Crime and Punishment

I was recently in a debate about the role of detention in society. I started it by suggesting that prison is not enough. It rarely, if at all, changes the outlook for the person sent there. People do ‘clean up’, but I assume those who do are usually the ones who wanted to anyway. In countries such as ours (UK) and other places with similar approaches to imprisonment, I am curious as to what the re-offending rate is. I am willing to guess it’s pretty high.

But if prison is not enough, what options are there? I don’t see capital punishment as a viable option. If the point of punishment is to make someone see the error of their ways and change, capital punishment negates the entire point. Nobody can change if they’re dead. As for seeing the error of their ways… same deal. What about guilt? I would consider a guilty conscience a terrible thing to live with, and indeed seems to be the main reason why people actually end up reforming in the first place. Sitting in prison for years and feeling guilty about what they did is a pretty powerful way to make someone very sorry indeed. Capital punishment saves them from all of that.

So what’s wrong with what we have already? Prisons include having a little cell to yourself for your stay. You lose freedom. You get to mingle only with other ‘undesirables’ while there. It’s pretty much designed to be completely comfort-free, and a horrible place to be. Should be a good deterrent, no? The question of reasoning is something I’ve addressed in previous posts. I feel that the current system, albeit a good deterrent for crime, does very little to stop crime from happening. People who commit crime nearly always have some sort of reason, a root cause, for doing things that ultimately end with them going to prison. For some reason or other, the initial act is worth the high likelihood of going to such a terrible place.

During the debate I was in, someone raised the point of Norway having a very low rate of re-offenders. That person linked me to various sources about a Norwegian prison called Bastoy. I was very skeptical about it when I first read some of the sources. It seemed that Bastoy was a poor excuse for a prison, being pretty much a holiday camp. In their free time there, prisoners get to go horse riding, fishing, cross country skiing and can play tennis. Much of the rest of the time, they’re working on farms to feed themselves, and living conditions are pretty good. There’s even photos of inmates out sunbathing… in front of their own cottages. What’s the deal here? How can this be a prison? People will be committing crimes just to get in, surely. But no… this prison has the lowest re-offending rate in Europe.

I am willing to guess that the ‘secret’ is not about guilt, punishment, and people trying their darndest not to end up there. I think it’s likely that a stay at Bastoy involves integration. Things that motivate a person outside to commit crime, such as mental illness and poverty, are less of an issue if you know how to deal with them properly and legally. Instead of being caged up and given the very least respect, it seems inmates at Bastoy are given work, dignity and a chance to learn how to be a functioning part of a community, all while still sacrificing their freedom. Skills that they then take outside with them and apply in the real world. I can see how this works, and how it works so well.

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Evil… what is it?

I’m considering the definition of evil. It’s rather shaky. Something I’ve pretty much settled on is that evil is any act that is intended to cause harm to others. It sort of encompasses mere bad too, though. It also leaves out a huge chunk of what evil is normally attributed to. After all, a person isn’t an act.

How can a person be evil? Is there a threshold amount of evil acts they have to commit in order to gain evilness? Like ‘dude, I crossed the evilness barrier! I’m now a level 1 trainee satan!’ Where is the threshold? Is one evil act enough to make us evil? If so, are we all evil, since we all have done at least one particularly nasty thing in our lives?

Ok, we didn’t kill people, but…. wait… maybe it’s not how many acts we did, but what level of offence they were. I can pretty much assume killing multiple people is top of the evil list.But even that is not straightforward. You see, there is such thing as good killing… maybe(?) I, for one, am not going to consider a soldier evil for fighting in war.  The war itself may be a big, unnecessary waste of lives, resources and time, and fundamentally wrong, and the soldiers have to kill loads of people because they’re told to, but they’ve gotta do what they’ve gotta do, really. I’d be first in the line to put a medal on a man who’s managed to survive that sort of thing with his body and sanity both intact. I disagree with war, but I do not disagree with soldiers being heroes. They are brave people who put their lives at risk to do their jobs. Note the fact I haven’t said they do it for their country or for <insert whatever cause here>. Governments dictate all that. Soldiers do what they’re ordered to, without question of why. Soldiers certainly are heroes, and I am proud to respect each and every one I see. Even if they are ‘technically’ serial killers along the way, and thus evil(?) Nope, I don’t think that sounds right.

So if killing people is the most evil thing a person can do, but isn’t actually evil, what the hell is evil? Maybe it’s based in reasons? Why people do things… Well, I’m not sure on that. There’s always multiple sides to everything. What I think is right, you might think is wrong. I like to think that most people who do notable things, that others disagree on, usually have some sort of benevolent goal. For example, I might want to flatten your house so I can build an awesome new airport on it. The airport would ultimately be a great addition to the area, making jobs, business, and transport links, and generally add to the area’s development. But from your perspective, I’m just some nutcase who wants to uproot your family’s entire history, move your neighbours away from you and flatten the home you’ve lived your whole life in. You’d think I’m evil.

Well… I haven’t managed to logically define what makes an evil person, and I’ve managed to blur even what constitutes an evil act to the point where I can’t tell what’s what. Perhaps we’re all just different shades of good, and the term ‘evil’ is a mere label attached to things we don’t like, or indeed don’t fully understand.

Welfare ‘reforms’

I quite enjoy reading all over the web about welfare reforms and the impact they cause. Of course, I’m lying.

What really shocks me is the positive reactions towards them from members of the general public. It can be quite astounding that people in this wonderful country of ours can be so outright heartless. Yes, fair enough, you’ll end up paying less tax if benefits are cut. Of course, that’s wonderful news for you, but really, have you thought long and hard about what that means for others who are actually in need of the benefits in question?

For your few pennies saved, a hundred lives are completely torn apart. It’s really quite tragic to see people being faced with the threat of homelessness, and to have to rely on food banks in order to stay alive and healthy. Those who do become homeless are then faced with the prospect of no longer having access to benefits, because the DWP do actually need an address to reach you at before they’ll pay a penny. Of course, people start dying, which triggers a chain reaction of even more savings for the taxpayer. Isn’t that awesome? I sincerely don’t think it is.

It fills me with warmth to hear about the council estate that was pulled down and the families that were broken up along with the rest of their community, because ultimately it meant I could finally afford my new BMW.

Yes I really am joking about that. I receive benefits myself. I receive the endless stigma and demonisation from the right wing press. I receive the disgusted glances from people who consider themselves a higher species than me. I receive the barrage of attacks from the very person who set up the centre for social justice. It would help him greatly if he had the slightest clue what social justice was.

Stay tuned for a more thoughtful and less ranty post about these very same issues. I do not wish to become incoherent and shouty, else I might find myself going bald and yelling at Owen Jones on Question Time. Although some might be pretty proud of that achievement……..

Extremism, religion, accountability and the human mind

Firstly, I’d like to say that the following is all my own opinion, not necessarily shared by anyone, not necessarily right or wrong. It is only what it is, which is my own opinion. ‘I’m not the messiah’ etc.

I’m posting this because I wanted to ‘react’ to the events that happened in Woolwich, where a road was turned into a butchery and a soldier replaced the hors….beef. Insensitive as my description may be, no disrespect is intended. Quite clearly, the beanie-wearing creature who committed this vile act and started shouting the odds into the nearest camera should be condemned. And condemned he sure is. What troubles me is the fact that not only are he and his accomplices condemned by the general public, but many people seem to extend this to others who share the same religion as him. This is the point at which I do not share sentiment. Terrorism is absolutely not fundamental to Islam, and I can say this with confidence, because I have a lot of evidence to support my assertion. My evidence is the millions upon millions of Muslims who live in this world and do not go round killing people. As an atheist, I pretty much disagree by default even with those millions upon millions of Muslims, but I like to think that being somewhat less indoctrinated leads my mind to logical deduction, which in turn leads me to the conclusion that Islam, in principal, isn’t the actual cause of these problems.

Indeed it would take an immense amount of faith and assumption to blame Islam. just like it would take faith and assumption to blame Christianity for the funeral picketing of gay soldiers, the people who would rather let their families die than take them to hospital when they get seriously ill, and the holocaust. Christianity is not the cause of those issues.

In all described cases, it’s generally a vocal minority of people with a sub-par understanding of their own religion’s basic principals, teaching gullible people how to wildly misinterpret the helpful guidance of prophets. Teaching people that hate is love and violence is kindness. This is extremism. It exists, and it’s not nice.

But what is religion, underneath the various factions, the different gods, the crazy beliefs and the indoctrination? Religion is, and always has been, a tool to keep the population at large in some sort of reasonably tolerable state. To bring hope to people who otherwise would have none. To soothe troubled minds, calm people down in desperate times, and set out a rough set of rules that generally make sense, even if they’re written in a way that doesn’t. It awakens faith, and faith is important, even to people who don’t have a god to apply it to. Faith is why you get up in the morning, because you don’t wake up with any particularly good reason to believe you won’t get murdered within the hour. You take that on faith. Nobody knows the future, and faith fills in the blanks with what can reasonably be expected. Even as an atheist, I see no logical reason why religion, at the basic level, should be classed as a bad thing. If faith in my computer to not cease operating before I finish this post works for me, and faith that god will take them to heaven when they die works for someone else, I think I will settle with ‘each to their own’. I might find their faith rather laughable and unnecessary, but the odds of my computer suddenly dying are relatively high compared to the odds of the world being swallowed up by some sort of netherworld of fire and brimstone. This statistically puts my faith at a significantly higher risk of being proven misplaced, though those statistics don’t convince me to lean towards the even lower likelihood that I’ll be touched by some magical giant hand and ‘saved’. Besides which, I know it’s only a metaphor for things that really aren’t quite so logically absurd.

In my analysis above of what religion basically is, I make particular note of the positivity of it all. It’s there to placate the worried mind, and try to explain the unknown. Essentially, it’s there to stop people getting agitated and killing each other, not promote exactly that. It is, at its very core, a very helpful and positive thing. I am sure this is the point where someone will happily rattle off a long string of scripture at me, pointing out the plethora of war-like orders from what can only be described as an infinite, all-seeing, all-powerful, grumpy, teething infant having a tantrum because his creations have free will, provided by him, and are not afraid to use it. This is where the human taint is highly visible, and it’s what’s wrong – not with religion in general, but with ORGANIZED religion.

No two people will believe all the same stuff, in the same way, and follow it all with exactly the same enthusiasm. Faith is highly subjective. Some people are far too realistic to have room for some of the parts of some religions that require the most faith. Even as faithful followers, cynicism gets in and creates a variance between people. Organized religion tends to be pretty ok with this, which is good because it’s natural enough. But I digress. The point I wanted to be heading towards was that the second someone actually writes up a collection of beliefs and establishes a band of faithful fellow believers, each and every one of those followers may have a subtly different interpretation of what the first guy even meant, essentially agreeing with and believing a slightly (or sometimes wildly) different version of the same thing. And all this is BEFORE personal agendas and politics gets thrown into the mix. All it takes is someone powerful enough to authorize a re-write of the original scripture, under the guise of a translation or an update, and you can end up with a scripture that nobody can differentiate from the original, except for the fact that the new version serves only the interests of the guy who edited it. Is it any wonder that the same powerful tool that keeps people peaceful and comfortable can also be a powerful tool to get people murdered in cold blood? I could probably cherry-pick a thousand or more verses from the Christian Bible to justify trying to wipe out the entire human race if I had some sort of strong urge to do so. Ultimately, though, that’s not the point of that scripture, and it’s most certainly not going to be supported by 99.99999% of Christians. Cherry-picking and selective understanding being what I’m getting at here. Why would I even get that urge, though? I think that question leads us nicely into motivation and accountability.

So.. extremism is bad, and it happens. People use something written to promote love in order to advance an agenda of hate. Why? What makes a person want to convince his peers that it’s a good idea to kill people, or that <insert deity here> wants them to throw away a substantial percentage of their life in exchange for several others? I think there are a lot of potential reasons. Not necessarily the same reasons for each case. It doesn’t seem very rational. Faith itself usually doesn’t, but faith at least serves some form of logical purpose, so I’m willing to bet there’s some sort of emotional investment behind the scenes. Anger, for instance. Why are these people angry? Does anyone even ask these questions? What’s so bad about ‘the West’ that people deem it necessary to damage the place? I am a Westerner. As far as I’m aware, I have done nothing to harm any Muslims, be they ones who live here among us, or those who live far away. Although I feel I might be missing the point. Do I honestly have any claim to victimhood if I get blown up? Am I an individual entity who happens to live here, or am I a part of the society these people seem to hate so much? If the latter, am I hated? My honest answer is that I don’t have answers. However, I speculate that perhaps I do own a share in the responsibility for atrocities. If people are angry at my country in general, and I am a part of my country in general, then whatever it is that pissed them off is at least slightly my fault. If not, then I should not be a citizen, and should perhaps claim my place as a free agent. Without religion, without nationality. Perhaps then, I can hopefully escape from under the crosshairs. However, that won’t happen. Besides which, with all of those questions as yet unanswered, how do I even know it’s my fault as a Westerner? For all I know the people aren’t angry at us for some perceived slight. Maybe it’s all for fun. Maybe it’s something born of jealousy because where we live we have nice things and where these terrorists live (the most recent ones 20 miles away from where I’m blogging from) is not such a good country. Is East London really all that different from West London? Everyone has reasons. There can be understandable reasons and seemingly dumb reasons, but everyone has reasons for everything. To find what they are and try to resolve things sensibly is the duty of all rational people, whether they have gods and faith or not.

First post, just a bit of a thought I had

I propose something huge and interesting. By ‘huge and interesting’, I refer to the fact that it’s barely feasible at all, but with the right kind of support and such, could really go a long way, and make a lot of lives a lot better.

What I propose is that, where there’s a big furore about benefit caps, bedroom tax and high rent, perhaps what we really need here is a lot of affordable housing, privately owned, but managed in a non-profit, almost public way. I advocate voluntary everything, by the way. If it’s not worth doing for no cash, it’s not worth doing at all (as long as cash isn’t actually a massive barrier to doing it, which nine times out of ten is the case).

So umm… my plan. Someone, somewhere gets a big truckload of money from someone, somewhere. Vague, I know, but these are the specifics that generally tend to clear themselves up as more people get on board. Then, the exciting part starts. Lots of planning, architecture and engineering, to work out what wants to be built. I have the idea, but I don’t have the scale model of a soundly-designed real-world manifestation of the idea… that part goes to someone better qualified than I. In any case, the idea is to grab up a large plot of land and build a privately owned public housing estate with a massive difference. The estate would be as green and clean as possible…. and accept only new tenants who have housing benefit. Regardless whether they stop getting HB later or not, they’d have to claim for the properties to be allowed to live there. The reason for this is because the whole point of the estate would be to house people who are losing their homes and livelihoods to all the benefits problems. Makes no sense to also open up the properties to people who already have the means to rent.

The reason for wanting to go as green as possible would be to dramatically reduce costs that are usually high for the target tenants. Things such as energy bills can be hugely cut down if the housing is built with the right materials and is well insulated, as well as designed in ways that can make best use of what’s already there, such as sunlight and wind, and local nature.

To top it all off, rent rates should be kept in line with, or lower than, the rent for council properties local to the housing estate.

Of course, none of that is going to be possible to do at a profit. It would be a huge spend with very low returns. Not something any intelligent businessperson would want to pay for. Not something anyone would want to pay for, to be brutally honest. However, that said, with enough crowd-sourced funds, one could buy the land. Consultations with the right experts could result in the best possible design and concept. Not free, but at least the land part’s already out the way. Here’s where the volunteer part comes in. Volunteer builders, or people who just want to learn about building, or a combination of both, could be the ones turning a design into an estate. Though help would be sought from jobcentres, there’d be an interview for jobcentre clients, to make sure they’re not on some workfare thing.