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What Is Prison For?

Imprisonment for criminals has three or four possible, sometimes overlapping goals: a) punishment; b) rehabilitation c) prevention (keeping the perpetrators off the streets) and d. revenge - "Justice" is somewhere to be found between these. Society and citizens of all political stripes tend to confuse these various aims, especially when their own loved ones are victims. Some people think prison is just to punish, others just to improve - but one basic belief has, more or less, been accepted - when the criminal is released back into society, they should be accepted back, having done their time and "paid their dues". Not to do so is simply to turn one's back on the system itself - for if ex-cons are not so reabsorbed, but ostracised completely, what else are they to do, but turn back to their old criminal networks? So it is, we tend to hope the rehab works, and the punishment fits the crime.

Murder, of course, is a problem. Because only the ultimate sanction, paying with a life, can seem, to many, fair punishment, anything less is controversial - so the "early" release of murderers is never a popular moment in the justice system's day. However, since the majority of British citizens apparently oppose the death penalty, paradoxically, courts cannot exact that extreme form of revenge - the best they can do is keep the convicted in for "life" - which, when the guilty party is a youth at time of sentencing - is sometimes only ten or twelve years inside. This seems only right, since to assume that a young adult of 15 would benefit society more from being incarcerated for 50-60 years, rather than being retrained and returned to a mature second life, is needlessly cruel, and surely draconian.

Therefore, it comes as sad news to hear that the recently mooted release of a killer, in London, has been greeted with near-total outrage, though the man has spent 12 years in prison, and has gone on to get educational training, express remorse, and become something of a model inmate. The issue is one of deportation - because the convict is nominally Italian, the feeling in some quarters is that he should be sent back to that country (though he speaks no Italian, has no extended family there, and was last there over 21 years ago). This despite the fact that his "human rights" allow him to stay in the UK upon release.

I understand this is a terrible moment. But if society is to survive its more raw urges and instincts - and revenge is one of the baser - it must stick to the law, which, though decidedly imperfect, is more measured and democratically-arrived at than the "justice" of baying mobs and yellow journalists. The time to complain was at the moment of sentencing - not on imminent release. The bottom line seems to be this: when a sentence has been served, it is over. The next step is to let the infamous villain back in - and hope for the best.


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Wheeler Light for 'Life Jacket'.

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Wheeler Light currently lives in Boulder, Colorado.

Life Jacket

summer camp shirtsI couldn’t fit in then
are half my size nowI wanted to wear
smaller and smallerarticles of clothing
I shrunk to the sizethat disappeared

of an afterthoughtin a sinking ship body
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With the death of the poetic genius John Ashbery, whose poems, translations, and criticism made him, to my mind, the most influential American poet since TS Eliot, 21st century poetry is moving into less certain territory.

Over the past few years, we have lost most of the truly great of our era: Edwin Morgan, Gunn, Hill, Heaney and Walcott, to name just five.  There are many more, of course. This is news too sad and deep to fathom this week.  I will write more perhaps later. 

I had a letter from Ashbery on my wall, and it inspired me daily.  He gave me advice for my PhD. He said kind things about a poetry book of mine.

He was a force for good serious play in poetry, and his appeal great. So many people I know and admire are at a loss this week because of his death. It is no consolation at present to think of the many thousands of living poets, just right now. But impressively, and even oddly, poetry itself seems to keep flowing.