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The Change in Punishment Over Time

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Criminology
Wordcount: 2861 words Published: 24th Sep 2021

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Punishment is a concept which is open to many definitions in a sense that, when looking at crime and punishment, the definition depends purely on the place, culture and beliefs that an individual associates themselves with. When we look at crime and punishment in particular, the meaning behind punishment differs due to it being a concept that can be defined in many different ways, for instance, a “the legal process whereby violators of criminal law are condemned and sanctioned in accordance with specified legal categories and procedures” (Garland, 1990, p. 17) or in a more general sense “the act of inflicting a consequence or penalty on someone as a result of their wrong doing, or the consequence or penalty itself” (Your Dictionary, 2015). Throughout history we have seen a drastic change in not only the way that a criminal receives punishment, but also the environment in which the individual is placed, shifting from the general public humiliation and intense physical punishment to punishment of one’s personal ability to think and reason in a private sphere. Furthermore, this paper is going to look further at the movement of intense punishment of the body in the public eye to seeing how punishment has lessened over time by punishing the mind in a private environment, also critically analysing what it is that we consider to be ‘punishment’ today.

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Throughout the early eighteenth century, offenders were prone to incapacitation devices and corporal punishment such as stocks, the pillory, flogging, stretching, etc. which were located in a public space in an attempt to humiliate or deride the offender hoping to prevent future offending or re-offending (Miethe & Lu, 2005). In saying that, these systems did not only apply to those criminals who went against societal norms but they also applied to individuals or groups of people who did not follow the law properly in terms of religion. Classen (2012), mentioned that throughout the Middle Ages, it was known as the period that was filled with law-breaking criminals, violence, blood feuds, anarchy, vengeance and also exposing the people to groups of criminals such as gangs and murderers. In saying that, due to the shortage of surveillance and technology in this period of time, this meant that innocent people were more likely to be punished if there were no eye witnesses present at the time of the “crime”. Knowing that there was a lack of surveillance and technology meant that an innocent individual were more likely to be punished for a crime that they did not commit. Furthermore, when looking at the huge impact that violence had on this time period and combining it with the understanding that the law was not systematized, this could have welcomed not only the opportunity to use public corporal punishment in assorted ways but also punish an individual tyrannically no matter how severe the crime is (White, Haines, & Asquith, 2012).

As we begun to approach the eighteenth century, we not only saw the rise into the Enlightenment era, but we also begun see some movement in terms of punishment where it focussed on independence, reason and logic over tradition. Not to mention, that this was the time period in which we saw the arrival of Classical Criminology, which then gave the view that criminals were considered to be rational thinkers who committed an offence of their own accord. However, the main key here is that this idea saw punishment as being prompt and corresponding to the offence that was committed. Classical theorists created a starting point in terms of authority systems which contradicts tyrannical punishment by offering other ways in which they can punish an offender through non-violent means. One major example of this would be from that of Michel Foucault, who further developed Jeremy Bentham’s concept of the Panoptican. The make of the panoptican is seen as a circular structure which contains a surveillance tower which contains prison cells around it. In saying that, the main reason behind this panoptican was to try and prevent the occurrence of bad behaviour by presenting prisoners with the delusion that they are put under surveillance watch 24/7. Even though the inmate knows that they are constantly being watched, they still do not know when it is exactly that the guards are watching them. This ends up leading to why this model was created, to increase good behaviour (Foucault, 1977). In addition, it is evident that a plan set up to shift public corporal punishment to the mind and the private sphere through using Bentham’s notion of the panoptican model as one of the many alternatives, although, this then meant that inmates freedom was taken from them by punishing offenders through the introduction to prison. That being said, the delusion that inmates are being watched constantly could possibly considered to be a move toward the punishment of the mind in a way that the prisoner knows that they are on watch 24/7, perhaps resulting in mental health issues, an example of this is paranoia. Furthermore, notions that were put forward throughout the Enlightenment era have been developed and are the reason as to why there is a huge emphasis on alternative punishment instead of corporal today’s society.

Throughout the Enlightenment era, the work that was proposed by many theorists has had a huge impact on punishment that is seen in more modern societies. When looking back to the traditional way in terms of punishment and how much of an emphasis there was on the punishment of the body in the public eye and comparing it to the alternative ideas of punishment that had appeared throughout the Enlightenment period, this has introduced brand new and more effective notions which transform from punishments of the body to the punishment of the mind. In addition, this is evident in today’s societies with the increase in the number of offenders who are being sentenced to prison, illustrating the shift where instead of forcing pain on the body, it is instead inflicted on the mind through not only restricting an inmate’s rights and independence but also restricting them from coming into contact with the public. This idea is visible in combination with other forms of punishment that are exercised inside and outside of the prison. One of the many alternative ideas that are exercised in the prison is that of solitary confinement which is also known as an individual who is prohibited from coming in to contact with anyone outside apart from prison staff where one may be prone to conditions where they are sent to windowless or close-confined rooms. In addition, exercising this practice by depriving an inmate of contact with the outside world can potentially create mental health issues for this individual such as emotional damage, a breakdown in terms of language development and in a more severe case, it could possibly make an inmate hallucinate or become deluded. Solitary confinement is one of many practices which show that the change from the public corporal punishment to the mind in the private sphere is evident in contemporary societies.

One can argue that the movement from public corporal punishment to an individual’s mental thinking in a private space has not changed and this can be seen in many modern societies where there are many faults in the system of punishment. Though the system is encouraged to punish an offender in a non-violent way, there are a lot of defects present in today’s society that negate the idea of punishment of one’s mind in a private location. This can be seen in the way in which the environment that an offender is sentenced to. In addition, whilst an offender is sent to prison, it may not be seen as “non-violent”, however, the conditions inside that environment may be the exact opposite. An example of this can be seen in movies like Shawshank Redemption, when the offender (Andy Dufresne) became exposed to violence and many other horrific acts, not to mention that he also became a target for other prisoners which, he then had no choice but to defend himself in order to survive. This goes to show that the environment in which an individual is exposed to in the prison, can force those who are non-violent to turn to violence in an attempt to defend oneself from the chance of being attacked. Therefore transforming a non-violent offender into a violent one (Gilligan, 2001). Moreover, in terms of what has been said, the real question that we must ask ourselves is what is actually counted as punishment? Is it the sentence that has been given or is it also the conditions that one receives inside the prison?

Another defect that is seen in terms of the shift from punishment of the body to the mind is shown where, although capital punishment is known as pain forced on to the body through violent means, there is another way in which punishment may not be necessarily considered to be corporal but it is, it is just that the way in which they are dealt with are done through non-violent means. One example can be seen where an offender is designated a hard labour job (as seen in the 1800’s and still present today) for example, the treadwheel, building roads and stone breaking where although it may not be seen as physical pain inflicted to the body, as time goes on, it will show as the inmate gets older and their body slowly starts to break down (Scarre, 2003). A second example is seen where prisoners are also deprived of the necessities in life such as a clean environments and good nutrition. Although, this may not be seen as direct pain to the body, it does affect the individual in a way that eating choices and food preferences and food intake are limited whilst in prison. Not only does this limit the prisoner of the health and nutrition that is required to help them make it through the day but also it could expose the prisoner to problems in terms of the kitchen staff such as the concern of cooking standards, hygiene and illnesses. As mentioned by Smith (2002), majority of women that she had interviewed in prison were concerned about the effects that the food would have on them such as weight loss and gain, diarrhoea, vomiting and constipation. Again, this may not be considered as corporal punishment, but it still punishes the body in terms of health. Furthermore, we again have to question whether the sentence is the punishment or is it also the conditions that come with it.

It can also be argued that there has not been a complete shift in terms of the punishment in the eye of the public to the private sphere. When looking at the history of punishment and comparing it to contemporary society, punishment is nowhere near is public as it used to be. However, punishment is still visible to the public. An example of this is seen in community service workers where they “serve their sentence in the community rather than in the prison” (Department of Corrections, 2015). This means that an individual is exposed to the community, knowing that the public know that they are on probation and they are not doing it voluntarily. This is seen in New Zealand where community service workers are put in front of public places. It is easy to distinguish community service workers from your average worker as they usually work in groups doing hard labour jobs but the main thing that gives it away is the clothing, usually you will notice that there is a strip on the back of their clothing mentioning “community service”.

Another flaw that contradicts the idea that punishment has moved from bodily punishments in front of the public eye to the private sphere is seen within the court system. What is meant by that is, the courts are the main place in which sentences are usually given to criminals and also a location where the community are welcome to observe the sentence that is being given to a criminal. Moreover, this is the case in New Zealand where the public are able to, in a sense, contribute insofar by observing the punishment that is handed to an offender, bearing in mind that there are some cases in which the public are unable to view (Courts of New Zealand, 2015). In saying that, this just goes to show that in terms of punishment, although it may not physical, public humiliation is still present in modern societies but to an extent when comparing it to the eighteenth century.

Social media and the media in general allows for punishment to become visible by allowing the public to gain access to it by using several mediums such as the radio, the internet through live streaming or looking at online news articles, television programmes, such as the crime & investigation channel or by simply watching the news. Not only does this illustrate that punishment is accessible to members of the public but it also allows them to become more knowledgeable by being exposed to crime and punishment through what is used by individuals daily. Although the public may not observe the punishment that is given to an offender, they are given the opportunity to get up to date through news reports, articles or even if they are lucky, through a photo which is then taken of the individual receiving the sentence. In addition, we must keep in mind that reporters look in particular for crimes that are more gruesome or crimes that they know would be of public interest so they are more likely to exaggerate the crimes to get more of a following from the public (Bradley & Walters, 2011). Furthermore, these examples show that punishment in the public eye is still present in today’s society but not as bad as it was in the past. However, when looking at this example in particular, it shows the power that reporters have over people not only in terms of making punishment and crime visible to the public but also the way in which they can distort the crimes knowing that they will keep the public interested.

In conclusion, this essay has shown how the enlightenment era has had a major impact on the practices that are seen in terms of punishment today. In addition, it has also looked at how punishment has altered over time and periods where the intensity of punishment has lessened by shifting from the traditional corporal punishment and public humiliation to a more modern shift of punishment of the mind and in the private sphere looking more at taking away an offenders rights and freedom. However, even though the shift of bodily punishments in front of a general public setting to the punishment of an individual’s mind in more of a private location is present in modern societies, it is still seen in some cases that this may not be true as mentioned in the examples given above. The question that still stands in my essay is in today’s society, has there really been a shift from public capital punishment to private punishment of the mind.


Bradley, T., & Walters, R. (2011). Introduction to criminological thought. Auckland: Pearson.

Classen, A. (2012). Crime and Violence in the Middle Ages: The Cases of Heinrich der Glicheare’s Reinhard Fuchs and Wernher der Gartanere’s Helmbricht. In A. Classen, & C. Scarborough (Eds.), Crime and Punishment in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Age (pp. 131-158). Berlin, Germany: Walter de Gruyter.

Courts of New Zealand. (2015, April 03). The Role of the Courts. Retrieved from Courts of New Zealand: https://www.courtsofnz.govt.nz/about/system/role/overview

Department of Corrections. (2015, April 02). In the Community. Retrieved from Department of Corrections: http://www.corrections.govt.nz/working_with_offenders/community_sentences.html

Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and Punish: The Birth of Prison. (A. Sheridan, Trans.) London: Penguin.

Garland, D. (1990). Punishment and Modern Society. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Gilligan, J. (2001). Preventing Violence. London: James & Hudson, Ltd.

Miethe, T., & Lu, H. (2005). Punishment: A comparative Historical Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Scarre, G. (2003). Corporal Punishment. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, 6(3), 295-316.

Smith, C. (2002). Punishment and Pleasure: Women, Food and the Imprisoned 1. The Sociological Review, 50(2), 197-214.

White, R., Haines, F., & Asquith, N. (2012). Classical Theory. In R. White, F. Haines, & N. Asquith , Crime & Criminology (pp. 23-41). Sydney: Oxford University Press.

Your Dictionary. (2015, April 02). Punishment. Retrieved from Your Dictionary: http://www.yourdictionary.com/punishment


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