The winners of the prestigious 2020 Independent Schools Association Sixth Form essay competition were announced this week and two of our students scooped prizes.
The winning essay in the Arts & Humanities category was Karine’s ‘Rehabilitation vs Punishment: the criminal justice system’. The judges praised her concise introduction to a perennially thorny issue: ‘Prisons are thought to be a fair institution that prioritise the overall benefit of the society, to some extent this is true. But then why are recidivism rates still so high? The reason that will be explored in today’s essay is the effect of harsh prison punishment and whether that serves a greater purpose than simply punishing its inmates.’ They also felt that Karine did a brilliant job of outlining the seemingly irreconcilable debate between punishment and rehabilitation.
While in the Science, IT and Technology group Laetisha took the Highly Commended spot for her essay titled ‘Should Life-Sustaining Treatment Be Withdrawn From Patients in a Permanently Vegetative State (PVS)?’. Judges liked the way Laetisha adopted “A Philosophical Approach on Life”, and in so doing sought to explore something of what life and existence mean in relation to someone in a PVS. They also admired the way she realistically considered how difficult, and potentially insoluble, are the questions involved, but still explored the potential benefit to be gained from language that relates not simply to being alive, but rather to that of being able to experience living.
Well done to both students. You can read their full essays below:
Rehabilitation v Punishment
The debate between rehabilitation and punishment has been going on for centuries, psychologists and the criminal justice system have always wondered which system is better when facing crime. In the status quo, the “get tough on crime” approach has taken the wheel as more criminals are sent into the “big house” for even menial crimes. The incredible high reoffending rates in many countries also factored in the mindset that these criminals are not rehabilitated and they can’t change for the better. This sets a narrow-minded opinion that once a criminal, always a criminal. However, the truth is much more sinister than that.
Prisons are thought to be a fair institution that prioritise the overall benefit of the society, to some extent this is true. But then why are recidivism rates still so high? The reason that will be explored in today’s essay is the effect of harsh prison punishment and whether that serves a greater purpose than simply punishing it’s inmates.
This institution was essentially built to “punish” criminals so they would not want to be incarcerated again, however, this approach seems to have the opposite effect; an explosive growth in prison population has caused the United States to now have more than 2 million people in prisons or jails–the equivalent of one in every 142 U.S. residents. These inmates are also ostracized by society and are portrayed as 1 second class citizens when they leave the institution, this has to lead to higher chances of recidivism (75% of released inmates are re-incarcerated within five years of discharge from prison) as criminals easily fall back into their old lifestyle, because it’s not easy to find a job with a criminal record (according to forbes , one year after their release from prison, between 60 percent and 75 percent of ex-offenders remain unemployed).
Although most prison systems do not want to admit it, there is a correlation with how prisoners are treated and the rate of recidivism. In countries where the prison treats its prisoners like human beings, there is a lower rate of re-incarceration as these prisoners do not need to adjust back to normal societal life. It is obvious that in prison, it’s members are isolated from the world, leading very different day-day lives with its rigid schedule and punishment. These people are not adapted to survive in society once they are released, therefore leading to re-incarceration. Once the inmates are released, many have shown signs of increased paranoia. An interview conducted on 100 UK prisoners undertaken by Susie Hulley and her colleagues stated that many inmates have undergone a significant personal transformation. It is described as emotional numbing.
One of the arguments that supports the fact that prison conditions are far worse than normal life is so that it acts as a deterrent, the idea states that in order for it to be a deterrent the conditions should be worse than the average living conditions, or else what’s the difference between those who have commited a crime and those who haven’t. Regarding the belief that punishment has led to a general deterrence has had no solid proof, this is due to the system not accounting for the number of offenders that commit crimes irrationally, rather than calculated crimes. Keep in mind that these offenders are usually deprived of social needs, they are most commonly subjected towards injustice, abuse, addiction and in this case mental illness. These offenders are in a more dire and vulnerable state in comparison to prison time and thus are not deterred by the idea of “punishment”. However, there has been assumed evidence that the prospect of punishment has had a general deterrent effect.
The harsh living conditions in prison does act as a deterrent to other members of the society but there are strong arguments that states that these have little to no effect on changing the mindset of current offenders. Currently, the prison systems are favouring the needs of society by making life behind bars “unbearable”, but at what cost?
Simple, just ease the harsh living conditions.
This proposes a dilemma as these criminals are in fact criminals, they have done something socially unacceptable and according to many professionals, are unfit to receive the same kind of treatment as normal citizens (the retributivist belief). The whole point of having laws and justice systems is to essentially filter out the bad apple that will spoil the whole bunch. Convincing the law enforcement is hard, but what is more difficult is getting the victim or even a normal citizen to accept that treating offenders who have committed horrible crimes with respect and consideration is in their best interest. It is understandable that victims and people in general would want revenge on the offender, they have done something wrong, they are a criminal. Even the decade-long departed governor of Bastoy prison (recidivism rate pf 16%) Arne Kvernvik Nilsen, said that he wouldn’t be able to handle that thought. So they should be given a “punishment”, their sentence should pay for the harm they have brought to society, seems to be a unanimous conclusion.
On the contrary however, Human rights activist Ruth Wilson Gilmore argues that why as a society do we choose modern cruelty and vengeance over educating and rehabilitation. “Instead of asking whether anyone should be locked up or go free, why don’t we think about why we solve problems by repeating the kind of behavior that brought us the problem in the first place?” – Ruth wilson. According to popular belief, people are opting to turn 5 prison system into a rehabilitation centre and eradicating social stigma by allowing prisoners to vote and contribute to society through employment. This solution consists of treating these criminals as equal and to reduce the harsh nature of the prison itself. This idea accepts that circumstances can lead to criminality, supports “fresh start” and “new beginnings”, believes in the moral high ground of social equity.
Should Life-Sustaining Treatment Be Withdrawn From Patients in a
Permanently Vegetative State (PVS)?: A Philosophical Approach on Life
Life and death; these two concepts have long stood undisputedly perceived to be entirely contrasting
opposites, but the question remains as to whether such a distinction between the two states really exists. Ethical
disputes arise regarding the true status of life that patients in a permanent vegetative state (PVS) possess as a
result of the puzzling nature of the condition and whether life-sustaining treatment (LST) to sustain this possible
‘life’ is a rational option. Such perplexities arise as scientists establish a further understanding of the condition,
acknowledging the normal sleep-wake cycles and preserved autonomic functioning of PVS patients or their
ability to breathe and produce a heartbeat independently, as attributes of a living body (Allen, 2018). Even so,
they continue to highlight the patient’s presumably irreversible lack of awareness and consciousness (Scully,
2014). This may then pose as a point of controversy against PVS patients being classified as alive and thus,
triggering ambiguity in the use of biological death criterion, which legal courts do not view as the sole subject of
concern when pertaining to one’s status of life, valuing “what society accepts as morally right”, hence the need
to explore the general public’s philosophical views on life (Fisher, 1993).
Common religious and philosophical conceptions suggest a distinction between the body and the soul,
independent of each other, as confirmed by the British philologist, Blumenthal, who defines the soul as “an
immaterial entity, with all the attributes that that entails, and it is independent of any body with which it might,
from time to time, be associated” (Blumenthal, 1986). Similar to one legal criterion of death, the higher brain
criterion, this view, that would contend that one’s cognitive capabilities is a result of the processes of their soul,
serves as the origin of much confusion (Wikler, 1988). If this were true, then would a body truly be alive
without the presence of a soul or a sense of person? Legal perspectives have failed to address this issue leading
me to question the validity of the use of the identification of biological processes alone as a means of
Such biological means imply that “the body of the patient in PVS is still alive, and can remain so, but the
patient is not”, as suggested by Wikler in his paper (Wikler, 1988). Although the theory is highly subjective and
does not have a definitive method of measuring a ‘person’s’ death, from this we can draw that the continuation
of the living body, represented by the continuation of vital autonomic functioning in a PVS patient may mask
the death of the ‘person’ themselves or their soul, associated with their psychological processes. One could then
argue that with the absence of the ‘person’ of the patient, there is no further purpose to provide LST.
A large fraction of society may also side with the concept of the sanctity of life, with its pervasiveness
proven as it had been considered by judges in the Bland case (Wicks, 2017). Life, in this vitalist view, is seen as
a supreme good that we must always strive to preserve, regardless of its condition (Quinn, 1988). When
applying this outlook on life in medical ethics, one would side with the view that doctors should not treat
patients with such “killing” acts, standing with Fisher (Fisher, 1993). The act of withdrawing LST may be seen
as a killing act and therefore would be an action that goes against the society’s moral beliefs. It is simply unjust.
However, this concept would then consider every life with any condition equal, possessing the same urgency for
preservation. In situations involving the PVS, McCormick contests the sanctity of life principle, averring that
when life is to be defined as the “continuation of vital processes but in a PVS”, and value as “a good to the
individual concerned”, the statement that all life, including that of a PVS patient, holds equal value is incorrect
and was proved its ubiquity as Fisher expressed a similar view, highlighting that not all life is entitled to equal
respect (McCormick, 1978; Fisher, 1993). Though this utterance may seem highly subjective, it has received
corroboration from a paper by Shepherd, a health law and bioethics expert, from which we can make the implicit
inference that consciousness is directly proportionate to the extent of life that can be experienced and that this
possibility of experiencing life would be the only prospect of any benefit that a patient may have from continued
life (Shepherd, 2006).
If we accept this sanctity of life principle, we would arrive at an obligation to preserve the life of all PVS
patients, ignoring their distinct condition. However, when applying the characteristics of the PVS to the
opposing views, we find that as these patients lack consciousness, they consequently are not capable of
experiencing life, nor will they ever be, resulting in an absence of “experiential interests” (Mitchell, Kerridge, &
Lovat, 1993; Shepherd, 2006). The patient will then receive no benefit from the continuation of their life in a
permanently vegetative state, opposing the need for life sustenance. Yet still, it would be unethical to consider
only these views and assume that the patient would agree to the presence of their consciousness as a sole source
of benefit from life. For example, if a patient sides with the sanctity of life principle, then they would find value
in the existence of the life itself, where then the withdrawal of LST would be considered a violation of patient
autonomy. In light of such contrasting views, I continue to puzzle over the moral dilemmas of this essay which
cannot yet be resolved. Nevertheless, the identification of PVS patients as a living body holding a dead “person”
gives us some confidence in a decision to withdraw LST, but unless further investigation is done regarding the
best interests of the patients and the values they hold, one may never know for sure. Bibliography Allen, J. (2018, 11). NHS Today. Retrieved from NHS: www.nhs.com
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Center Report, Vol. 18, No. 1 , 41-47.Categories: News