Turn the clock back just over 200 years. You are at sea in a King’s ship, a man of war. The rascal Bonaparte and his ragged armies run rampant over continental Europe, and his rebuilt navy threatens to break out of blockade at any moment. You, however, beyond cherishing a vague disdain for Frenchmen and Papists, do not care. Why? Because you are, at this moment, very drunk, stewing in a pleasant half stupor in your hammock below-decks.
Suddenly a call rings out from the deck above, “Beat to quarters!” The drums take up the familiar rhythm, and you are rousted out of your alcohol-induced reverie to man a gun, to which place you half-run, half-stumble as quickly as you can.
From your open gun port you can just make out another ship, flying French colors. As you stand ready, the tension rises: men shift nervously about their places; ship’s boys wait apprehensively in the wings with spare charges. The visible portion of the enemy ship draws nearer, slips out of view as you tack, and reappears several minutes later, much closer. You can see the muzzles of the enemy’s guns just nosing out into the open ports.
Then, the enemy erupts in a cloud of white smoke, a colossal bang, and you hear, just over the din, the hoarsely shouted order to fire. The match is lowered, a deafening thunder and the acrid tang of black powder smoke fill the gun deck. The gun is swabbed, charged, reloaded, and you heave on the tackles to bring it back into firing position. Thunder. Heave. Thunder. Heave. It goes on for an indeterminate eternity. Your half-pickled stomach roils mutinously. Your back and thighs begin to burn. And then it is over.
The enemy has struck, you have taken a fine prize, the captain has enriched himself and the admiral considerably, and even you, ex-convict and professional drunkard, will take a small share of the gold. To be squandered on alcohol and venereal disease upon reaching port.
Or so you think.
But three weeks later, upon reaching the shores of Jolly-Old-England again, you are informed that the captain recommends you take only a portion of your money on shore, and leave the rest with him, to be meted out when you are released from the service, upon which time, if you have taken sufficient prizes, you may be able to open up a tavern of your own, or buy a reasonable apprenticeship for one of your children. You resist, but the boatswain is physically persuasive, and eventually you accept his proposal and a bloody nose.
This is rehab, nineteenth-century style.
The conclusion of the tale is a bit of apocrypha, extant although not ubiquitous in naval mythology, and not entirely implausible. I have not been able to verify it, but true or not, I submit that it offers an interesting template for rehabilitation in our current prison system.
First, let’s examine some similarities.
Convicts: Prisons have them. So did the Royal Navy.
Antisocial behavior: Definitely shared.
Circumstances not favoring a smooth reentry into public life: Check and check.
Hopefully this should be enough to advance the position that both the Royal Navy and our modern prison system share enough that we may (if we are careful) consider the import of practices from one into the other. However, there is one other critical similarity I would like to offer: almost complete arrogation of the rights of the individual to the system of detention. In both cases, the individual is subject to near-total control by the governing authority, be it the captain of the ship or the warden of the prison, and it is upon this critical similarity that, it seems to me, this bit of mythology rests.
The captain, having more or less usurped the sailor’s right to self-direction, takes on, in our** eyes at least, a great deal of responsibility for the sailor’s well-being. We want to see that captain as a “good captain,” not as a some heartless tyrant, throwing lives away for personal gain. Thus in our ideal world, once we have accepted that the captain has absolute authority, we desire him to see into the sailor’s future, and not to turn him ashore with a sum of gold that, in said sailor’s hands, practically signs his death warrant. Instead we want the captain to extend the bounds of his tyranny even beyond that extent accorded to him by law, and take responsibility for the sailor’s re-entry into society.
I would like to emphasize the apparent paradox here. We, who claim to love liberty, once having accepted limited tyranny, (the captain’s absolute authority on board) feel ethically obliged to extend it, authorizing a further breach of the sailor’s right to do as he pleases once on shore. Why? Because we instinctively impose upon the captain a long-term liability for the future well-being of the sailor whose fate has been, even if only briefly, placed under his sole control.
Out of this instinct (to extend both the authority and responsibility of absolute power) comes our dissatisfaction with the prison system today. Once having placed the lives of prisoners in the hands of the warden, it is difficult for us not to find fault with him if he then throws them to the wind when their term is up.
It creates a frustrating moral hazard (or seems to): How can we justify further imposing restrictions upon the rights of a man whose rights have been so long circumscribed? How can we justify the extension of the warden’s absolute control in a society that trumpets the slogan, “Liberty or Death!” in its history books? And yet how can we let the convict carelessly out into the world knowing his chances of true reintegration are minuscule?
The answer is simpler than it might seem. The moral hazard is a false one. We are crossing no lines that have not already been crossed. Once we first agree to utterly breach the independence and freedom of the prisoner (which we have always done), then deciding the term of that breach falls on our heads. We must put ourselves in the place of the captain, and feel our responsibilities. We cannot shrink away from our duties as gaolers on the grounds that we feel qualms about restricting liberty. We have already restricted it, and knowingly releasing a prisoner into circumstances that augur only failure (or death) is not a breach of his rights, it is a dereliction of our duty.
**I use the first person plural liberally here, but I do not mean to include anyone who wishes to be be excluded. I recognize that the instincts and qualms I cite as pertaining to the "we" are by no means universal, but I persist in employing the pronoun in the hope and belief that some significant fraction of the population shares my sentiments.