Outside Looking In: Oubliette

4 05 2011

The medieval dungeon, constructed in the foundations of castle towers, sometimes contained an additional prison-within-a-prison. This hole in the dungeon, called the Oubliette, from the French word meaning “to forget” was a small hold in the dungeon into which prisoners were either thrown or lured. Prisoners in the Oubliette were left to starve, drown when the groundwater rose, or simply forgotten and left to die. (Cite)

My recent musings on the nature of not only the US prison system but the idea of prison in general led to consideration of the ultimate purpose of imprisonment. Was it containment? Rehabilitation? Punishment?

Containment may be argued, as prison confines a person to a specific compound or cell. Rather than having a serial killer on the loose, ostensibly society at large can rest easy knowing that this person is behind bars and unable to continue his or her crime spree. But if containment is the ultimate purpose of imprisonment, what of say, white-collar criminals that committed crimes that may not have affected society at large, such as someone convicted of insider trading?

Rehabilitation may be argued, and in the course of my ongoing research into the US prison system there are many stories of inmates who took the opportunity to get a GED (high school equivalent diploma), college degrees, or vocational training. But not every inmate has access to these opportunities, either as the prison has cut the programs or, for example, a specific inmate is in solitary confinement and not permitted to attend various classes or workshops.

Not to argue that these are the only three possibilities, but for the purposes of this article I will focus on punishment.

“Go to your room,” says the parent to the naughty child.

Sometimes, the child asks what she is to do in her room.

“Sit and think about what you did,” is often the reply. (Followed closely by “wait until your father comes home.”)

Parenting has, of course, evolved over time but I trust that many a head will nod with recollection of such scenes from personal memory.

This is not a condemnation of “time out” as a disciplinary tactic. For some children, this is effective whereas other disciplinary efforts fail.

However, what of the child that is being punished for the actions of others? What if the family dog really did knock the vase over? What if a sibling shifted the blame for something he or she did? What is the child in “time out” to think then?

From experience, probably something along the lines of this is so unfair.

In my imaginary scene, did “time out” serve any other purpose than strictly punishment? Perhaps, especially when coupled with the order to think about the deed that preceded the punishment. But this is ultimately a passive exercise. The parent isn’t explaining what the child did wrong, it is expected to be self-evident and remorse is expected to follow, along with a resolution by the child to avoid such behavior in the future.

At present, I believe this sums up the collective attitude toward crime and punishment in the United States. If one commits a crime, one is to be punished. The criminal is expected to be remorseful at some point during the trial (usually sentencing), remorseful during his or her prison term, remorseful during the parole hearing(s), and remorseful upon release. And upon release, should that day arrive, the ex-convict is expected to refrain from criminal acts going forward.

Viewed through the lens of society at large, however, the convicted criminal is sent to prison and fades from public memory. Whether Charles Manson got his GED or helps troubled teens avoid drugs is irrelevant. Charles Manson is in prison, the end. This is not a plea for clemency for Charles Manson. I picked a controversial figure specifically to allow the reader to consider his or her views about how Charles Manson might be faring these days. I for one do not spend a lot of time engaging in such thoughts, and lest I be Freudian in this respect I dare say the average citizen does not either, unless he is up for parole.

Thus, prison may be thought of as a “time out” for criminal activity. How long it lasts is commensurate with the severity of the crime.

While the prisoner is indeed walled off from society at large, what is our obligation to that person while serving his or her sentence?

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