Published — Friday 18 January 2013
Last update 18 January 2013 1:19 am
Prison is for punishment. Criminals who are sentenced to jail are sent there for two good reasons. Their liberty is taken away from them, so that they can pay for their crimes. They are also locked up for the protection of society.
In the case of thieves, who would rather steal than earn an honest living, along with men given to violence, this is particularly true.
For them crime is a way of life and prison sentences are a price they appear prepared to pay in order to pursue their sad and depraved way of life. Thus it is in the interests of the general public that these individuals should be incarcerated.
However prison is not simply about punishment and keeping thugs and thieves off the streets. It is also about reformation. In any country, among the prison population, there is a proportion, admittedly maybe only a minority that deeply regrets the misdeeds that have caused them to be locked up. These convicts have vowed that as soon as they have served their time, they will pursue good and useful lives and never get in trouble with the law again.
Naturally, the chances of reformation are greatest with young offenders. Some of course will merely be apprentice criminals, who have already dedicated themselves to a life of crime. However, there will be others who have been led astray by older people or committed offenses such as vandalism or anti-social behavior, out of sheer stupidity and lack of forethought, for whom imprisonment constitutes a sharp shock, which will convince them to mend their ways.
The best prison systems make a point of encouraging such young offenders to recognize the foolishness of what they have done and offer them a renewed purpose in life, by giving them training and education during their sentences.
This hardly seems to have been what has been happening at the Jazan Juvenile Center where it was revealed this week that the young people are being held in the most shameful conditions. Decrepit buildings with filthy bathrooms, wrecked windows and broken air-conditioning are bad enough. But the facility has become so overcrowded that there are not enough beds to go around. Thus young prisoners, not wanting to sleep on the filthy floors, are compelled to wait until there is a spare bed, before they can grab some sleep.
The Human Rights Society has very properly become involved, after appeals from Jazan inmates. The prison management has protested that disgusting conditions at the jail are not their fault and that a new modern prison is almost ready. This unfortunately will not wash.
The authorities have to accept responsibility, both for the over-crowding and also for the unacceptable state into which the prison has been allowed to degenerate. If anyone imagined that since these young people are convicted criminals, they deserved these inhumane conditions, as part of their punishment, then they are seriously wrong.
Undesirables though most of the prison population may be, a civilized society must treat its convicts in a civilized manner. This is what sets us apart from them. The common criminal does not respect private property or the rights of others. For him, what he wants he will steal, what he cannot resolve to his satisfaction, he will conclude with violence. This conduct displays a total disregard for the values of decent people. Crimes are perpetrated in a moral vacuum. There is no recognition of the rights of anybody else. What the criminal wants to do, is in his eyes, justified, merely because it is what he wants.
Law, morality and common regard for others are entirely lacking.
This does not however mean that in punishing wrongdoers, society should behave with the same lack of consideration and conscience. The reprehensible conditions at the Jazan Juvenile Center should be seen for what they are, an utter scandal. An investigation needs to be mounted to see how this sorry state of affairs came about. It is not so much a case of heads needing to roll, but rather of coming to understand how this prison came to be in such an awful state.
Thereafter, a determined effort must be made to ensure that a situation like this will never arise again. Then of course, there is the alarming possibility that there may be other prisons in the Kingdom, where similar overcrowding and terrible conditions prevail.
Prisons by their very nature are not easily seen. However, out of sight, should not mean out of mind. Simply because the convicts within them care nothing for the rights of decent citizens, does not mean that decent citizens should care nothing for the prisoners’ rights.