Back to table of contents

Chapter 2. The Shield of Words

The seriousness of the core phenomena within penal law is easily forgotten.

If an employee in a funeral bureau allowed himself to become involved with all the sorrow he encountered, if he took it on and in himself, he would soon have to change his occupation. The same is probably the case for those among us who work in, or are closely connected with, the penal law system. The questions confronting us are difficult to live with. We survive by turning the work into routine, by engaging in only small bits of the totality at a time, and by distancing ourselves from the client, particularly from the client's experience of her or his own situation.

Words are a good means of disguising the character of our activities. Funeral agencies have a vocabulary perfectly suited to survival. The deceased has "gone to rest" or to "sleep", the sufferings have ceased, the body is made beautiful again, and in the USA, the farewell party is arranged by professionals in a funeral home.

We do the same thing within the crime-control system and its surroundings. How characteristic, is it not, that I have already in this chapter used the word "client" twice instead of, as a minimum, "the person to be punished". "Client" is a convenient term, in olden times meaning "dependent", often used for a person to whom we offer service or help. Inside prisons, at least in my part of the world, he is called "inmate", not "prisoner". His room in the prison is called just that: "room", not "cell". If he misbehaves, he might be offered "single-room-treatment". In practice this might mean days of isolation in a cell stripped of furniture. Most of the personnel within prisons in my country are called "betjent", which means one who serves. They are not called "guards". We are, however, rather moderate in the use of euphemisms at the top level of the Norwegian prison system. We call prison-directors what they are: "prison-directors"; we likewise call the highest administrative body the "prisonboard". In Sweden they call the top level "Kriminalvärdstyrelsen". "Vård" gives associations of caretaking. The Danish director for the whole system is called the director for the crime-"forsorg", which is the word we use for those in need of care: the sick, the old, the very poor, the small children who have nobody else to come to. General use of the word "forsorg" was abandoned when social security was introduced and to a large extent medicalized. So, now the term has become available for new purposes, such as a title for the director of the system in charge of delivering penal sanctions.

What sort of words ought we to opt for?

There are certainly many kind thoughts behind the kind words. Prisoners might feel better were they not constantly reminded of their status by being called "prisoners", placed in "cells", transferred to "special punishments cells", watched by "guards", and directed by "prison directors". Maybe they would feel less stigmatized. Maybe they would receive more service and help if the system were called "forsorg" instead of "prison". Maybe kind words create a kind world. What makes me wonder whether there is not more to it than mere kindness is the easy acceptance of these kind words among those in authority. It is not those in sorrow who put a ban on expressing grief. It is society, assisted by the funeral directors. As Geoffrey Gorer (1965) has pointed out: In our types of societies there exists a strong taboo against expressing severe sorrow and grief. Suffering is to be expressed in a controlled form, and not for long. This is supposed to be best for those closest to death and misery. Certainly it is good for those not so close.

Through language and ceremony, grief has vanished from public life. But so have also the pains of punishment. When we used flogging, cutting off parts of the body, or killing as punishment, the suffering was more obvious (except for the wicked group who tricked the authorities into executing them and were thereby spared the most sinful act of committing suicide). Heavy chains symbolized the degradation. It was a clear-cut picture of sorrow and misery. Today, some prisons look like modern motels, other like boarding-schools. Decent food, work or education, males and females in the same unit in sinful Denmark, conjugal visits in Sweden, it all looks like a vacation at the tax-payers' expense.

In line with this, the phenomenon of pain and suffering has close to evaporated, even in text-books on penal law. Most texts make it clear that punishment is an evil intended as an evil. But beyond this, modern texts do not go much further. Compared to the enormous wealth of detail and subtle distinctions usually offered in these text-books, there exists a remarkable reservation among recent authors when it comes to a description of the core phenomena, the penalties. How the punishments hurt, how it feels, the suffering and the sorrow, these are elements most often completely lacking in the texts. And they are not lacking just by oversight, as one discovers if one challenges penal law writers on their sterile coverage of the core phenomena of their trade and suggests that they ought to become a bit more concrete in their writing. The word penal is closely related to pain. This is more obvious in the language tradition of English and French than in the German/Scandinavian one, where we talk about "Strafferett" or "Straf-recht", that is "punishment law". But in both language traditions considerable turmoil is created if it is suggested that the basic law should be called a "pain-law". I have done it, so I know. The penal law professors do most definitely not like to be designated pain-law" professors. The judges do not like to sentence people to pain. Their preference is to sentence them to various "measures". The receiving institutions do not like to be regarded or to regard themselves, as "pain-inflicting" institutions. Still, such a terminology would actually present a very precise message: punishment as administered by the penal law system is the conscious inflicting of pain. Those who are punished are supposed to suffer. If they by and large enjoyed it, we would change the method. It is intended within penal institutions that those at the receiving end shall get something that makes them unhappy, something that hurts.

Crime control has become a clean, hygienic operation. Pain and suffering have vanished from the text-books and from the applied labels. But of course not from the experience of those punished. The targets for penal action are just as they used to be: scared, ashamed, unhappy. Sometimes hidden behind a rough facade, but one which is easily penetrated, as exemplified in many studies. Martha Baum shows in detail how "little old men" become very little when confronted with the fact that they were not to go home to mother (in Wheeler 1968). Cohen and Taylor (1972) describe techniques for "psychological survival". Such techniques are not necessary if suffering does not exist. The whole book is one single sad tale of the successes of those who intended to create suffering in other people. So is also Sykes' (1958) description of what he rightly calls "the pains of imprisonment". And that is what is conveyed in the prisoners' own words. A man just out of one of Castro's prisons describes his destiny in an interview with Inger Holt-Seeland in the Danish newspaper Information (11 December 1979). He measures time through changes in those visiting him:

I will make an attempt to give you a sort of film version of how time is passing for the prisoner. Try to imagine the first year, when the visits were coloured by the children. They came, running ahead, followed by some young, beautiful women . . . they moved fast . . . behind them, more slowly, came parents, siblings, parents-in-law, loaded with heavy bags. Some years later, things have changed. Now some young people come first - they are not children any more, they are youngsters, 12, 13 and 14 years, then follow what now are middle-aged women in their thirties, with different movements, with different expressions on their faces . . . and those who were 40 or 50 are now 60 or . . ., they now come far behind, slowly ... and just as the character of the visit changes so do their clothes, people are wearing darker clothes, use fewer gestures, the high voices are gone, the jokes are gone, the anecdotes and the stories are gone, only the essentials are talked about. The visit becomes sadder, fewer words are spoken, joy has left . . . And as for the prisoners, their heads have become white, their faces wrinkled, their teeth are going . . .

This man spent 18 years behind the walls. So, in Scandinavia we have an easy way out. We can tell ourselves that "this does not happen here", "not that long", "not long at all, for the great majority". Which is all correct. But only up to a point.

If we take the trouble to penetrate the facades of Scandinavian design, we meet these supposed vacationers who happen to be as miserable in the few cases of modern Scandinavian design, as they were reported to be in the old Philadelphia-type prisons. How could it be otherwise? Prisoners share most of ordinary peoples' values. They are placed before the judge and inside walls as a consequence of acts they are supposed to be ashamed of. If they are not ashamed of the acts, they are at least ashamed of being in the situation. And if not ashamed, at least filled with sadness by the simple fact that life is passing by without their participation.

While writing this, a characteristic illustration of what penal law professors do not cover in their texts arrived in my mail. The journal Nordisk medisin (1980) devotes most of its March issue to the question of pain. The whole front cover is a picture of a face in agony, and the content is devoted to the relief of pain. The editorial (Lindblom 1980, p. 75) says:

To stimulate and coordinate research on pain, and to improve teaching on the results of this research, a new interdisciplinary organization has been created. It has been named International Association for the Study of Pain.

As the result of US-experience, new ways of handling severe cases of pain have been attempted, particularly chronic conditions where treatment for the cause of pain is not possible. Interdisciplinary treatment of pain in the form of pain-clinics of the type that exist in USA, England and certain other European countries has however still not come into being in Scandinavia . . .

The research is interdisciplinary. One wonders what would happen if penal experts were included. Would they then compare notes, and try to construct all the other parties' negations? Penologists might thereby learn more efficient ways of creating pain, doctors more efficient ways to prevent it.

But of course, penologists in our cultures would not opt for membership in the Interdisciplinary Association for the Study of Pain. They would become provoked and angry even by the mere suggestion. Attendance would make clear what is now blurred. There might be only small problems in delivering pain in societies where pain is the explicit destiny for most people: pain on Earth, pain in Hell. (Even though the ambiguous status of the hangman indicated that the problems back in time were not insignificant.) But that society is not ours. We have abolished Hell, and have pain-reduction on earth as one of the major goals. In such a society it is difficult to let people suffer intentionally.

Still we do it. We inflict intended pain. But we do not like it. Our choice of neutralizing words deceives us; the law professors' bleak description of the qualities of the intended sufferings indicates the same. We do not like the activity because intentionally causing pain is in grave dissonance with other basic activities in our society.

In this book I often apply the words "pain delivery". But I have had to make a considerable effort to preserve that formulation from extinction. My kind and highly qualified adviser in the subtleties of the English language has insisted that the term does not exist. Pain delivery, it sounds like milk delivery. Dreadful. My point has been the opposite: It sounds like milk delivery. Perfect. This captures exactly what I want to convey. If pain delivery is not a concept in Oxford English, it ought to become one. Pain delivery is the concept for what in our time has developed into a calm, efficient, hygienic operation. Seen from the perspective of those delivering the service, it is not first and foremost drama, tragedy, intense sufferings. Infliction of pain is in dissonance with some major ideals, but can be carried out in an innocent, somnambulistic insulation from the value conflict. The pains of punishments are left to the receivers. Through the choice of words, working routines, division of labour and repetition, the whole thing has become the delivery of a commodity.

Back to table of contents