In my last post I argued persons may be responsible for aspects of themselves that are under their diachronic self-control, and I highlighted self-interventions discussed by Roskies as important means to create and manage the culpable self. Such self-interventions include the ability to engineer ones’ environment so that it elicits or makes manifest valued dispositions, and does not realize those disvalued; intervening on ones’ future self by making commitments to future behavior or setting overarching policies; and practicing and strengthening the processes of self-control.
There is some interesting overlap, I think, between a diachronic self-control view and Aristotelian virtue theory. Virtue theory claims character is built by habituation, which involves building a trait via the use of practical reason. A stable disposition to act in accordance with a trait, such as honesty, is established as a result of being appropriately honest over time and in a variety of circumstances. Similarly, a disposition to be neglectful towards ones’ family is firmly established as a result of being neglectful over time. The resultant traits can be seen as flexible dispositions to behave that are in constant development or decline, depending on the choices that one makes (see Annas 2011; Webber 2006). Self-interventions such as manipulating ones’ environment and making commitments for future behavior can be seen as agent management of the processes of habituation.
It hardly needs to be said that when an offender is incarcerated, diachronic self-control and habituation of dispositions becomes extremely difficult within most realms because there are very few meaningful choices to be made. Offenders in prison are denied even the simple choices of everyday life. They are told where to stand, sit, and sleep; what to eat; if and when to exercise and shower; and often, who they can talk to. Very few incarcerated offenders have the possibility of meaningful work or project-oriented hobbies. Some have very limited access to TV or books. Most offenders in the general population of a prison or jail spend the majority of their time doing …nothing.
Most offenders under isolation orders can only do nothing. All versions of solitary confinement mean living 23 to 24 hours a day in a cell. Sometimes inmates are granted one hour for exercise, which usually takes place alone in an exercise room or a “dog run” (Haney 2003). Solitary confinement cells generally measure from 6 x 9 to 8 x 10 feet. They can have solid metal doors so inmates cannot see outside, and inmates inside are often banned from using a TV, radio, or reading supplies (Haney 2003). (Those interested in the horrors of solitary confinement should see Lisa Guenther’s great book on the subject.)
Almost all philosophical theories of moral responsibility make choice-making central to self and agency. It thus ought to be generally recognized that when we incarcerate someone we are diminishing their ability to construct, and be, a human self. Incarcerated offenders’ sense of their own agency becomes smaller and smaller over time, shrinking to the point where, under solitary confinement, some offenders become severely mentally ill, or surrender into a vegetative state. The effects of this diminishment of self are long-lasting, and sometimes permanent.
Of course, those who justify punishment based in part on retributive blame believe at least some offenders deserve to have their moral agency diminished, and I agree. But once we are clear on the true impacts of incarceration, it seems that in the US more offenders go to prison than should, and most offenders go to prison for longer than is justified. Given the resulting diminishment of agency and self-hood, and their lingering effects, incarceration may be a proportional response to violent and/or repeat offenses, but not to many non-violent and victimless crimes. And those who support forward-looking justifications for incarceration need to balance desired general and specific deterrent effects with the criminogenic effect of prison. Such effects, I think, are directly related to the diminishment of moral agency suffered by offenders who are then drop-kicked back into their communities with impaired capacity for self-control. This impaired capacity is evidenced by released offenders' inability to make long-term plans and commitments, as well as everyday decisions; and their difficulty managing interpersonal relationships.
To my mind, punishment practices ought to limit offender choice-making only to the extent necessary to directly achieve the principles of retribution and deterrence. This is because such choice-making, even minor choice-making, can be the means to diachronic self-control. Incarceration ought to be seen as a last resort, and community-based sanctions (probation with electronic monitoring and required rehabilitative treatment) ought to be routine for non-violent offenders. Juveniles, who are at a particularly important point in their self-development, ought to never be given life in prison without the possibility of parole (LWOP) sentences. An LWOP sentence means an offender relinquishes hope of ever again exercising full moral agency, or being a good person: he may only ever be a good prisoner.
To give an example: a person like Bert, convicted of child abandonment, might benefit from parenting classes, which could help him formulate a long-term commitment to be a better parent and teach him skills relevant to honoring this commitment. If offered as a condition of probation, Bert could maintain his already established disposition to be hardworking, because he could keep his job, and at the same time improve his parenting skills. If Bert is sent to prison, however, his virtuous disposition of being hardworking, and ability to contribute to his kids financial well-being, may be permanently undermined. Further, it will be very difficult for Bert to learn parenting skills or establish a disposition of care toward his children without having any contact with them.
Even within a jail or prison setting, incarcerated offenders should be given some opportunities to make choices about their daily lives and to thus perform self-interventions and build dispositions. There are some model programs that do this. In Chicago, Sherriff Tom Dart has offered jail inmates the opportunity for bee-keeping, chess, drug addiction counseling, gardening, yoga, and the maintenance of chickens. He also offers offenders paid work demolishing abandoned properties. One California prison offers a program allowing prisoners to work as care-givers for other demented prisoners as a means to earn early release. As a result of the program, Shawn Henderson, who got 25 years to life for a 1985 double murder and was twice denied parole, earned his release. Mr. Henderson claimed that doing a job where “you get spit on, feces thrown on you, urine on you, you get cursed out” helped teach him to cope outside prison. “Now when I come into an encounter like that on the street, I can be a lot more compassionate,” he said.
If we offer offenders the opportunity to practice diachronic self-control, and encourage the development of virtuous dispositions, some of them may be better persons after their interactions with the criminal justice system. If we fail to offer such opportunities, we may ask too much of offenders when we demand they manage themselves such that they don't recidivate.
* I ask patience from those who have read my rants on this topic before. Mass incarceration is such an important issue I feel it is appropriate to address the topic repeatedly.