Behind Bars: Best Solution or Better Compassion?

Criminals choose to commit crimes, and hence deserve to be decently punished and put behind bars. Good riddance and problem solved. I beg to differ.


When fate strikes and takes what we love most, we despair. When the fate that lashes out has a face that can be hated, we may want to seek out this threat and execute great vengeance upon the malefactor with furious rebukes. When the blood of hatred that was stirred cools down, we, at the very least, demand justice. However, is unleashing hell upon the guilty truly the cure to the disease?


Both as a father and a son, I experience how hard it is to change the course of the torrents of emotions and behaviors, set in motion by past conditions.

I understand it as a psychologist, I understand it as an armchair philosopher, and I understand it as a reader of Shakespeare’s tragedies. If my children ever fall prey to an irrevocable enmity toward me, and oppose me, should I just throw them into Dante’s Inferno and let them know that I am their father, when I lay my vengeance upon them?


The call for punishment of crimes has echoed through history from ancient times until the present. After experimenting with various forms, most societies finally settled on imprisonment. In a Harvard discussion series on Athenian Law (2020), it is argued that, “Modern citizens are notoriously fixated on imprisonment as the central penalty and just as notoriously unable to reach consensus on whether retribution, deterrence, or reform should be the central principle of punishment.”


Imprisonment is now the ubiquitous promise that silences the anguished screams of victims. If we look at the situation in the U.S., according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (2020), though in decline, the number of prisoners was still 1,465,200 in 2018, in any case still a “notorious” number. In fact, how effective is robbing a million souls of their dreams, designs and dignity? Not so much, as it turns out: prisons do not make us safer (Harding, 2020); prisons do not work as well as alternatives might (Bartle, 2020); and prisons do not prevent violent crime (“Why Alternatives to Imprisonment are Needed to Prevent Violent Crime in America”, 2020).


And when the judges of mankind reserve the unjust unto the day of judgment to be punished, do they truly understand what caused the unjust to act the way they did in the first place? The single most important foundation for the justification of punishment would be the pillar of free will. However, as has been demonstrated (Jones, 2003), discoveries in the field of genetics have made experts question this. And an even stronger case could be made that the treatment of people with undiagnosed and untreated mental illness would be more humane and cost-effective than imprisonment (APA, 2020). Moreover, Stefanakis (2008) asserts that compassionate responses could be more effective and peace-inspiring than the punitive framework.


As many of our fellow beings seem already imprisoned in a mental hell, why not show some understanding, compassion and forgiveness? Or to put it in the words of the poet George William Russell (1913): My soul was black as night to me; To her I was a wounded thing. Are hearts not more important than bars?


© 2020 Marcel van Delft



Bartle, J. (2020). We know that prison doesn’t work. So what are the alternatives? | Jarryd Bartle.


Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) – Prisoners in 2018. (2020). Retrieved 23 May 2020, from


Discussion Series: Athenian Law Lectures. (2020). Retrieved 23 May 2020, from


Harding, D. (2020). Do Prisons Make Us Safer?. Retrieved 23 May 2020, from


Jones, M. (2003). Overcoming the myth of free will in criminal law: the true impact of the genetic revolution..


Retrieved 23 May 2020, from

Russell, G. (1913). Forgiveness.

Retrieved 23 May 2020, from


Stefanakis, H. (2008). Caring and Compassion When Working With Offenders of Crime and Violence. Violence And Victims, 23(5), 652-661. doi: 10.1891/0886-6708.23.5.652

Why Alternatives to Imprisonment are Needed to Prevent Violent Crime in America. (2020). Retrieved 23 May 2020, from

Image: Collection gallery (2018-03-23): CC-BY-4.0, CC BY 4.0,