The Situationist

Archive for February 16th, 2011

The Criminals that Other Criminals Punish

Posted by Adam Benforado on February 16, 2011

This week, inmates in Sao Paulo broke into a cell block where prisoners convicted of rape and pedophilia were held and killed six people, including a man, Jose Agostinho Pereira, convicted of imprisoning his daughter for twelve years and having seven children with her, two of whom he also sexually abused.  Using makeshift knives, the attacking inmates, decapitated Pereira and three of the other prisoners.

Extreme overcrowding in the prison seemed to be one cause of the violence – a number of inmates, unhappy with their poor conditions, attempted to escape, which precipitated a riot.  However, the level of brutality and the focus of the harm seem to tell another story.  Indeed, it’s important to note that the men who were killed had been kept apart from the general population for their protection, a practice which is common at many prisons both abroad and in the United States.

Once imprisoned, child sex offenders become prime targets for violence by other inmates and it’s interesting to think about how much of that abuse might be retributive in nature.

Do prisoners who decapitate child molesters feel they are delivering “justice”?  And, if so, on behalf of whom do they believe they are acting?

As I’ve mentioned previously, I’m currently working on a set of experiments with Penn cognitive psychologist Geoff Goodwin regarding intuitions about punishment and one of the recurring themes in our research (and that of others interested in retribution) is that people’s motives to punish often do not align with what legal scholars assume them to be and that there is still much left to uncover in the study of “responsive harm.”  For better or for worse, that additional research may lead us to some troubling truths.

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Posted in Conflict, Emotions, Legal Theory, Morality | 1 Comment »

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