Punishment is the pandemic

Illustration: Peter Cizmadia


Over recent weeks in the UK there have been calls for people in detention to be released, largely framed as a “public health” response and a way of keeping communities safe.

Containment and control

Few people are yet willing to publicly claim they know what has caused this pandemic. It is widely suggested, whatever the causes, that the COVID-19 virus needs to be carefully “contained”.

Containment holds important meaning and effect in therapeutic theory and practice. Bion’s idea of containment in the 1950s and ‘60s extended Melanie Klein’s work into infant development.

For many years, many eloquent writers have been providing evidence for the need to stop using punishment as a containment or control mechanism for crime. We need to employ what Freire insists be our “hopeful”, critical thinking to the ways in which we create the environment for punishment.

Simply put, containment is the idea that the “mother” is capable of helping the infant cope with the unbearable emotion it “spits out” in distress by herself “containing” it and allowing the baby to ingest it through consistent and appropriate responses. Containment is a fundamental component of a “stable (emotional) base” . We grow to contain our own emotional needs having experienced reliable containment as infants.

Bion was attempting to describe a process of unconscious to conscious communication:

 A process of emotional contact and actualisation that …will intrude actually inside another as a certain state of mind.

Hinshelwood and Fortuna 2018, p147

Bion was beginning to understand how the “taking in or on” of another’s experience can attune us to the needs being expressed without being overwhelmed by them;  providing a way of keeping them inside us, digesting them and returning a sense of attention and acknowledgement.

It is this process that punishment distorts and undermines. Punishment does not “contain” our anxieties or enable us to digest the unbearable; rather, it creates further anxieties (how much punishment is “enough”?

Can punishment be meted out without state supervision, by communities, families and individuals?

Punishment fails to contain our need for resolution to harms. Consider the small child on the “naughty step”. How many parents find it difficult to sustain, increase or mitigate the use of such techniques? How effective are they in preventing childhood tantrums, distress or selfishness?

The perfect vicious circle

The UK (like most other countries around the world) is wedded to the idea of punishment as a response to identified breaches of the social contract. Breaches of the social contract are themselves identified by a system that privileges some over others. All crimes are not equal. Punishment tends to generate its own consequences- not least self-harm and self-inflicted death, increased drug dependency, exposure to violent assault, deficient health care and disrupted relationships, particularly impacting children and vulnerable adults. This presents a huge dent in the side of punishment as an effective deterrent against “crime”.

If the “the crime” and its impacts can be seen as the “spitting out” of the “unbearable” by the infant of overwhelming feelings; the punishing, retributive, authoritarian “mother” can be seen as the state for whom some infants are a priori “problematic” and for whom harsh, pre-emptive and proactive punishment will prevent the “spitting out”.

Emergency measures

Whilst it can be tempting to muse on the idea of alternatives to a world without punishment, it is an urgent and present reality that many (nation) states currently punish tens of thousands of people through the use of detention. The pressing issue of how to address this situation is receiving more attention than usual due to the very obvious dangers of a pandemic spreading rapidly through environments in which physical distancing is impossible.

In that context, the idea of the release of people from prison as a “temporary“, risk-based “health protection” measure contains the danger that we fall prey to the “cops in the head” so perfectly described by Augusto Boal:

“…Boal believes that today’s societies, such as America, Britain and Brazil, are fundamentally authoritarian… In …more profoundly oppressive societies – and here he means the global North – such forces are not necessary. “Cops in the head” perform the same role.”

And so the “cops” in our own heads allow “release” only under certain circumstances, and as a “temporary” or “emergency” measure. In this way, we sustain a superficial attitude to what the same “cops” reinforce as being our punitive nature, rather than considering the fact that punishment is not a useful way to contain harm.

The cops in our heads “intrude” into us as a “certain state of mind” through our cultural and experiential realities. We are taught to depend on punishment to revoke the “rights” of those we believe do not “deserve” them. Punishment lends itself perfectly to these abuses. Punishment is an aspect of what Freire called “naïve thinking” (1965 p. 65) freezing people, time and events and denying the dynamic nature of relationships, culture and the creation of values, norms and “rights”. Punishment is a cop in our head, wielding a baton over our ideas of justice, critical thought or dissent to a system that punishes needs and despises vulnerability.

During the writing of this article, at least two Black men have been murdered by (ex-) police in the United States. The murder of a man doing nothing “wrong” cannot be effectively “punished” through the use of a system that allowed that killing to occur. There is no punishment that can make any difference to the impact of the viral images of two men killing another as he jogs.

For many years, many eloquent writers have been providing evidence for the need to stop using punishment as a containment or control mechanism for crime. We need to employ what Freire insists be our “hopeful”, critical thinking to the ways in which we create the environment for punishment.

We need to release people in detention to safe, secure places of shelter. We need to stop using prison and surveillance as punishment techniques and we need to find ways of containing our collective anxieties so we can remain free from the cops in our heads. We need to stop cops getting in our heads. We don’t need cops. We need consciousness.

Charlie Weinberg, Director Safe Ground, Chair Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, London UK


Freire, P. Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Penguin 1977 p.65

Hinshelwood. R and Fortuna T. Melanie Klein the basics, Routledge 2018 p. 146

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