Socialism is the Best Medicine

Socialism is the Best Medicine

The Crime of Punishment

August 1, 1997


Book Review: James Gilligan (1996) Violence: Our Deadly Epidemic and its Causes. New York: Grosset/Putnam.

Dr. James Gilligan worked with violent men for 25 years as director of the Bridgewater State Hospital for the criminally insane and director of ‘mental health’ for the Massachusetts prison system. What he learned from this experience runs completely opposite to what is commonly assumed about crime and violence.

The mainstream media portray most crime as violent, most violence as illegal, most perpetrators as male, and most victims as female. The common assumption is that violence will diminish if more criminals are imprisoned or executed. Gilligan skillfully demolishes each of these myths using a wealth of research, case examples, and his own extensive experience.

The author points out that property crimes such as theft and breaking and entering are far more common than violent crimes. And most violence is not illegal. Many more violent deaths are caused by suicide than by murder. Even more are caused by hazardous working conditions, substandard housing, and violent sports. War causes mass death. On its own, poverty causes far more deaths than all previously mentioned categories combined. Men die violent deaths from two to five times more often than women, and both sexes kill men more often than they kill women.

Prisons breed violence

Gilligan insists that the United States has the highest rate of criminal violence of any developed nation because it has the highest per-capita imprisonment rate. Every year, tens of billions of dollars are diverted from social programs that prevent violence and spent on the penal system instead. American prisons breed violence because they are inhumane and degrading, with severe overcrowding, frequent rapes and beatings, and prolonged and arbitrary use of solitary confinement.

Governments promote violence when they use violence to address social problems. For example, capital punishment

“gives legitimacy to the notion that killing people is the preferred solution to problems of interpersonal conflict, teaching moral lessons, disciplining rule breakers, taking revenge, and punishing (indeed eliminating) those whom one does not like.”

Gilligan shows that the aims and means that underlie violent crime are the same as those that underlie punishment. Both aim to attain justice or revenge for past injuries and injustices and both use violent means to achieve these ends. The only distinction is that crime is illegal violence, while punishment is legal violence. This is why punishing violent behavior only produces more violence.

Victims of violence

Gilligan insists that violence can only be prevented if we address its underlying social causes. Using powerful case examples, he shows that most people who commit violent crimes feel powerless, unimportant, and full of rage that they cannot express in any other way. They display no guilt or remorse, not because they don’t know right from wrong, but because they feel dead inside. Their souls have been “murdered” by the most violent and cruel child abuse.

The reader is introduced to men who as children were shot, axed, scalded, beaten, strangled, tortured, drugged, starved, suffocated, set on fire, thrown out of windows, and raped or prostituted by their parents. Gilligan argues that the brain damage and various forms of epilepsy frequently found in these violent criminals are not the cause of their violence but the result of head injuries that are caused by the kind of severe child abuse which he believes lies at the root of their violent behavior.

The most violent men in prison also mutilate themselves for the same reasons they attack others. They cut themselves, swallow harmful objects, tear out their toenails, blind themselves, and even castrate themselves because feeling physical pain is preferable to feeling nothing. The suicide rate for men who have just committed a murder is several hundred times greater than it is among comparable men who have not murdered. That is why the threat of punishment or death is no deterrent.

Prison makes these men more dangerous by systematically humiliating them. The more violent prisoners are, the more harshly they are punished, and the more harshly they are punished, the more violent they become in self-defense. The less empathy that is shown to them, the less they have for others, and the more they are filled with hatred and feelings of revenge.

Inside, these men feel deeply ashamed of being needy, helpless, frightened, and inadequate, and they are often illiterate. When the need to be taken care of is too shameful to be admitted, violent behavior can provide a ticket to prison. Gilligan concludes,

“violence offers men a face-saving means for getting institutional care in a society that views men who need care as shameful and unmanly. The violence-engendered ethos of ‘rugged individualism’ makes it almost impossible for us to take care of people without humiliating them first. In contemporary America, to want love, to depend on others, to be less than completely self-sufficient, is to be shamed by all the institutions of our society, from welfare offices to mental hospitals to prisons.”

Gilligan explains why “punishment beyond what is necessary for restraint (the punishment of retribution or revenge) is an ill-conceived, misdirected societal crime for which we pay dearly in lives, suffering, and social costs.” He concludes,

“we must restrain violent people from injuring anyone, as long as they will not or cannot restrain themselves. That does require restricting their freedom for as long as they are dangerous. But punishment per se – the gratuitous infliction of pain or deprivation above and beyond what is unavoidably inherent in the act of restraining the violent – does not prevent or inhibit further violence, it only stimulates it.”

Prison rape

Gilligan describes prisons as schools of violence designed to destroy the human spirit. The ritual anal search of the admission procedure is intended to terrify and humiliate the new prisoner and demonstrate the total power that the prison has over him. Segregation from females, denial of conjugal visits, and systematic rape by other prisoners are all part of the process whereby the prisoner’s identity as a man is assaulted and stripped away.

While some argue that homosexual relations between inmates are a voluntary alternative to heterosexual relationships, no sexual relationship in a prison environment can be considered ‘voluntary.’ Gilligan insists that the vast majority of sexual relationships in prison occur in a context of coercion and therefore constitute rape.

Gilligan asserts that

“the rape of males is one of the most widespread – indeed, virtually universal – features of the penal system… including juvenile and young-adult institutions.”

He estimates that about nine million male rapes occur in the American prison system every year, a conservative figure based on the much smaller prison population of the 1980s. Most of those who are raped are raped on a regular basis, and many are ganged raped by up to 14 individuals at a time. One study found that 36 percent of all the sexual assaults in prison were gang rapes.

These men are sex slaves in the fullest sense of the term. As with battered wives and incested children, rape victims in prison are forced to live with their rapists and serve their every need for an indefinite period of time.

Authorities tolerate prison rape because it deflects the violence of inmates away from officers and onto each other. Using a divide-and-rule strategy, officials turn a blind eye to rape in the expectation that rapists will submit to the prison system instead of assaulting guards or organizing rebellions.

Structural violence

Gilligan addresses the structural violence that is built into capitalism including poverty, unemployment, unsafe work, war, pollution, racism, and class inequality or “the increased rates of death and disability suffered by those who occupy the bottom rungs of society, as contrasted with the relatively lower death rates experienced by those who are above them.”

The author concludes that structural violence is the main cause of interpersonal violence, including homicide and suicide, and he argues that the only real solution is to “create a society characterized by true classlessness.” After reaching this point, the book becomes confused and confusing.

Gilligan condemns the ruling class for structuring violence into society and argues that violence arises from the choices ordinary people make. Both cannot be true. In a class society, ordinary people do not make the rules and therefore have limited choices. Blaming the victim lets the system off the hook.

Gilligan is also mistaken when he argues that White people have a vested interest in supporting racist discrimination. In reality, ordinary White people do not benefit from racism any more than rapists in prison benefit from their positions as rapists. Both groups have far more to gain by uniting against their common enemies.

The feeling of superiority of rapist over raped, of White over Black, of male over female, is based on an illusion. As Gilligan points out, the ruling class benefit by promoting racism, sexism, and violent prison conditions, and they have everything to lose when the oppressed unite.

What began as a passionate condemnation of class society ends as a plea for more research. The reader is left confused as to whether preventing violence requires social revolution, more facts, or individual change. Despite these failings, Gilligan provides important insights into the  violence perpetrated by capitalism.


1 Comment

  1. September 1, 2007

    Agree to an extent – what is more cruel – shooting a victim or making one suffer years in the stress of poverty and forcing them into crime to survive. As for the assumption that class deprivation drives crime – I’m not sure from what you’ve said that you can fully conclude your claim. However it is a possible source.

    My feeling is that power over the life of an individual who is not an immediate risk to others is not something the State should have – ever.



  1. "Misogynist" violence? | - Socialism is the Best Medicine - […] or a nationality, but it does have a gender.” In Violence: Our Deadly Epidemic and its Causes, James Gilligan…

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