The Norfolk and Norwich Christian community website

Punishment, treatment and the hope for change

Norfolk Quaker magistrate and social psychologist John Myhill writes about the concept of punishment ahead of Prisons Week 2009



I wish to argue that punishment is an everyday experience in our society, both as something we do deliberately to others, and as something we feel others are doing to us. 

It is not limited to the criminal justice system, and cannot be removed from that system until it is addressed as a widespread everyday experience. By looking at punishment within medical treatment, and unintended treatment within the justice system; I want to persuade you to look out for it in your daily life, so that together we can eradicate it from our culture.  


Almost any “medical” treatment you can think of: ECT, force feeding, stomach pumps, surgery, OT, even medication: all can and have been used on patients as punishment. I do not think anyone who has worked in the system, would deny that they have seen treatments used as punishments. Hopefully they are not usually used as punishment, but I do not think anyone is going to deny that they have occasionally been used in this way.


But this applies equally to any kind of intervention, where the intention is to change an individual: from penances directed by a priest; to public shaming or enforced reparation; there is always the probability that actions which claim to benefit the focus person may be perceived by them or by those enforcing the action, as punishment.


What then is preferable to punishment? How can people be assisted to behave in such a way that the recipient does not feel punished? How can we motivate those working with people who break laws? Presumably, when treatment is offered in a caring way, where physical pain and side effects are minimised; where the clinicians are confident that any suffering involved is far less than the suffering averted by the treatment; where intervention is undertaken to benefit the patient, not to benefit those whose lives are effected by the patient. I am sure you are aware of the many educational theorists who advocated systems of teaching that did not involve punishment. Some of those systems would probably have been seen as punishment, in my wider definition. The important thing is that children feel that they are being helped, even when they are being restricted. The lax discipline in many schools today is often blamed on teachers feeling they cannot “punish” children.  Perhaps those children will feel, when they are grown up, that they were punished by not being giving firm enough boundaries.


For example: consider “tough love”: a parent refuses to provide further support for an offspring who has become an addict, knowing that their continued support simply puts off the day, when the addict will feel forced to confront their problems and seek to change. Even when the parent finds the separation incredibly painful, the addict may well perceive the action as rejection, as punishment. Or at the opposite extreme, when the parent acts out of anger, wanting their offspring to suffer, as they have been made to suffer by the offspring’s addiction, the offspring may perceive the action as one of loving support. There is no evidence that the perceptions of either party make any difference to the outcome.  “Tough love” works because more addicts recover when they have to cope alone than when those who are too emotionally involved try to support their addiction; and because more parents regain their own lives once they refuse to be used by their addicted offspring.


The problem is that any intervention needs to be part of a holistic approach.

1) There must be the reassurance that the individual will one day be able to belong to a supportive community.  Separation in an institution (or simply away from familiar support) needs to be seen as holiday, retreat, training, and development.

2) The staff involved must be committed to healing.

3) The focus person must have trust in them, and hope for the outcome.

4) The person must be able to respond.  This is most likely to be the case if the focus person agrees to the intervention.

(These principles can be seen in The South African “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” and in “Restorative Justice”.)


Those who seek punishment are avoiding change. Many criminals seek punishment as attention; as recognition of their bad side (the side that leads them to self-harm); or even as an opportunity to stop themselves from actions they recognise as wrong, but feel unable to control.  They may seek “treatment”, because they believe it will result in a shorter or easier punishment (as in “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest”).  But that treatment is unlikely to bring about change, unless they surrender control to the staff, and the staff need to recognise that they have control, and the community needs to recognise that returning members need them to take over that control. Treatment which includes this element of surrender remains so close to punishment, because the “patient” cannot develop their self-respect, cannot grow as a person.  Compliant behaviour remains reluctant, a response to fear rather than decision.

This is particularly true where addiction is involved, as the addict requires huge faith in their ability to change, if they are to overcome the inherited drive to be addicted. Courses that build skills and enable the person to discover hidden talents will be far more successful than treatments which may be mistaken for punishment.


A small number of people break the law but do not believe they are doing anything wrong. (Protestors against war, roads, climate change or animal cruelty.)  Punishment will only persuade them that they are in the right, and medical treatments would have to destroy their entire personality to change their behaviour.  Remember the millions who have died for their religious beliefs, when all they had to do was renounce them. The state faces the same problem when dealing with sociopath/psychopaths as when dealing with politically committed people.  Punishment is not going to change them, but will rather strengthen their resolve. I believe the “pathic” diagnoses are largely a cop out by professionals who regard certain individuals as untreatable. People with different political views (fascists for example), should be treated with respect.  They should be asked about their beliefs, and there should be a real attempt to understand their beliefs and to meet them at a rational, an empathic and an intuitional level.  Remember the centuries in which Catholics and protestants burnt each other at the stake, yet now they live together peacefully in most countries. I believe the same will be true of our relationship to those labelled as BNP or sociopath or animal rights activists in a hundred years time, so let us start the dialogue now.


Punishment after a period of years is usually experienced as injustice, when the person has changed.  They feel as if they are being punished for the actions of someone who lived some years ago. They can remember the offence, but if they have kept out of trouble in between, there is little danger of their reoffending. You cannot treat someone who is already cured, although such treatment may make the patient ill. You cannot change someone who has already changed, although you may push them back into past bad actions.  And those who suffered many years ago revisit the pain which they have survived.  People are willing to admit to past horrors, as they did in South Africa, to obtain closure; but only when punishment is set aside. This also reduces the danger of false accusations, which are so hard to refute many years after the alleged events.


The worst thing for most people who experience incarceration in prison or hospital is the danger posed by the other inmates. The constant fear IS the punishment.  Yet very few would choose the Victorian solitary confinement, as a safer option, because very few people can cope with isolation. For most people this presents the threat of being alone with themselves, of having to cope with their own sense of guilt, punishing themselves and finding they cannot change on their own. Solitary confinement takes the inmates misery of being away from family and friends and multiplies it.


Punishment is not for the victim, as most victims are more forgiving than society (consider the Japanese Prisoners of War, who sought to reduce the punishment inflicted on the guards, who had so badly treated them; or the Americans who had never experienced being bombed who were much keener on reprisal bombing of German cities than were British people who knew what it was like to be exposed to bombing.) What benefits victims is the ability to tell offenders how they have been hurt, and to see that their words have an impact. They need to see signs of reparation and a changed behaviour in the offender, to feel their testimony has made a difference.


People in institutions trust other people less than people without that experience. They are less likely to share their trauma with professionals. Even if they use their time to reflect and change, they will find it hard to maintain those changes when they return to the outside world.


Punishment appeals to the vengeful side in most of us. In court it is quite possible to send someone to prison because you know they will have a chance there to give up their self-destructive drug habit, or to give them “unpaid work” to do, because it may be a step back towards employment. I believe all sentences could be looked at primarily as reformist.   The question then is how to prevent the sentenced person from feeling punished.


Legal punishment is intended to prevent outraged citizens from vendetta vengeance. The law came into existence in order to prevent feuds and civil war, by taking the side of one party (labelled innocent) against the other (labelled guilty). (Even before there is a legal system, people have cultural assumptions about who will be responsible for taking revenge.  This was laid down by the Nuer, when Evans Pritchard studied them, and was the reason why Hammurabi set up his code thousands of years BC.  The most recent example in western society would be the suppression of duelling, which was still common amongst the wealthy in the early nineteenth century, despite laws making it illegal). Usually this benefits those with wealth and property, because they are the ones whose taxes pay for the legal system. In everyday life we often believe we are behaving objectively, justly; when in fact we are dealing with our own psychological problems. At their best the clinician and judge hand out punishment with cold detachment. Even then, the punishment encourages, social exclusion and thus promotes further crime. Instead we need to heal society by interventions to reintegrate the marginalised.

The biggest and worse crimes are committed by those with power in society, whether that means MPs fiddling their expenses, or Bankers giving themselves bonuses from the public purse.  But very little “crime” seen in our courts is committed by anyone who is not already marginalised. (The exceptions would probably be traffic crime, financial fraud and sexual crime, which all ignore social position.)


I hope I have said enough to blur the distinction usually made between “punishment” and “treatment”.  It is clearly “treatment” if the person is diverted from castration to a sex offenders’ treatment programme. I cannot see that castration could ever be seen as treatment, as it is too painful physically and psychologically. But I know many prisoners who would find being birched, a much less punishing experience than serving six months in prison, and some would even prefer that to having to sit through a trial (social indignity is much worse for many people than physical pain. Perhaps mental health and criminal justice should be administered as a single system in which neither treatment nor punishment was permitted. There could be opportunities for change (joining AA or some other therapy and committing yourself to change) and there could be “apologetic containment” for those who were not willing to change, but whom society felt were too dangerous to themselves or others to be allowed out. The system would not have to change that much as the mental health system is as much dependent upon judicial decisions as the prison system. But probation officers and psychiatric professionals would have to work more closely together. Concepts of punishment (which I see as the same as uninformed consent to treatment, or consent to treatment which does not involve commitment to cure) would have to go.  Professionals have had to let go of ideas which are now labelled “sexist” or “racist”. Those ideological shifts are huge if you look at the history of mental health. The change I am suggesting is modest in comparison.



Prisons Week 2009 runs from 15-21 November. The Christian community, through individuals and churches, are encouraged to pray for the needs of prisoners, their families, victims of crime and the many people who are involved in caring for prisoners.

The challenge of Prisons Week 2009 is to “hold fast to hope” – a hope that is not just a fanciful optimism but one that is rooted in the Christian hope that the divine spark is in all people, that no-one is beyond redemption and that change does and can take place.

Click here to visit the Prisons Week website



The views carried here are those of the author, not of Network Norwich and Norfolk, and are intended to stimulate constructive debate between website users. We welcome your thoughts and comments, posted below, upon the ideas expressed here.


., 11/11/2009

To submit a story or to publicise an event please email: web@networknorwich.co.uk