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Violence and punishment – then and now
By Tony Owen
Published: 01/05/2009

0106balance scale Society has always had the challenge of dealing with violence.

The world is a violent place to live in. History is littered with examples of humanity’s cruelty upon itself. From one of the earliest records of history, the Bible, one can read about the murder of Abel by Cain.

Down through time come more stories and examples of slavery, rape, murder, and genocide. Recent historical examples include Hitler's attack on the Jews and the genocide of the Serbs in Bosnia. In the United States, society has been struggling with assisted suicide, serial killers and the death penalty.

With the Internet, predators have found a whole new world to find and take advantage of victims. They meet their prey in chat rooms and smoothly set up meetings where they eventually claim their victim.

Violence is all around. In today's society all one has to do is turn on the TV and see the latest murder story. For example, in the movie "True Lies", there are more than 94 scenes of murder, mayhem, and destruction. Included in this movie is an atomic bomb detonation.

In today's newspapers one can read about the latest crime complete with gory details. In one quick scan through major news periodical, there was found an article about the new "super bullet" which pierces body armor. The sole purpose of this bullet is to kill police and any others who are being protected by this armor.

Through the ages, society has tried to deal with these acts of violence. There eventually became coded laws and rules to help everyone know what is not allowed. Starting with the Code of Hammurabi, continuing through the Roman Empire, into the Feudal System of Europe, to the Magma Charta, down to the U.S. Constitution and present day laws, society has tried to create a system of justice and just punishment.

An eye-for-an-eye was the accepted norm of punishment. If one stole an apple, one was be-handed. If the apple belonged to the king, the thief was sold into slavery or executed. Some still believe in this type of justice today. Others call it revenge.

The figure of a judge was created by society from its need for an objective decision maker. These were the interpreters and arbitrators of the law. Many times, it was the ruling regent who sat in judgment. They would interpret the law and dispense justice. All societies have gone about this justice process in their own way. Religion is one factor that has had a major impact in how a particular society defines what its justice is.

All societies judged and dispensed justice according to their religious and societal values. Many believe that executing someone, proved little in deterring crime. There are historical reports of pickpockets working the crowds at executions of pickpockets.

The governing bodies also found execution was starting to be considered as to harsh a punishment by the people. Instead of execution, transgressors would now be banished from society. The rise of penal colonies came with society’s use of banishment as a punishment.

There has always been some form of dungeon or tower to isolate offenders. These were also referred to as debtor’s prisons, work houses, the king’s mines and other names to numerous to cite. These proved to be a costly drain on the king’s treasury. As the prisons became overcrowded, society turned even more to banishment as a form of punishment.

Australia was started partly as a penal colony. The United States received its share of lawbreakers, and refugees, when it was a colony of Great Britain. Even today, examples can be found of banishment being used as a form of relieving overcrowding. The Cuban “boat lift” involved numerous criminals being sent to the United States by Cuba’s government to relieve their prison overcrowding.

Eventually, even banishment to the colonies became an unacceptable way of punishing criminals. Another method of punishment had to be found. Today, when society banishes someone they send that person to a prison.

Prisons are a somewhat recent creation of society. Only within the last couple of centuries has the modern prison been used as a viable option to punish criminals. The current accepted definition of a prison states it is:

"A facility run for the specific purpose of maintaining convicted offenders away from society…”

This part of the definition clearly speaks of banishment. The definition continues:

“…Until such time as they are released back into society."

What is found in this concept is that the prison, by maintaining these offenders, is protecting society from their further acts of violence and lawbreaking. Yet, they are expected to release them back to society someday.

In each of our solutions to crime are new challenges for society. The fact remains that our reactions to violence are always evolving even as our understanding of what causes violence becomes clearer.

About the Author
Tony Owen is a retired Corrections manager after having worked in Indiana and Michigan departments of corrections for over 25 years. In his career he has worked in various levels of security from correction center to Level VI. Currently he is serving as the membership chairperson for the Michigan Corrections Association and teaches corrections on ground and online at the west Michigan campus of the University of Phoenix. He can be reached at MCAtowen@charter.net


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