Recently, I have been questioning the manner in which we punish and penalize in our society. A lot of our punitive measures seem driven by our tendency to place people into polarities: as good or bad, kind or mean, angel or devil, moral or corrupt, laborer or artist, hard-working or lazy, as ‘once a cheater always a cheater,’ etcetera. We label others due to their appearance and previous actions, and treat them accordingly. Because of this, we don’t allow individuals the circumstantial space they need to change from, say, a criminal to a non-criminal.
Similar to the enigmatic question of: which is first, the chicken or the egg? the ethical deliberation of assigning hard-lined traits to people brings us to another enigmatic question of what constitutes personhood. Is an individual essentially a product of their circumstances, or a being with an unchangeable character? And if they are a combination of both, does either come before the other?
Let’s look into this by discussing a hard aspect about the United States. According to statistical analysis, the United States incarcerates more individuals per capita than any other nation, around 2.3 million people.[i] A significant proportion of these are African American males who are not only disproportionately targeted against, but suffer from a lack of opportunity, lack of support, lack of access, lack of money, lack of quality health care, lack of quality food, and a pervasive lack in general compared to their Caucasian counterparts. This lack often predisposes them to a criminal history due to necessity, desperation, misery, anguish, and retaliation against an unjust system that doesn’t work in their favor. So, in a manner similar their coveted entrepreneurial counterparts, these individuals find a solution where they can get from a society that antagonizes them, thus creating what we label a criminal.
Such is a path in which an impoverished individual becomes a criminal. If it is primarily a cause of their circumstances or their inherent nature is not an easy question to answer when analyzing over a million similar cases. But an aspect we can assess is if our criminal population readdresses their ways once they face punitive measures.
Unfortunately for both criminals and society in general, the United States not only has the largest inmate population in the world, but also one of the highest recidivism rates. Bureau of Justice Statistics* conducted a nine year analysis of 67, 966 prisoners in 30 states. In the 9 years following their release, about 5 out of 6 (83%) of these prisoners were arrested at least once; 44% during their first year out.[ii] However, before we use such stark statistics to try to prove the point of predisposed characteristics (i.e.: once a criminal always a criminal), let us first put ourselves in the circumstances and mindset of a released criminal in order to better comprehend their situation.
Let’s label this hypothetical criminal as inmate NYSID3MILLION, a combination of numbers and letters that will remain with them for a lifetime. In prison, NYSID3MILLION was 1) working for free or providing cheap labor for wealthy corporations 2) dealing with unjust treatment by guards and perhaps petty rivalries amongst other inmates in an overcrowded complex 3) unable to make adequate connections with educational and career opportunities 4) lacked basic constitutional rights 5) lacked quality health care 6) became reduced to a systemic number to a greater extent than the normal public already labeled by a numerical value such as a social security number, a passport document, or a license.
So, that was a written snapshot of NYSID3MILLION’s hypothetical experience while incarcerated. Let’s look at her life after release. We have given her a gender, so why not a name now that she has been liberated. Let’s call her Eve. Eve was released from a holding cell with a small bag of belongings and only fifty dollars. She arranged to stay at her friend’s place with no cost until she found shelter and employment. But once she arrives at her friend’s place, she quickly finds that her friend’s alcohol addiction has progressed since she was in jail. The first two days, Eve busies herself by going to her probation meetings, visiting a Job Centre and a food bank, and dealing with necessary errands. Adjusting to the world outside prison is exhausting, especially when commuting to her early-morning probation, job searching, and finding free or cheap food all by foot as she has no access to transportation and the fifty dollars she has needs to last her a full month before she can receive any benefits. On the third night after her release, her inebriated friend requests that she pay some of the rent or leave. Kicked out of her living arrangements, she has nowhere to go, no job prospects due to her record, and stress is causing her to want to relapse into the addiction that helped place her in prison.
Now, let’s give Eve a different outcome. Knowing that she has no suitable connections on the outside, no close family members, and no easy solution to adjusting to life outside, NYSID3MILLION- whose name, mug shot, gender, birthdate, height, weight, hair color, eye color, and felony charge can be publically accessed online through a state database- lets herself be courted by a man named John for an entire six months before her release. He gives her commissary money, professes his love to her, and gives her hope during her incarceration. On release day, he picks her up, brings her back home, and treats her like a doting girlfriend for a few days until he starts pimping her to clients. In a week, she is back on drugs and prostituting herself. Six month later she is arrested again on prostitution charges.
She is now a reoffender, and the hurdles placed in front of her to readjust into society are further complicated. [iii]
The cycle continues, likely until she can find a support system and a community that will help her break the cycle or until she dies.
When seeing the hurdles that are placed in front of her, the lack of community, support, and opportunity she has access to, and the criminal label she has behind her, what do you think? Is Eve naturally a criminal? Will she always be a criminal? Was she perhaps already one at fourteen, when she began drinking with her mother? Was she one at twenty, when she met her first pimp boyfriend? Was she one during the months in jail when she got sober, spent the days cleaning, reading and studying, and hoping to positively affect change in a life previously filled with neglect and misfortune?
Is a criminal always a criminal?
Is that a question with a concrete answer?
We’re so used to finding the correct answer in school that we forget that true answers are more nuanced. A chicken doesn’t always come before an egg, like a mother doesn’t always come before a child. Some eggs came before some chickens, some chickens came before some eggs, some mothers before some children, some children before some mothers. It’s all in the perspective in which we view the question that gives us our particular answer. Does the egg necessarily come before the chicken? Well, if a chicken comes from an egg inside of a chicken, where did the first egg come from? Was it inside a chicken prototype? Was it just an egg outside of a chicken? Was it genetic material that evolved? Likewise, did NYSIDMILLION evolve into the ‘criminal’ she became because of her circumstances or was she always one? Did she evolve into a criminal from her predisposition for novelty and intense enjoyment of dopamine surges? Did she evolve into a criminal because of her childhood trauma and neglect? Did she evolve into a criminal because of her lack of support and poor educational opportunity as a youth? Was she still a criminal during the brief respites when her life was stable and opportunities were tangible?
When you put yourself inside Eve’s circumstances, inside her life, the answer doesn’t seem so clear cut. And truthfully, we don’t need to worry ourselves about finding an answer to such an enigmatic question. But a way in which we can test the strength of ‘nature’ vs ‘nurture’ is to allow people the space and opportunity to change and accept another reality rather than continue to punish a person because of their past history, childhood circumstances, or particular characteristics.
To me, it’s seems a worthwhile initiative, especially since our current punitive measures have failed and continue to fail millions.