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Ruminations on prison affairs by an ex-convict

January 25, 2011

The recent debate as to whether Socrates should have escaped from prison when presented with the opportunity to do so, or to remain incarcerated because he had given up his rights to the state – tacit consent – when he chose to continue to reside in Athens sent my cognitive cogs into motion.

I couldn’t help but draw parallels between the Speech of the Laws and Hobbes articulation of a social contract in which the state is the foremost and a necessary actor to govern the lives of citizens, since, Hobbes argues, the inherent nature of humanity is anarchic. The establishment of society, according to Hobbes, is premised upon the idea that individuals cede their individual rights in order for the state to implement a new set of laws that governs society.

Socrates was not explicit about humanity’s state of nature, though I am of the opinion that he believed that human beings could be taught to be good and were inherently good since in one of Socrates’ defenses in The Apology, he offered up his defense that he should not be punished if he had corrupted the youths unknowingly/unwillingly (26b) and the logic underpinning that statement stems from the belief that if human beings do harm, it is because they do so unknowingly. In other words, Socrates seems to be naively implying – or not – that human beings are not capable of knowingly doing harm. Of course this notion of inherent human good (if Socrates espoused this view) runs contrary to the Hobbesian understanding of the state of nature, but they are similar in that both Hobbes and Socrates laid out their versions of social contract theory with their understanding of the relationships between citizens and the state.

What if the social contract between the individual and the state is broken?

Somehow, this brought to mind a book I had read five to six years ago when I was browsing the bookshelves in Borders Singapore. According to Foucault, the penitentiary – as well as other forms of punishment – then serves as a necessary institution to entrench the rule of the state – to act as a regulator of the social contract. When infractions are committed, crimes perpetuated, these criminals – criminals insofar as the penal system labels them one – are punished by having to give up what the rest of society gets to enjoy for keeping up their end in the social contract – they give up their freedom. The rationale of the penitentiary is that these individuals have to be taught how to obey the contract that they have ‘signed’ with the state. This is done, among various means, by having the architectural design of the prison built in such a way where prisoners are reduced to a state of paranoia about whether they are actually being observed. This model of Panopticon, is a psychological means of reformation since a criminal is unlikely to flout rules if they think that they are being observed.

Having been a juvenile delinquent (I was a multiple offender who stole, fought and took drugs and only changed my life because I accepted Jesus Christ) and having served time in prison for my delinquent past for my failure to uphold my end of the social contract, I couldn’t help but remember the stories of the numerous inmates I had come into contact with – after all, four inmates were locked up for 23 hours in 3 meter by 2 meter cells so there’s no way the constant repetition of the same stories over the months I was imprisoned would ever fade from my memory.

Having been transferred to numerous cells, the story of one prisoner struck me. An inmate sentenced to death (by hanging) for drug trafficking, he told me how he had exhausted all the possible legal recourse in his effort to exonerate himself to no avail. While his story seemed like a far-stretch – as the story of my imprisonment most likely does. Wait, I’ll provide evidence at the end – I couldn’t help but wonder:

What if he is indeed innocent? What if an innocent man has been sentenced to prison and to hang? How many more innocent people are being incarcerated?

Is the system of punishment that we’re so used to, one that we believe is essential to the functioning of society and the ‘protector’ of the social contract (because we are taught to believe so by various institutions),  necessarily the most effective means of reforming criminals? Statistics has it that there is one innocent death row inmate for every 100 death sentences. According to Death Penalty, in the US alone, 9 ‘criminals’ on Death Row were exonerated in 2009. If that many who were going to lose their lives could be exonerated, how many more innocent citizens – convicted for not upholding their end of the social contract – were still behind bars, or were sentenced to death.

The question then is: Is it justified that we take the lives of innocent people (whether by sentencing to death or depriving them of their freedom) in order to make the country a little safer?

This, I believe, is a moral dilemma, a question of ‘dirty hands’ that Walzer poses us in his essay The Problem of Dirty Hands.


And for anybody’s who’s interested in my story(I’m sorry I don’t have the newspaper clippings for my subsequent offenses. This was but my first. And, please pardon the poor poetry, I’m not from the US and it was written when I was 11 years old) and how God has transformed my life:

2 Comments
  1. Melissa Boelstler permalink
    January 25, 2011 7:32 PM

    The poll question really drew me into this blog post, and even after I still can’t stop contemplating the question. My initial thought was, no, why would we ever take the lives of innocent people? That simply doesn’t make any sense. After reading I understand the origins of the question more, and now have somewhat of a new take. The problem is, though I think anyone would say no to that question, the underlying issue beneath is that these few innocent people are actually thought to be criminals. Then, I would have to answer no, because is it worth the risk to not place any criminals in jail for life or not put any on death row for the chance that 1% may be innocent? As much as it would be horrible to be that innocent person, I think the change would have to be in our justice system, but for now and the present way our justice system is, I think yes some innocent people may need to statistically be sent to jail. Interesting point though, even after this I am still contemplating the different circumstances and options.

  2. January 28, 2011 9:14 PM

    This is primary reason why I am opposed to the death penalty. Even though the chance is slim that a person on the death row is innocent, the possibility still exists. I like how you cite the statistic, but in my opinion, I believe the possibility of innocence per se is enough to eradicate the death penalty. I understand the death penalty acts as a deterrent to crime, but this does not compensate the death of the wrongly convicted. The second part of your poll I do not agree with: depriving innocent people of freedom in order to be a little safer. Well, obviously we do not want to deprive innocent people of their freedom, only guilty people. However, understand that it is extremely difficult in some cases to distinguish innocence from transgression and the U.S utilizes a complex legal apparatus to best differentiate the alleged offenders. Sure, I agree that it is possible to never convict an innocent person. This can be accomplished by not convicting anyone, and thus essentially not having a legal system. How safe would our world be without a judicial system. Tit-for-tat retribution strategies would be the “new fad” since that would be the effective way to accomplish justice from a person’s wrongdoing. From evidence in history, I can claim that not having a judicial system to act as a deterrent and as a means to punish wrongdoers means an unsafe society. I answered “no” to your question on the basis of the death penalty alone even though I disagree with a premise in your question. Our country is not a “little safer” because we put wrongdoers in jail, but greatly safer. If you disagree with this claim, you should go to California and meet Charles Manson to truly discover how safe you would be if he was in our society. It is necessary for our society to put wrongdoers in jail because it makes our society MUCH safer. Unfortunately, innocent people are placed in jail, but this is necessary. So, I answer yes to the second part of your question because it is justified.

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