Punishment vs Rehabilitation

A big question any society needs to ask itself is how to deal with those who make mistakes, break the law, or cause harm to others. It is natural to want revenge, to want to see the other person suffer as much as the victim did, but revenge and justice are not the same thing.

As a tv show host named John Oliver once said, “Justice is complicated, requiring the sublimation of our baser instincts which -though difficult- is the only thing separating us from the anarchy of beasts”.

With this in mind, the question comes down to whether you punish criminals or try to turn them back into productive members of society. You can have justice or Revenge, but not both.
Unfortunately, in the U.S. at least, prisons seem to have nothing to do with rehabilitation. The Convicted live in inhumane conditions, many are often raped by their cell mates, the guards look the other way and pretend not to notice the rapes so as to control the prison population, and society at large seems to think its funny (if a show makes a joke about Collage Campus rape, it would get canceled, but if that same show made a “don’t drop the soap” joke everyone would laugh it up). An ex convict will have trouble finding a job, because nobody wants to hire a convict (not even for a job with zero risk of him robbing you). If a prisoner is sent to jail for a sex offense (which can be as minor as public urination), the discrimination is doubled. And when convicts get out, their considered civilly dead: they pay taxes, but they are not allowed to vote and therefore can not change the broken system.

The result is a high number released convicts deciding they have no reason to respect the society that rejected them, and the result of that is a high level of recidivism. Before you say “They’re criminals, they deserve it”, imagine a criminal in one of these situations who is sincerely sorry for what he’d done. Reforming himself is impossible because society dosnt want him to have another chance.

Feel free to discuss this, just be level headed.

Read up a bit on the history of the penal system in the U.S. – you’ll find that this is precisely the distinction upon which the various institutions were founded. We say “penitentiaries” these days and automatically think “prisons”, but the former were intended as a means to reform.

You can have justice or Revenge, but not both.

Prisons weren’t meant to extract revenge, but rather, to mete out appropriate punishment. The two are distinct concepts (although, these days, folks seem to think that prisons are about the former) :sad_yes.

I definitely think we need to look to the fact that Jesus didn’t say “Well, then, you shouldn’t have done that!” when the woman caught in adultery was being treated unfairly. He didn’t say that what she did was OK, but He also prevented her from being stoned. It’s really sad to hear people joke about prison rape and generally forget about the fact that prisoners are still human beings no matter what they’ve done.

Humane justice has actually been a big talking point of Pope Francis’. ncregister.com/daily-news/pope-francis-calls-upon-crime-experts-for-humane-justice-system/

This is a thing I think about a lot. I mean I have said before that I’m not a big fan of prison. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that we don’t need them. I’m not saying that I have a magic solution. I’m not saying that I even have a real good answer for all this. What I am saying is that after my older brother went to prison I never saw him again. And I miss him. And I don’t think he should have gone there. I mean what he did was wrong. But by going to prison it sort of just cemented the wrong. It made it a permanent part of who he was. It did not give him a reason to change. The damage was done.

Sorry. I guess I’m too close to this to think about it rationally. I guess all I’m going to do is sound like I’m complaining about the unfairness of the world. And that’s not really all that helpful. I will try to say it like this and then quit. My brother should not have done what he did. He should have been stronger than that. But he wasn’t. He gave into temptation and hurt two other people that I love. So by confronting him on that there should have been a way to handle the pain he’d caused without stamping criminal across his forehead. There should have been a way to get him help, not punishment. I mean I think he was a decent enough guy that just being caught and having to admit to his problem was punishment enough. The rest was over-the-top branding, humiliation, and really very destructive. He couldn’t recover after that. He couldn’t come back to us after that. He couldn’t face us after that.



Traditionally the Church has enumerated 4 ends of punishment, i.e. the goals toward which it is directed. These are:

  1. rehabilitation,
  2. defense against the criminal,
  3. deterrence, and
  4. retribution.

But that list is not enumerated in order of importance because as the Catechism teaches us (in 2266) “Punishment has the primary aim of redressing the disorder introduced by the offense.” It is only once one has has attended to the demands of justice (retribution) and the common good (defense and deterrence) that one looks to an additional purpose of punishment, namely that “as far as possible, it must contribute to the correction of the guilty party” (ibid.).

Accordingly, in pursuing how to structure its penalties for criminal activity the state would be perfectly justified in prioritizing “punishment” over “rehabilitation” (the matchup framed by the OP), and indeed rehabilitation, dependent as it is upon the free choice of the offender, lies ultimately beyond the ability of the state to ensure. There are most likely many varied ways in which American society could structure its penal system better so as to achieve the lesser end of punishment (rehabilitation) more consistently together with its primary end (retribution), but to place rehabilitation first would not be consistent with the Church’s teaching on the matter.

You have to remember the Purposes of Punishment [as taught by Sr. Mary in first year Catechism, c. 1948]:

  1. Defense of society against the criminal.
  2. Rehabilitation of the criminal (including spiritual rehabilitation).
  3. Retribution [sacrifice], which is the reparation of the disorder caused by the criminal’s transgression.

So you can see that #2 is already supposed to accomplish some form of rehabilitation.

“The study of history is a powerful antidote to contemporary arrogance. It is humbling to discover how many of our glib assumptions, which seem to us novel and plausible, have been tested before, not once but many times and in numerable guises; and discovered to be, at great human cost, wholly false.” – Historian Paul Johnson

How rehabilitated can a person be if, even after serving his time in prison, he is still not allowed to vote?

If society does not intend to ever trust ex convicts again, then why on earth were they even let out of jail in the first place? There is no reason why released convicts should not be allowed to vote: it’s just a thinly veiled excuse to dehumanized them.


If society does not intend to ever trust ex convicts again, then why on earth were they even let out of jail in the first place?

False dilemma fallacy. FYI, they can petition the courts to have their voting rights restored.

There is no reason why released convicts should not be allowed to vote: it’s just a thinly veiled excuse to dehumanized them.

No, it isn’t. You haven’t thought this out very carefully. Consider what happened in the case of decriminalizing homosexual acts:

There were a great many of us, in the 1960s, who felt that there were grave practical and moral objections to the criminalization of homosexuality, and therefore supported, as happened in most Western countries, changes in the law which meant that certain forms of homosexual behavior ceased to be unlawful. Homosexuality itself was still to be publicly regarded by society, let alone by its churches, as a great moral evil; but men who engaged in it, within strictly defined limits, would no longer be sent to prison. We believed this to be the maximum homosexuals deserved or could reasonably expect. We were proven totally mistaken. Decriminalization made it possible for homosexuals to organize openly into a powerful lobby, and it thus became a mere platform from which further demands were launched. Next followed demands for equality, in which homosexuality was officially placed on the same moral level as standard forms of sexuality; and dismissal of identified homosexuals from sensitive positions, for instance schools, children’s homes, etc., became progressively more difficult. This was followed in turn by demands not merely for equality but privilege: the appointment, for instance, of homosexual quotas in local government, the excision from school textbooks and curricula, and university courses, passages or books or authors they found objectionable, special rights to proselytize, and not least the privilege of special programs to put forward their views – including the elimination of the remaining legal restraints – on radio and television. Thus we began by attempting to right what was felt an ancient injustice and we ended with a monster in our midst, powerful and clamoring, flexing its muscles, threatening, vengeful and vindictive towards anyone who challenges its outrageous claims, and bent on making fundamental – and, to most of us, horrifying – changes to civilized patterns of sexual behavior. – Historian Paul Johnson

There are advocacy groups currently, actively seeking lowering the age of consent for engaging in sex acts. Lowering the age would have the effect of legalizing child molestation. Automatically restoring the franchise to felons would have the same effect as decriminalizing homosexual acts. It would enable child molesters, et al, to form political coalitions to have their crimes decriminalized. Where would leave us and our children?

Really? You’re argument in favor of restricting the most basic democratic rights of convicts is that “some of them will try to legalize pedophilia”? And you’re supporting this by quoting someone who wanted to keep homosexuality illegal?

There is only one outcome I can see resulting from giving all convicted criminals the right to vote upon release: they would demand laws to improve the lives of their friends still behind bars. And as prisons have policies that blur the line between “justice” and “cruel and unusual punishment” (men in prison are 35 times more likely to get raped then women outside of prison, and the guards use this as a tool to control the inmate population), I’d say ex-cons voting to improve the conditions behind bars is a good thing.

Unstoppable II, normally I try to be polite, but you are on the wrong side of history.

The same can be said about background checks, lets say a person commits a drug related crime as a young person, they do their time, and get out, determined to start over with a clean slate…well, in todays world, its not that easy, they will face background checks at just about every job they apply for (even gas station jobs!), I know the company I work for, will not hire anyone with a felony, no matter what it was, when it happened, etc, so regular jobs are out, so they decide to go back to school…well, since they have a drug conviction on their record, they cannot get ANY assistance in getting into school, with all this what are they supposed to do?

For profit prisons are the main problem imo, and of course the legal system caters to their every whim, they know in order to keep all these cells at maximum occupancy, they need to have certain laws in place, where enough people will break that law (drugs are perfect for this), then by requiring BG checks, and other things, they basically ensure the person will always be a criminal, thus keeping the cells full.

This is a serious problem in our country. Personally, I think the UN should start an investigation in the US legal system based on the US figures of prison populations, arrests, etc. NO other country has anywhere near the ‘criminals’ the US does, that is no coincidence though.

BorninMarch, I’m sorry, I must respectfully but strongly disagree with much of what you write.

You start with this, referencing U.S. prisons:

“The Convicted live in inhumane conditions…”

–Frankly, that statement is factually absurd. Those convicted of crimes are afforded certain rights by the U.S. Constitution and the U.S. justice system bends over backwards to uphold them. These “inhuman conditions” include the right to be fed 3 meals a day courtesy of the taxpayers; be afforded free medical care; be afforded use of things like TVs and weight rooms; and often be provided with free access to law libraries and the courts – so they can sue the police who arrested them, and sue the prosecutors who prosecuted them. Their frivolous lawsuits – which include things like “I demand a right to free Nike sneakers rather than Adidas” – clutter the court system and delay justice in real grievances (since they soak up limited court resources) and make life hell for the public servants who get sued for doing the jobs of policing and prosecuting criminals and making the safe streets for the innocent (no matter how ignorant the innocent often are).

Prisoners in the U.S. are treated better than many non-prisoners in third world countries. Now if you want to debate, say, Turkish prisons, maybe we can have that debate (but you’re not).

You add this:

“The is only one outcome I can see resulting from giving all convicted criminals the right to vote upon release: they would demand laws to improve the lives of their friends still behind bars.”

–No, they might vote for a million things: to decriminalize drug use or sales; to elect politicians who will give them free stuff; or a million other things.

–And if you’re right, what you call “improving the lives of their friends still behind bars,” have you proven that’s a beneficial result? No, particularly since their friends behind bars likely deserve the result they’ve gotten. How about they be required to work to, say, improve the lives of the innocent victims harmed by their crimes?

–IMHO prisoners should not be allowed to vote. Why? Because voting and hence controlling the government, albeit indirectly, should be a privilege not afforded to those who don’t deserve it, and because, for example, “one man, one vote” presupposes that a thrice-convicted carjacker who beat his last case on a technicality should have the same rights as the nun he carjacked.

–Public urination is a sex offense?!? OK, I call bunk on this. Please cite the exact section of *any *state’s criminal code that makes public urination a “sex offense,” i.e., one where you must register as a sex offender for the rest of your life. When you do, and I can verify it – I’ll admit it. Till then…sorry, this statement is 100% FALSE.

Prisons exist - in part - because some people in this world are really, really EVIL, and need to be locked away, if only to protect the innocent from them. Please read and reflect on the meaning of words like “child rapist” or “murder, execution-style” when you consider who prisons house. Prisons don’t house those who debate morality on their home computers in their safe warm kitchens. They house people who include those who are career criminals and who have absolutely zero sense of morality; right and wrong; or who just don’t care.

I’m sorry, although I’m sure you are well-intentioned, I view a lot of your post as lacking in any insight “into what the world is really like.”

For all those who think prisons are so bad, please, say, google the details of a man named Ambrose Harris, and what he did to a young female college student named Kristin Huggins, a complete stranger who he happened to encounter one day. What he basically did – sparing the really gory details – was to kidnap her; put her in a trunk of a car and drive to a secluded area; rape her (after she begged him not to because she was a virgin); sodomize her; then murder her.

While he was sitting on death row (years later, being fed, housed and clothed by the taxpayers), he murdered another prisoner.

What would posters like to do with Ambrose Harris (other than pray that your sister, wife, or daughter never meets someone like him?)

You seem to be forgetting that prisoners are not all monsters; most of them are regular human beings who made a dumb mistake. Possessing certian types of drugs, robbing a liquor store, getting in a fight as a result of drunkenness. Many prisoners have children of their own, and some are even married.

They should do their time, but that should be it. Any “extra punishments” such as perminantly being forbidden from voting, dying due to underfunded prison medicine, or being raped, is quite simply Cruel and Unusual Punishment. Saying “released prisoners don’t deserve voting rights” is as bad as saying “we should go back to cutting off hands as punishment for theft” or “we should send criminals to concentration camps”.

I have some evidence to back this up. Here’s a story about a prisoner who was brutally raped while behind bars …


… here’s the President of the United States (leader of the free world) saying the prison system is broken …


… and here’s a video where Political Satirist/News Reporter John Oliver goes into detail of the various problems with prison life.


I said it before and I will say it again, the conditions in the prisons are deplorable. The chief reason for that is that nobody cares about prisoners, and as a result they tend to get ignored during policy making. If released prisoners had the right to vote, then they would be able to demand their friends still behind bars be treated justly. Not all criminals are drug users, nor are all criminals sex offenders, so saying otherwise is offensive.

Say a ballot came up, asking whether or not the state should spend more money on medical treatment for prisoners.
While someone who laughs at “don’t drop the soap” jokes would vote NO on the basis that he doesn’t want his tax money going towards thieves, someone who was released from prison two years ago might vote YES because he remembers one of his friends dying in the infirmary due to cutbacks.

To lead this back to the main point of the thread, punishment for a crime should end the moment a prisoner is released from prison. If a Parole Board decided a man was ready to reenter society, then his debt to society should be treated as repaid. He did his time, so he should be square with the house again. If on the outside he finds he can try to resume life as normal, he will try to get an honest profession and stay out of trouble. However, if he finds he can’t vote, can’t get hired, and can’t live in some places, then he might decide to retaliate to the uncaring society that cast him aside.

They could be totally rehabilitated, or not at all changed. Something that a minority of Americans spend a few minutes a year doing is irrelevant to the procedure of rehabilitation.

BorninMarch, you (and I!) are going to go around and around on this and get nowhere, unless you can acknowledge certain items. Perhaps you could please answer some things:

  1. Exactly what precise prison “conditions” do you contend are “deplorable,” to use your words? Lousy (gratis) food? Not enough access to law books? Not enough access to TVs and barbells to work out with? * Which* conditions?

  2. To the extent you contend that prison rape is bad, I say all rape is bad. Some people are rapists, and when you put rapists & other bad people together – in jail – someone can get raped. But please think this through, and answer this: What is your solution? Will allowing felons to vote, end rape? Should we open prison doors & let the inmates out because of the unidentified “deplorable” conditions? Is that the solution you are advocating? If not, what is? So far your posts seem more like rants than anything productive.

  3. What is your solution for the Ambrose Harrises of the world? Do we let him out? Can he shack up with you & yours? I ask because he’s a real-world example of a monster. What’s your solution for him?

Now, some other things:

First, when you say that all people in prison aren’t monsters, OK, fine. But at some point we have to own our actions, and at some point we become our actions. If you’re in jail because you carjacked someone, you’re a carjacker. If you’re there because you robbed a liquor store, you’re a robber, and when you become a robber, a carjacker, or whatever, you can expect to be treated as such - anything else and society becomes lawless.

This is very biblical, and in line with Catholic teaching. If I sin, I can go to confession. I am forgiven by God - but the effects of my sin remain, and are felt in the world, and I feel them as well, and, when I die, I can expect to go to purgatory, i.e., I need more cleansing. Prison is the same. You go to jail and do your time – but upon your release, you’re still a carjacker, or a robber, or whatever, and you can expect to be treated as exactly what you are!

Finally, I also noticed that you didn’t tell us how public urination is a sex offense (because it isn’t). Maybe that’s small, but what it tells me is that your facts are off, and if you’re not going to acknowledge that, it skews everything you’re saying. It also tells me that you’re not really answering any questions, just emoting.

I’d add this: Nowhere in any of these posts has anyone voiced a thought about the victims of crime, and their rights.

The Right Side Of History
By Dave Huntwork

Time and time again I have been accused of being on the “wrong side of history” when it comes to the arguments over abortion and, especially, to so-called gay marriage. This linguistic fad has exploded in use lately as if history itself is the sole arbitrator of what is right and true. It is the weapon of utter dismissiveness that is boldly and routinely wielded by the Left.

One should, in reality, not be interested in being on the “right side of history,” but on the right side of right and wrong.

The most recent and sudden burst of Leftist momentum in the culture wars have Progressives engaging in histrionic vitriol on a massive scale. Progressives make the fundamental mistake of feeling that being in lockstep with, or creating, social fads and whims of popular opinion at this particular moment in history is equivalent of being on the “right side of history.” Nothing could be further from the truth.

History is full of misguided ideological isms that seized the moment and manipulated cultures, societies, and circumstances all the while declaring themselves on the “right side of history.” The “right side of history” argument is an appeal to the authority of an imagined future that hasn’t even happened yet and an attempt to convince the opposition that resistance is futile while their agenda is inevitable. Few in our present generation fully realize that national socialism, fascism, Marxism, and even anarchism were each considered by a great number of people not that long ago the new, great, and inevitable ideology that would usher in a new Utopian age.

They were mostly seen as movements of the young, often centered on charismatic personalities, challenged the old norms and values, and were to be the great correctors of all the societal ills and wrongs that had come before them. They could not picture themselves as being anything but on the “right side of history.” In the end, each ended up being cast upon the ashbin of history were they belonged. Opposing them was choosing to be on [the] right side of right and wrong, despite being declared as being on the “wrong side of history” and obstructing their “inevitable” whirlwind of social and cultural change.

Read the rest here and weep.

I certainly agree that US prisons are deplorable, Ive never been in one, but I have watched plenty of prison documentaries, that show how prisoners live, Ive also seen some on Mexican prisons, seems to me, the prisoners have an easier life in Mexican prisons, especially women…

In a womens prison in Mexico, their children are allowed to live with the women, they accommodate them with all the necessary things needed of course, the women wear their own clothes, NOT prison jumpsuits, its more of a community than a prison, visitors can come and go within the prison unrestricted, they are allowed to interact with prisoners, in the US, many will not even allow prisoners and visitors to touch, in some cases, they can only communicate by video screens!!!

In a Mexican mens prison, on visiting day, long lines stand waiting at the gates, then they are allowed in, they can come and go unrestricted, they can go in the cells, anywhere they like, the warden said they do try to search people, but admitted its impossible to search everyone, that would simply be too impractical, but they make sure to do this in US prisons, and they make sure EVERYONE is searched!!

Im not saying searching visitors is wrong, but for everyone, no, thats ridiculous and I think its highly wrong to restrict visitors to the degree US prisons do, they are preventing contact between women and their children, husbands and wives, etc. that is cruel imo.

Ive also seen some documentaries on Eastern European prisons, again, they are allowed to wear their own clothing, they can have appliances in their cells, coffeemakers, fridges, tvs, etc, whatever someone wants. They can have someone on the outside buy groceries for them as well, Visitors here are also allowed unrestricted access to all areas in the prison when visiting, it really seems the US is the only ones who put these crazy restrictions on prisons.

I do agree though, there are certain people that do need to be locked down most of the time, there are some truly evil people, but for the majority, I think they go too far, someone convicted of drug, financial,etc type crimes do not deserve this same type of prison.

By deplorable conditions, I mean the conditions in prisons are a national disgrace. Prisoners finding maggots in their food, prisoners dying in the infirmary as a result of there not being enough doctors on staff, prisoners getting raped by cellmates while the guards do nothing (and most prison guards ignore rape complaints from inmates) and while the rest of the world laughs about it. Those conditions.

What do I suggest? Well, first I suggest reforms. Make basic standards that all prisons have to meet, and include in those standards things such as food quality (no maggots), medical care (sugar is no substitute for antibiotics [no joke, one prison actually did that]), and segregating the rapists away from the general prisoner population (instead of locking a rapist in the same cell as an eighteen year old who got sent in for a low level drug charge). And while we’re at it, someone making a joke at the expense of prison rape victims should not be considered socially acceptable anymore.

But most importantly, I suggest seeing people who spent time in prison AS ACTUAL HUMANS. If you only treat ex-convicts as carjackers, crackheads, and robbers, then you greatly inhibit their chances of being anything else. However, it you treat them like human beings who happened to have made a mistake in the past, then they have a better reason to put their criminal ways behind them.

To quote Romans 12:17-21:

Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

And to quote Luke 17:3-4:

Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.

Last post: “I’ve never been into a prison but I’ve seen pictures on TV, and I assume everything I see on TV is accurate, so…”

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit www.catholic.com.