Home > General Politics > Can age absolve someone?

Can age absolve someone?

Brooks, in the film Shawshank Redemption, is a character that asks of the viewer a few very key questions: can a person become institutionalised in prison? Can there ever be a point where prison is simply revenge, not rehabilitation?

These questions, relating to prison, are age-old, but the way they are presented in Shawshank proves interesting. In a soliloquy that ends with images of his eventual suicide, we learn that Brooks, after being in prison for tens of years, now finds the changes to the outside world too fast. He can’t go on any longer.

Consider the last lines he writes in his suicide note:

I have trouble sleeping at night. I have — bad dreams, like I’m falling. I wake up scared. Sometimes it takes me a while to remember where I am. Maybe I should get me a gun and rob the Food-Way, so they’d send me home … I guess I’m too old for that sort of nonsense anymore. I don’t like it here. I’m tired of being afraid all the time. I’ve decided not to stay. I doubt they’ll kick up any fuss. Not for an old crook like me.

Brooks, it is clear in the film, killed somebody, or a few people, in his early life, and has now grown old, remorseful, but basically attached to prison life. Though as this scene plays out, and his suicide apparent, the viewer (if anything like me) is reduced to a state of uncontrollable crying.

We feel sorry for the old man who did a terrible, terrible thing when he was younger, for which we feel he has paid with his own life.

But that’s fictional, right.

Today I read that Charles Manson, the notorious killer who murdered innocent lives on the grounds that the US (or the world?) was entering into an apocalyptic race war, for which we should be preparing, has lost his bid for parole.

The next time he will be allowed to try is in 15 years time when he will be 92.

One of the reasons, the Guardian reported, that influenced the board on their decision was a recent testimony Manson gave to a prison psychologist, where he said “‘I’m special. I’m not like the average inmate. I have spent my life in prison. I have put five people in the grave. I am a very dangerous man.'”

I give the board more credit than the Guardian have. They probably didn’t take Manson at his word here. But then the board officially said they “ruled he had shown no efforts to rehabilitate himself.”

Questions we, as moral philosophers, must raise, is whether Manson has changed. We are not privy to the same amount of information as his psychologist, but one would imagine he is a changed person.

Is he a dangerous person? He says so, but that could be self-fulfilling prophecy. I think the more telling part of his admission is where he says “I have spent my life in prison”. This reminded me of another part of the film mentioned before, where Red is up for parole, again, where he changes tack and admits he doesn’t give a damn what the ruling is – for which performance he is eventually freed.

There is no way I can conclude this post properly as there is a bit missing from the information we have – namely, in what way do the board think Manson has not rehabilitated himself? Is he likely to kill again if freed? I think it is more likely the case that there are some crimes considered so bad that no matter what happens 10, 15, 30, 60 years down the line, there can never be a chance for leaving prison. Manson has probably committed that.

But then in that case what is parole there for? Is it possible that further imprisonment for Manson is revenge not rehabilitation?

Myself, I’m going to risk an answer here. I think Manson, like old Nazi war criminals, about whom the argument circulates as to whether we should still be capturing and arresting them if they are still alive, have committed crimes so extraordinarily bad that they ought to be shown no remorse.

I therefore, here, risk the charge that I seek revenge rather than rehabilitation. There is no easy answer to this. But what I will say is that for some crimes, there can be no rehabilitation. Some crimes are so evil, so noxious, that nothing can be done to do right after it.

It is rather absolutist, but regardless of their age, I’m afraid they will have to take responsibility like this for their younger selves, as there is nobody else that can do it for them.

Can age absolve someone? That depends. But it can’t absolve Manson.

Categories: General Politics
  1. April 12, 2012 at 5:40 pm

    Why is what the board ruled not self-explanatory? If rehabilitation is the attempt to bring a person into a more socially acceptable state of mind, it’s enough that the board thinks this is not true of Manson, as his own words seem to demonstrate. He made no effort to surrender his views. That’s what they don’t like.

    Compared to other criminals murderers have lower recidivism rates in the US, and his advanced age seems to suggest that further crimes are unlikely. But that’s not the same thing as impossible, and keeping dangerous people away from the populace is the cornerstone of the US prison system.

    It doesn’t have to be anything to do with revenge.

    • April 12, 2012 at 5:49 pm

      I cannot say for sure, for reasons I addressed, but the vagueness of the board leaves me wondering. Why do think he’s not rehabilitated himself? Is this really down to the fact that the board believes, actually, that there can be no grounds for rehabilitation. The reason I don’t find it self-explanatory is because of this question that’s left hanging.

  2. Chas Berry
    April 12, 2012 at 9:55 pm

    Your question goes right to the heart of what the purpose of punishment, and in particular, prison is. The oldest, some might say biblical, tradition is the moral one of retribution – “an eye for an eye”. In this case Manson or any other offender committing crimes of similar magnitude must pay with their own life and there can be no forgiveness (except by God?). If, like me, you think that punishment should be consequentialist the Parole Board must decide whether they think he is likely to commit further crimes – ie is he still dangerous? The problem here is that some crimes so disgust public sensibility they seem to go beyond the pale and decisions about release are based on what the public will accept. This was brought prominantly to the fore during the debate over the release of Myra Hindley but it applies to other so called notorious offenders such as the killers of James Bulger. The sensationalist media does not help the situation by demonising killers in order to boost circulation. Arguably, a publicly owned and funded media, allowing access to all representative groups including victims families, sentencers, criminal justice staff, psycholists and offenders could be a forum for rational debate about appropriate sentencing. We won’t get this under capitalism, however.

  3. April 13, 2012 at 2:33 pm

    The problem with the view that some murders are so bad that no mercy should be shown is that it implies that when we grant parole to a murderer we are saying that their crime was not so bad. Yet you cried over Brooks without even knowing what his crime had been.

    Suppose we can satisfy ourselves that after some long period of imprisonment it’s sufficiently safe to release a particular murderer. Then we should ask ourselves whether the person we now have imprisoned is sufficiently like the person who did the crime to justify continuing to punish them for it. We all change continuously, but the evidence seems to be that the Manson now imprisoned is in important respects similar to Manson the murderer. Whereas the fictional Brooks was fundamentally different from what he had been.

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