By Jessica Pishko
What is ‘I’m sorry’ worth? The idea that apologies heal wounds and restore justice in the community isn’t exactly a new idea. Apologies are an ancient form of acknowledging wrongness and culpability.
They aren’t always kind and gentle. Paying penance is rarely pleasant and usually involves fasting, self-mutilation, and other forms of debasement. ‘Penitentiary’ comes from the word ‘penitent’, and the concept was developed by the Quakers, the first American prison reformers, who placed offenders in isolation to provide room for quiet contemplation and reading of the Bible. The idea was that a person who committed crimes needed to sit and stew in the juices of his own regret away from the temptations of the world in order to exact the kind of change from the inside-out that the Quakers found most desirable. There is also a long religious tradition – demonstrated by the Salem witch trials of the late 17th century – of confining and torturing someone until they confessed and repented.
Apologies have a role in societies other than Western ones. In Japanese culture, for example, apologies are common and generally accepted by the wronged party as an agreement to move forward. In fact, the Japanese culture tends to apologise so frequently that it’s almost pro forma and lacks real meaning. But at least some Japanese scholars debate whether or not this system of formal apologies translates into any real change of heart, and a growing victims’ rights movement believes that they may even be harmful.
But in the American criminal justice system, apologies have a confusing and contradictory role. A great deal of the current justice system is based on Christian notions of guilt and forgiveness applied in a hodge-podge manner to a system of individual rights. Part of the point of prison, after all, is both to exact revenge and to rehabilitate – two objectives that are in constant conflict. As a result, when criminal defendants apologise, they sometimes incur more punishment and sometimes less, never mind whether or not their apology is deemed to be sincere.