The Pleasure Principle & Prison Reform

Hedonism – maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain.

The Pleasure Principle & Prison Reform

By Allison Mazur

May 24, 2016

The 18th century marked the beginning of the prison reform movement in which there were two schools of thought: John Howard’s and Jeremy Bentham’s. Howard, who was a strict Christian, believed that crime occurred because men were sinners and they must repent for their crimes in jail. In contrast Bentham, who was a philosopher, thought that all human action was motivated by the desire to seek pleasure and avoid pain. Bentham advocated for strict control of prisoners’ surroundings in order to change their behavior in line with the previous principle.

Today a few of us ventured to the Kilmainham Gaol, and although we weren’t able to get a tour (good luck booking one – it’s the centennial celebration of the 1916 Easter Rising!), we were able to walk around the museum and court house. Kilmainham Gaol was developed in 1796, and  many of these new prison reforms were implemented there. Kilmainham is most famous for housing some leaders of the Easter Rising, an unfortunately, executing many of its prisoners. It was harrowing being on either side of the execution square, mere feet (or meters, we are in Ireland!) from where dozens of people were murdered.

Literally standing on the other side of one of the balconies facing the execution square. An unsettling feeling to say the least.

But back to Bentham’s school of thought…

Bentham’s ideas immediately interested me because he essentially describes hedonism and the pleasure principle which famous psychologist Sigmund Freud later expanded upon. (Upon further inspection, Bentham did a lot of work on hedonism – even developing a hedonic calculus.) This past semester I was on a research team in MSU’s Communication department that spent a lot of time looking at Moral Foundations Theory and egoistic intuitions, which say we forgo upholding a facet of morality to satisfy a desire that will benefit ourselves. Hedonism was one of the few egoistic intuitions we explored, so naturally these ideas were intriguing to me.

Bentham championed ideas like isolation and constant surveillance. His thinking was that when faced with the punishment of isolation, prisoners would alter their behavior to avoid being placed in solitary confinement. The East Wing of Kilmainham was built in the 1860s, and modeled off of Bentham’s idea of a panopticon. This design allowed a single guard to observe every cell and inmate, but the prisoners were unable to tell if they were being watched. Very Big Brother-esque. (Side note: this wing is where Michael Collins, In the Name of the Father, and the series Rebellion were all filmed!)

Another reform that was displayed in the museum was developed by Trinity College professor Samuel Haughton, which is funny because we visited Trinity College prior to visiting Kilmainham Gaol. This is probably not something great to be known for, but Haughton aided in developing the long drop method of hanging prisoners. Haughton developed a mathematical formula based on the prisoner’s weight and height that would allow instantaneous death by breaking the prisoner’s neck, but not decapitating them. While still unethical, the long drop method proved more ethical than the traditional standard drop method. The long drop provided instantaneous death while the prisoner had to asphyxiate with the standard drop.

The middle balcony was the site of many hangings at Kilmainham. A trapdoor would be released and the prisoner would fall through to be hung.

It was interesting to see how psychological and sociological theories (plus something I studied for a whole semester) can be applied to real-world situations, especially as someone who has a strong interest in social sciences. Obviously prison reform is still ongoing, and it will be fascinating to see what changes are made next to the prison system. Bentham placed such a strong emphasis on the need for isolation, yet that has proven to be detrimental to prisoners’ mental states. Now it seems some prisons are favoring the free-range approaches, which allow prisoners to not be held in cells and feel like, well, prisoners. Times are a changin’!

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