Let’s Talk About the Ethics of Wizard Prison, Yea?
By way of an introduction, let’s go over a brief history of Azka– wait…Alakazamzkaban.
The island itself existed since the 15th century, previously inhabited by a dark wizard named Ekrizdis. Over time, the island became infested by dementors. After Ekrizdis died and the charms hiding the island faded, the ministry debated what to do with it. They feared destroying the building, as the dementors were attached to it, and there was worry that a building surrounded by so much dark magic would retaliate on its own. Additionally, removing the home of those dementors may drive them to the mainland. Being impossible to kill, a dementor problem is kind of a big deal.
With the institution of the Statute of Secrecy, the small prisons up and down the UK became problematic for security reasons. Loud bangs and flashes of light and all. So the Ministry began building plans for a single prison on a remote northern island.
When Damocles Rowle became minister, however, he scrapped those plans and insisted they use Abracadabrakaban instead. Pottermore describes Rowle as “an authoritarian who had risen to power on an anti-Muggle agenda” and “sadistic by nature.” So you know, just a real treasure of a man.
Despite much opposition, he went forward with the plan and slowly began sending prisoners to Alaskaban. None of the early prisoners ever left Alabamaban. As Pottermore says, if they weren’t mad and dangerous before, they quickly became so. The Minister after Rowle was also pro-Crabzkaban, but after that guy, Eldritch Diggory became Minister and was opposed to it. He visited and found that most or all of the prisoners were insane, and that a graveyard had been established for prisoners who just ended up dying of despair in Azka– oh screw it, Wizard Jail.
Diggory established a committee to find alternatives to Wizard Prison or to the dementors as guards, but he died before anything could be done. Eventually, as time passed and Wiz Priz maintained a perfect record of no escapes, everyone just kind of accepted it. Until, of course, after the many escapes during the 90s, the turncoat period where the Dementors followed Voldemort, and then Kingsley Shacklebolt ascending to the role of Minister.
Shacklebolt had Six-Pack-Abskaban purged of dementors, and while the island still remains a prison, it is now guarded by Aurors who regularly rotate periods from the mainland. Amazingly, this new system has seen no breakouts.
That is all the “historical” information we have regarding the prison. Let’s look at some personal views on the matter.
In chapter 11 of PoA, Hagrid talks about his experience in The Magical Carceral Complex:
“Yeh’ve no idea. Never bin anywhere like it. Thought I was goin’ mad. Kep’ goin’ over horrible stuff in me mind. Yeh can’ really remember who yeh are after a while. An’ yeh can’ see the point o’ livin’ at all. I used ter hope I’d jus’ die in me sleep … When they let me out, it was like bein’ born again, ev’rythin’ came floodin’ back, it was the bes’ feelin’ in the world. Mind, the Dementors weren’t keen on lettin’ me go. Long as they’ve got a couple o’ hundred humans stuck there with ’em, so they can leech all the happiness out of ’em, they don’ give a damn who’s guilty an’ who’s not.’
So from Hagrid’s account, Grosskaban is clearly a terrible place. Hagrid’s account also opens up questions about the ethics of imprisonment in Hagzkaban, though. Along with the brief history we’re given by Pottermore, we have to wonder what the approach is to imprisonment in the wizarding world.
Let’s establish some guidelines from the real world first.
Disclaimer, I am no expert on these matters, not even in the slightest. I’ve just done a fair amount of research this week and am presenting to you guys my takeaways.
There are two major and somewhat competing approaches to criminal justice in our world. Punishment vs. Rehabilitation.
Punishment is sort of the classic approach to criminal justice in the world. To boil it down, someone has done something wrong, so we punish them to a certain extent for a certain period of time, and the severity of that punishment will teach them not to do that thing again.
On the other side of the coin is rehabilitation. Rehabilitation isn’t an exact opposite. It still incorporates punishment for the crime. However, the rehabilitation includes more active efforts to reform the criminal.
We don’t really have to think all that hard about what approach the wizarding world takes to criminal justice. There isn’t much information on prisoners who weren’t in some way linked to the death or really excessive abuse of other people. Or at least suspected of that in Hagrid’s case.
So it’s hard to make a judgment on how the Ministry treats lower level crime. Even Hagrid was accused of aiding in the murder of Myrtle (Myrder…if you will…) when he was expelled from school. And Sirius, of course, even though he’s innocent, was falsely accused of murder.
We only really have two points of data relating to lower level crimes. And interestingly, both of them involve Fudge and Harry. The first comes in PoA. Earlier in the book, Fudge tells Harry that the ministry doesn’t send people to Azkatraz just for blowing up their aunt. Which I think we all know is a lie under the circumstances.
And then in book 5, Fudge and less than half the Wizengamot – or as they annoyingly say in the movie, Wizzenaggamott – nearly send Harry to Britain’s Premier Magical Detention Center for casting a Patronus in the presence of Dudley.
So let’s imagine for a moment that the second situation is more accurate. That Fudge’s government, and maybe governance in the wizarding world for a long time, has been a bit harsher with criminal justice.
First issue – why is Fudge presiding over court proceedings? Like, separation of powers guys. Come on.
Second, if Harry had been sent to Snazzkaban, it’s very likely he would not have made it out. Because the only stories we hear of someone leaving Wizarding No Man’s Land are by escape or injunction. Sirius, the various death eaters, Barty Crouch, all escaped. Hagrid was let go because of Dumbledore’s intervention. Everyone else just seems to be left to rot.
So in the wizarding world, it would appear to me that criminal justice during the era of dementors at The Worst Place On Earth is a life sentence. In the previous chapter when Fudge talks about his visit to Bad Wizard Daycare, he mentions how odd it is that Sirius hasn’t gone insane. So we can conclude from that brief moment that everyone else in Kebabzkaban is losing their minds. Which makes me believe that the wizarding world is extremely hardline on crime.
Like, this is some Les Miserables shit going on here. The guy only stole a loaf of bread for his starving family! *Javert enters the chat*
But what troubles me more than the apparent lack of variation in the severity of punishment is the means by which prisoners are being punished. Which, essentially, is them being tortured into insanity.
The dementors are clearly being used as more than guards, more than just a way to ensure that prisoners stay where they are supposed to. Damocles Rowle, the Minister who established Azkebab as a prison, looked at it as an added bonus that having prisoners in Badskaban would keep the dementors at bay and away from the mainland. These prisoners, except for Sirius, have no escape from the effects of the dementors.
The way Hagrid talks about it, as though his mind is being forced to relive all of the worst moments of his life, sounds legitimately like psychological torture. The prisoners are being forced into despair and hopelessness, forced to constantly play over and over the worst moments of their lives. And with someone like Hagrid, well, it certainly makes him afraid to break the law and never want to go back to The Jail That Must Not Be Named Because Of Trademarks. But arguably, Hagrid was already that person.
Sure, he may have dabbled in some questionable beast trafficking, but it seems like he doesn’t necessarily view that as something that should be illegal. Hagrid seems like the kind of person who is already keenly aware of the law, and is interested in staying in line because it’s the right thing to do. Similarly to Hermione or Neville, Hagrid doesn’t want to break the rules because he feels it’s more right to follow them. So for someone like Hagrid or Hermione or Neville, of course experiencing the horror of Your Last Stop makes them more afraid of going to Doom Island. They are exactly the kind of people dementors want to feed on most, though. It’s pretty clear that the darker someone’s tendencies are, the less dementors affect them.
But if not for the fact that no one ever really gets released from Some Other Name For That Prison in a normal sense, I strongly believe that former inmates of #ThatPrison would likely have an incredibly high rate of return. Let’s look at a few examples.
First, because he is the titular character of the book, Sirius Black. When Sirius escapes from Azkabreakout, his entire purpose is to go and ACTUALLY commit murder for real this time. He is unafraid of going back to The Prison From Which No One Escapes Except For The Black Family Tree, clearly, even though he would actually be guilty this time. Sure, he’s likely given up all hope and reason for living, but if he had succeeded in killing Peter, especially after having met Harry like he will later, he probably would have had more fodder for the dementors to drive him insane. Yes, transforming into a dog helps him keep his mind, but he himself attributes it more to his knowledge of his own innocence. This time, he’d actually be guilty, and probably have someone to care about on the outside in Harry, and yet he’s still planning to take action that would land him back in prison.
Next, let’s examine Barty Crouch Jr. Another shining example of someone whose behavior and mindset was not changed by prison. He gets broken out of prison by his mother who trades places with him secretly, and the first thing he does is go right back to his old death eater ways. Same thing happens with Bellatrix Lestrange, Rodolphus Lestrange, like freaking everyone who gets out of Prizard (Prison for Wizard) immediately goes right back to their law breaking ways.
So the question becomes: is SpaceJamzkaban, during the dementor era, actually an effective prison?
I think it comes down to whether you believe prisons are meant to serve only as punishment or if they also need to serve as rehabilitation. Just for the sake of making my own argument, let me present a comparison between the United States and Norway.
The United States, for the most part, takes a punishment approach, while Norway leads the world in criminal rehabilitation. From my point of view, a prison is successful if fewer and fewer criminals enter its doors over time. The rate of return prisoners, or recidivism, in the United States is a staggering 76%. In Norway, it’s 20%.
I think it’s fair to say that the wizarding world lines up more accurately with the United States.
However, it’s clear that The Prison That Rarely Releases Its Prisoners rarely releases its prisoners. Which is also problematic, because a life sentence for a small crime is inhumane and medieval. Then again, there are a lot of things about the wizarding world that tend to be that way…
Nonetheless, I think it’s fair to say that Wail (Wizard Jail) being run by dementors is inhumane, cruel, and all around just not ok. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments. Let’s continue the discussion, specifically surrounding what you guys think happens regarding lower level crime. The books really don’t give us much indication.