Champion, Contender, and Challenger: Top-Ranked Books in Prison Studies, so here is a quick quotation concerning DiIulio’s work:

After all, he is (rightly or wrongly) highly critical of prison sociology’s ability to provide useful policy-oriented knowledge to corrections practitioners. DiIulio tells his readers, in fact, that officials responsible for prison policy have been the “slaves of some defunct sociologist” (p. 14).There is no doubt that DiIulio’s “in-your face” approach to shifting focus away from the inmate social system and toward prison administration has angered more than one prison sociologist, and rightly so. To some, then, DiIulio’s comparative analysis of prison management may not constitute a “knockout punch” to traditional prison sociology but rather a “punch below the belt.”

I also purchased the other two books, and they are also worth the read. But the real reason for the post: Is anybody willing to take on the notion that prisons may not be morally desirable? And the corollary, if they are not morally desirable, then what is/are suitable alternative(s)? Maybe even justifying the prison system in America would be worth a look…

Cheers all.

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