Saturday, April 30, 2011

My Argument with Bentham’s View of Incarceration

Shane Bennett

Jeremy Bentham was a notable philosopher who lived during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. He is best known in philosophy and ethics for utilitarianism. Due largely to the advocacy of Bentham, utilitarianism influenced many social reforms in Great Britain, most of which took place after Bentham’s death.

His basic principle of philosophy can be found in the opening paragraph of his An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation:

Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we out to do as well as to determine what we shall do. (Bentham, 1780)

For Bentham the pain and pleasure principle was a blueprint for social and legal reform in Great Britain. He viewed the idea of punishment and reward as a means for legislators to control an individual’s pursuit of happiness. To Bentham, punishments seemed to be the more important method of enforcement. He believed that through the infliction and threat of great pain, individuals would be provided motivations for refraining from harmful behavior.

Bentham’s emphasis on law and punishment of law-breakers, reflected the doubts he had towards the ideology of natural rights, which basically states that individuals had unlimited rights to “liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression” (Lafayette, 1789). His philosophy had direct bearing on his ideas about criminal justice.

He focused on the prevention of crime through the creation of Panopticon penitentiary systems. In his own words, Bentham describes the Panopticon penitentiary as a system that would be run according to “rules of lenity, severity, and economy” (Bentham & Mills, 1987). This system stated that the prisoners would not be physically harmed, but also would not be afforded more luxury than the members of the lowest social class. Bentham’s design of the prison would severely limit the necessary staff to operate the facility, which would enhance the economic feasibility of the system. For instance, Bentham designed the architecture of the penitentiary to be rounded allowing one guard to view and monitor several rooms at the same time, while thanks to screens and lighting, the inmates would be unable to know if someone is watching. This gave the inmates “an impression of invisible omnipresence” (Bentham & Mills, 1987).

Bentham’s ideas regarding prison reform laid the foundation for what was to become the Prison Act of 1835. This act, while not resulting in a penitentiary like the Panopticon, used his system of lenity, severity, and economic approach to prisons quite successfully.

My disagreement with Bentham involves his view of the prison system. In his view, inmates were discouraged from deviant acts due to the threat of consequences associated with them. This led Bentham to design a prison system where all the inmates are housed in a circular building and are unaware of how often they are being watched over by guards. This Panopticon would benefit society because it would cost very little money to run the facility and would be successful because the inmates would never know if a guard is on or off duty.

In my opinion, however, inmates need rehabilitation and socialization while in prison rather than just fear and consequences. There are currently many experimental prisons operating in the US that attempt to do this very thing while maintaining a low cost to the community and tax payer. These facilities (mostly rehab) run at no extra cost because they are operated daily by the inmates. The facility employs a low number of guards to maintain supervision and order, but the day-to-day operations are left up to the inmates. Cleaning, maintenance, supervision, activities, and services are all carried out by the prisoners themselves. They help organize and operate a strict rehab facility for drug users. Their days are structured with equal parts exercise, education, reflection, meditation, and socialization. They perform services at the facility such as auto-mechanical which also helps to bring in income to the prison to pay for the food (not processed junk) and facility operation. This type of prison allows the inmates to still feel hopeful about life after prison. They also acquire the treatment they need to break troublesome habits and nearly all acquire new skills and education that will make them successful contributors to society once prison is over.

I agree with many of Bentham's ideas regarding the motivation of pain and pleasure. However, fear can motivate only so far. Assuming that inmates are eventually going to be integrated back into society, they must be helped and given a chance to be successful, otherwise every sentence to prison becomes a life sentence. Prisoners must pay for mistakes they have made, but they also should receive tools while paying their debt to ensure that the majority don't fall into the same harmful patterns that landed them in prison. Fear works in the short term, but begins to fade over time. Teaching skills and providing prisoners with knowledge is the only way to rehabilitate them and prepare them to be contributing members of society.

Shane Bennett is a former Ethics student at Midway College.


George Patsourakos said...

American prisons need to focus more on rehabilitation and vocational training for their prisoners.

In fact, I will take this to the next level by recommending that prisons provide a job placement service for prisoners scheduled to be released within 60 days. This plan would allow prisoners to get the help they need to obtain a job upon their release from prison.

Without this kind of a plan, prisoners released from prison usually lack the assistance and self-esteem they need to get a job, not to mention the stigma associated with having been a prisoner. This lack of assistance often results in former prisoners going back to prison.

ShaneDadd said...


You bring up an excellent point about job placement. Currently in the US there exist facilities that do this very thing. They basically assign the former inmate to a worker who sees them through every aspect of the reintegration process. They prepare them for job interviews, they teach them new skills to better prepare them for the workforce, they obtain suitable housing for them in a community that they may thrive, and they set up a support group for each former inmate to safeguard against any falling back into destructive behaviors. These caseworkers handle a small number of parolees to ensure that all the necessary attention and assistance is shown to these men and women who want to become productive members of society.

Without programs like you and I have described, we are granting each felon a life sentence, complete with a stigma that will nearly ensure them limited employment, education, success, and happiness. These negative prospects remove hope from these people and a hopeless person is capable of absolutely anything. We must make sure that once debts have been paid, these men and women can go back into accepting communities and become successful contributors to our society.

Thanks for reading, George, and thanks for your thoughts. I enjoyed reading them as well!

wanda said...

I can appreciate the writer’s viewpoint concerning incarceration. However, I am a tax paying citizen of the United States, and I am more than a little concerned with the viewpoints of providing more and more to the prisoners, that have chosen to commit crimes. A much better way of life than our hard-working society that has worked hard for everything they have, and hope to have.
I realize that our justice system is lacking in many areas, but is it completely fair to say that we, as taxpayers, are responsible for supporting the prisoners’ that have been incarcerated for crimes that they, themselves, have chosen to commit?

As parents we assume the care, including the financial responsibility, for our children until they are mentally, physically, and financially able to take full responsibility for themselves. Why should we, as taxpayers, assume responsibility for an entire prison of people that have chosen not to take responsibility for themselves, nor their families?

If the American population is going to ensure all prisoners that they will receive three meals a day, all expense health care, dental and vision care, and a guarantee of employment after completing their stay at the Hilton, what incentives do these prisoners’ have to reframe from crime?
In today’s society, especially in today’s society, there are family’s that have children that are not getting the proper nutrition, education, or clothes on their backs to wear. I do not see anyone offering this form of rehabilitation to our American population that continues to suffer on a daily basis, due to negligence of our government!

I am all for rehabilitation, but rehabilitation begins before prison. If the government would take more of the responsibility, of rehabilitating families when they need help, instead of being such a good Samaritan, and sending all of our taxpayers money to aid other countries, the need to reform prisoners’ may not be such a major issue. I was always taught that charity begins at home, yet that’s not the American way.
Our prisons are filled with prisoners that have been incarcerated due to drug charges.

The rehabilitation of the medical society and our health care policies need to be revaluated. It is a consistent cycle of drug abuse in the United States, created in part by our Health Care Systems. The Physicians are granted privileges to prescribe the narcotics to the American people, but only for a certain time, just long enough to get the patients addicted to the medication, and then they are on their own. This type of behavior from our medical society needs rehabilitation. Health care is supposed to be centered on prevention. If more prevention were practiced, fewer drugs related issues would surface. Evidence supports that the crime rate is increased due to drugs. It is a constant, vicious cycle, maybe the health care system needs to pay for the rehabilitation of all those prisoners that our prisons house for drug related crimes. It has been proven that once individuals are addicted to prescribed drugs, they will stop at nothing to obtain the drugs. This type of addiction leads to crime, murder, theft, which therefore leads to prison.

I agree our society has placed mankind under two sovereign masters, pain, and pleasure. I do not agree that our society, as individuals, should suffer unnecessary pain in order for others to live a life of destructive pleasure. I also think that prisoners, whether celebrity, or your average American citizen, should be treated in the same manner while serving a prison sentence, unrelated to the amount of money and prestige that one may have.

ShaneDadd said...


I can certainly understand your frustration over misused tax dollars, especially in economic times like these. The facilities I described in my post, however, operate at no additional cost to the tax payer. Most of the extra incentives provided to the inmates comes from money raised by the inmates providing services in a community. Many of these places operate a vehicle maintenance shop and use profits to upkeep the facility and pay caseworkers to help their reintegration.

Further, the reality of society is that people are always going to commit crimes. Many of the preventative ideas you mentioned are great ways to curb crime, but crime will always exist in some capacity. The question for policy-makers, and really society as a whole, is what to do with the criminals. There is little debate amongst citizens that some payment for wrongdoing is a necessary part of the rehabilitation process. But, is our need to punish more important than our need to foster productive members of society?

In short, the penal code will always cost society money. As long as people have been having possessions, someone else has been stealing them. What we, as tax payers, need to decide is how best to use our money. If drug abusers aren't treated, they will use again. If they don't have the money to use, they will steal, rob, or kill to get it. If that addiction can be curbed through treatment and rehabilitation, those people have a more likely chance to become not just productive citizens but innovators, entrepreneurs, inventors, and investors. Like you, Wanda, I just want to make sure my money is going toward making society safer and more prosperous.

Thanks for reading,