Hugh Ellis

One of my favorite series to binge-watch is ‘The First 48’. It follows teams of crack detectives during the apparently critical first 48 hours after a murder is reported.

The cameras have access – obviously carefully controlled – to crime scene examinations, meetings with witnesses, interrogation of suspects. Sometimes the culprits slip away, but more often than not the detectives turn up something, the murderer makes a mistake, a clue is discovered, and an arrest is made.

Then, at least so we are led to believe, the murderer is put on trial, convicted and sent to prison. The subtext – albeit an unspoken one – is that society is safer now, because the murderer will either be so chastised by being jailed that he or she will emerge a reformed person – or will never see the sun again. Meanwhile, the harsh punishment of the murderer will convince others not to commit similar crimes.

Perversely, I think many of us, myself included feel safer having watched police reality shows and detective dramas, despite the gruesome acts they depict, because the murderer usually gets punished in the end.

The reality is different.

Much research, around the world has shown that criminals given long jail sentences do not often come out as reformed characters.

In fact, the reverse is usually true, as they are increasingly cut off from their civilian contacts – visits become fewer, friends disappear and lovers move on to greener pastures – and are instead taken up by new, criminal networks with the prison system. To say nothing of the assaults and rapes that sometimes take place in jail.

Most states in the US have legislated ever-harsher prison sentences in the last two or three decades, in response to drug-abuse epidemics and increasing violent crime. Some have even reintroduced the death sentence. But for from deterring violent acts, these punitive states have seen crime rates continue to go up.

Many people scoffed in derision in South Africa when Oscar Pistorius’s lawyers asked for him to be sentenced to ‘corrective supervision’ – essentially being under house arrest, being monitored out of prison by officials, therapy and psychological evaluation, performing community service and so on.

Obviously in a country where murdered regular spend the rest of their lives behind bars, Oscar’s suggestion that he get off with less simply because – basically – he had the economic privilege to afford the best lawyers, was ridiculous and offensive.

And yet – if applied more broadly – maybe the good Advocate Barry Roux was on to something. Maybe giving people the help they need to be psychologically better does more good when it comes to not re-offending, than locking them up in a miserable place for a few years to satisfy our need for revenge?

Maybe ‘prison’, if it’s anything at all, should be where you work directly or indirectly for organizations empowering the people you offended? Or maybe it should be a farm, where the ‘inmates’ focus on the desperately needed work of feeding the nation, and get in touch with the healing power of nature while doing so?

Maybe teaching women-abusers about human rights, feminism and what it stands for, about ways to non-violently resolve conflicts, would do better than locking them up for a few years, only to have them come back and abuse more women, often in the same communities they were taken out of five or 10 or 15 years before?

I’ve been involved with the movement against gender-based violence for over a decade and a half, but it worries me when I hear some (by no means all) of my follow activists call for longer prison sentences for rapists and domestic abusers.

I understand the anger, but I also know that problems can’t be solved with the same level of thinking that helped create them in the first place, in this case the thinking of a punitive society that uses (male) violence as its only tool to solve problems.

As for me, I will continue to enjoy ‘The First 48’. It’s A-grade television. I will continue to admire the courage and skill of the detectives shown, while reminding myself that those who fake evidence and casually abuse facial minorities have no doubt been excluded from the show. I will continue to feel a degree of satisfaction when a murderer is arrested, even knowing that for all involved, it’s not actually the end. And I’ll also try to remember that life is not a Cop Show.

Dr Hugh Ellis is a Namibian citizen and Senior Lecturer in the Department of Communication at the Namibia University of Science and Technology. The views expressed here are personal views. Follow Hugh’s blog at http://ellishugh.wordpress.com