Punishment, Incarceration, and Forgiveness

Plan Author

  • Fiona Craig, 2018

Fields of Concentration

Sample Courses

  • Course: Sex, Violence, Liberation
  • Course: African-American Political Thought
  • Tutorial: Philosophy of Guilt and Law
  • Tutorial: Politics of Confession

Faculty Sponsors

Outside Evaluator

  • Valerie West, John Jay School of Criminal Justice


I found in the criminal justice system a concentrated site of suffering, of struggle for freedom, and of engagement with the political and micropolitical motivations behind exclusion and punishment. This Plan of Concentration is a realization of the avenues I have taken to explore this situation. The first paper in this Plan, “Prisons of ​Ressentiment​: Revenge and Suffering in the Criminal Justice System,” is an inquiry into the vengefulness that underlies much of the suffering caused by incarceration. This paper concludes by suggesting a restorative alternative. The second paper, “Waiving the Right to Remain Silent: Drug Courts and Conditional Absolution,” explores the legal and philosophical tensions in drug courts. I find this paper to be particularly timely, as we find ourselves in the midst of both a deadly opioid epidemic and a time where defendants’ rights are frequently disregarded. The third paper, “Attending to Affects: A Spinozan Resolution for College Acquaintance Rape,” attempts to delineate the emotional and relational aspects of acquaintance rape in a small community, using Benedict Spinoza’s theory of affects. This paper addresses the mechanics of restorative justice, and shows how restorative justice could replace pure punishment in the case of a violent crime. The final component of this Plan is a series of stories from my work in the Windham County Public Defenders Office and the Brattleboro Community Justice Center. Through the telling of these stories, I seek to humanize defendants charged with violent crimes.


It is clear how ​ressentiment leads to mass incarceration. People who are harmed have no recourse beyond punishment to alleviate their suffering, so through the Good venue of the State they inflict suffering on those they blame. Everybody knows that prison is place where people suffer. Many do not know the extent of that suffering, because further punishment beyond confinement is hidden from the public eye. However, people experience justice and resolution when their persecutors are incarcerated because they have displaced their own suffering onto a worthy site of blame. So, when faced with unhappiness, the resentful become eternally trapped in a cycle of reaction and harm. When they take revenge and create suffering in their oppressors, or those they hate because they broke the social contract, those punished people become more subjects of harm, and in turn, the punished become resentful and take their own revenge. The result of this is a world in which everyone is trying to overcome the harm done to them by hurting the people they blame for it. This cycle is why such great violence is done to prisoners, and why in fact people are punished for committing crimes, rather than being truly healed or reformed.

Drug courts seem on their surface to be working in the interest of addicts and defendants: they provide real opportunities to get clean and good chances of avoiding jail time. However, they also have alarming implications for the rights of the accused. Although requirements for participation vary from court to court, all require honesty, and taking responsibility for criminal actions. In order to work the program, a participant must admit guilt to both the crime they are charged with, and any crimes involved in relapses they have during the program. When a defendant agrees to participate in a drug court, they forfeit their constitutional protection against self-incrimination. I find this concerning because of first, the coercion involved in the decision to participate in a drug court, and second, the effect that incentivizing confession has on the entire system of constitutional protections.

About two months into my internship, I was asked to assist one of the attorneys, Rick Ammons, with preparing for a trial that would occur the next week. This was the most involved job I had been given yet. I was flattered and excited to be trusted with real work, and glad that I had proven myself to be dependable. I sat down with Rick to discuss the case, and it soon became clear that this was going to be an interesting project for me. It was a domestic violence case: one count of felony aggravated domestic assault, and two counts of misdemeanor assault and battery. Our client, Jacob, was in his late forties, with a couple felonies from the early nineties that he did time for. The complaining witness, Katherine, was a mother in her late thirties, who alleged that our client had beaten her on two separate occasions over the course of one weekend. I grew nervous as Rick explained the charges we would attempt to refute. I have long considered myself to be a feminist, and have been involved in activism against intimate partner violence in its various forms. Now, I would have to assist in a trial that would hinge on whether or not this woman could be trusted when she said she had been abused.


The process of writing my Plan has involved panic and revelation, new understanding of state and societal violence, and hope for a more compassionate and reasonable future. I have learned skills that will support my future in the law, and I have read philosophy that got me much closer to answering those demanding questions that started this all. I thank my readers for their time and attention, and I am eager to increase my efforts to repair the world. I plan to go to law school and become a public defender: my Plan gave me an excellent theoretical background for this.