With recent reports that Jeffrey Epstein was either been attacked or attempted suicide in prison, a familiar chorus has broken out. Good! The bastard got what was coming to him! This can be a quick, emotive, guttural, response. Not only is Epstein accused of heinous crimes of trafficking children for sex, he also pleaded guilty in 2008 to solicitation involving minors in a clear sweetheart plea deal. His wrongs are on the record, and it takes a serious suspension of disbelief to not see the parallels to and believe the reporting about his recent accusations.
Given this, it is easy to believe that what happens is karma, both for him specifically, and more commonly for prisoners when they experience violence or otherwise have something bad happen to them behind bars. But this thinking is both wrong and dangerous.
For starters, Epstein, like anyone else in our system of justice, must be permitted the presumption of innocence. Vigilante justice is morally wrong, and the surety of the mob is always a dangerous intoxicant – one where the number of guilty only ever increases. Particularly given the number of convicted who have been exonerated with DNA evidence, and the sheer number of people – for reasons malicious and mundane – who have been falsely arrested, this alone should give us pause.
For another, the criminal justice system is predicated on someone paying a debt to society in being imprisoned – not in suffering unlawful abuse while doing so. Judges sentence in years, not in beatings or rapes. Violence, particularly sexual of violence, has reached epidemic proportions in our prisons. According to the Department of Justice, there are thousands of cases of non-consensual sexual contact every year; fully a quarter of prisoners in the study reported that they experienced pressured or forced sexual contact since their arrest. This is not something anyone should feel giddy or proud about.
And the applause is doubly troubling for those who profess to be Christian. We’re called to visit and comfort the prisoner, and extend mercy and compassion to those who have sinned against us as individuals and a collective. It can feel righteous to see someone who has committed grave evils suffer. But judgement is for God, not for man, this righteousness is sorely misplaced.
We can quibble about what that means in a society that requires that the work of enforcing the rule of law and setting the scales of justice must be done by man. But rooting for a prisoner to be beaten, or raped, or murdered goes far beyond the pale.
As conservatives, we emphasize the importance of individual liberty, and rightly point out the threat to us all when that liberty is undermined. It can be easy to turn a blind eye to prisoners on matters of liberty because they have committed at least one of a limited number of offenses where society has deemed the punishment should be the loss of that liberty. But these are exactly the people we should be the most concerned for. It is with good reason that there is an incredibly high bar to take away someone’s liberty. We can’t lose sight of that just because of someone’s past actions.
Especially as our society is finally making strides to make amends to those whose liberty was denied by the unfair laws and sentencing guidelines of the past, we can’t let our passions rule over both our reason and our convictions for those still behind bars. This includes taking delight in their unlawful suffering.
Drew Holden is a public affairs consultant in Washington, D.C., and a former Republican congressional staffer in the U.S. House of Representatives