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Do We Need Prisons Essay

Prisons are currently in a critical situation as a journalist has recently written in The Guardian (Dyer 2007). However, during past two hundred years, they have emerged as a key component of the criminal system justice, after humanitarian ideologies have grown. Prisons are often seen as “the punishment”, “the default sanction” although the other kinds of punishment are only alternatives. In our individual, rational and secular society, the deprivation of liberty is the most severe punishment. Between 1992 and 2005, in England and Wales, there has been an increase of over 60% in the number of prisoners even if it was not matched by any comparable increase in rates of crime (Coyle 2005, p.2). But currently, there is a crisis in prisons, because of different factors including containment, visibility, authority and legitimacy. So, this essay will wonder why society still have prisons. First, it will critically assess and evaluate the justification of the existence of the prisons in modern society. Then, it will try to understand the sociological approach to the problem. In a third part, it will identify the effectiveness of alternatives to custody, focusing on the thesis of the abolitionists.

First, this essay will try to understand why prisons exist in modern society. When someone commits a criminal act, people think that something has to be done, because they want to be reassured, and currently, prisons are probably the first thing they think about. The huge influence of Human Rights lead to consider the prison as the most respectful punishment, instead of the death penalty or corporal punishment which are an attempt to stuffiness and which does not solve the problem. Even though, this essay will show later that others kinds of sanctions do exist. Public humiliations are not the norm currently because the public may be more sensitive about that: many people have been disturbed by the video of the execution of Saddam Hussein. Using the prisons is as well an easier way to deal with possible miscarriages of justice, where death penalty fails. Historically, it is also important to refer to reduction in the use of transportation in the early nineteenth century, which means the exile from one’s community (Coyle 2005, p.27). Society uses prisons instead of something else but it is a choice. Sometimes, some people are in prison even if they have not been judged by a court. Some people can experience immediate imprisonment, detention or suspended sentence of imprisonment: this is called “custody”. It can be wondered if women, youths or old people have their place in prisons. But, most important, we should consider the reasons given by the society toward the use of prisons.

Prisons have different aims. The “Gladstone Report”, made in 1895 explains that “prison treatment should have as its primary and concurrent objects deterrence and reformation” (Coyle 2005, p.30). In 2003, the Prison Service highlighted the aim “to deliver an effective execution of the sentences of the courts so as to reduce re-offending and protect the public” (Coyle 2005, p.48). But other less official justifications exist. An aim of the prison is deterrence, which means that people would probably not commit a crime if they know that it can lead to spend the rest of their life in a jail. It makes the offender himself fearful of committing another crime. This is a prevention measure. Then, there is retribution punishment: a price should be paid for crime. The people who have committed a crime are punished because they deserve it. Mathiesen (2000) explains that all the undesirable, unproductive and disruptive people are found in prisons. It is ass well important to mention rehabilitation: prisons are supposed to bring a moral or behavioural change in the offender. At least on the paper, prison could reduce the incidence of crime because it takes a form that will improve the character of the offenders. Different programs exist e.g. sex offenders can be told to go to therapy. But the paradox is that in prisons, 50-60% people have been there before (Smith and Natalier 2005 p.173). In addition, the question that has to be asked is how people can prove that they have changed. And as Goffman (1968) asks, it is important to wonder if prisons might play more a part in debilitation than in rehabilitation: when people become free, they have to rebuild their self, which is not easy. Another aim is the incapacitation: it is impossible or difficult to re-offend. People are kept away from the society and though from committing crime. Mathiesen (2000) states that it diverts the attention of lowing worker class from lower crimes. But it is not always a public protection; for instance, heroine dealers are usually quickly replaced so the problem is not solved. However, prisons are now ruled by some key performance indicators and some targets such as security, justice and control. There is a gap between what prisons are supposed to achieve and what really happen.

The etymology of “prisons” is “to seize” in Latin. Exploring the repertoire of people writing about prisons, leads to notice that some expressions are quite depreciative: “human warehousing” connotes the storage as “holding pan”. Most of the people totally agree with the concept of prison but want it to be far from them, “N.I.M.B.”, “not in my backyard”. But the aim of the prisons is hopefully not only to contain people. People probably have a wrong idea of what prisons are because of the clichés in the media, from soap-operas to general articles in newspapers. Although prisons are supposed to solve the problem of crime, sometimes, they can lead to further criminality: its ideological construction is reinforced. Prisoners may have a will of revenge and jails are a school of crime where people can easily exchange their criminal knowledges. Furthermore, sometimes, it stigmatizes more the people than it helps them. Social division in society is reinforced. And as society are focused on prisons, our attention is distracted from crimes of the powerful. There are several incoherences in the penal system. As Pat O’Malley (1999, quoted in Matthews and Roger, 2003, p.225) explains, at one moment, society can take reprehension measures on drugs and in another, some illegal drugs can be virtually decriminalized. Thomas (1972, quoted in Coyle 2005, p.30) highlights another paradox: deterrence and reformation cannot work together because the first implies a punitive and coercitive environment although the former is the result of an environment which encourages individual development and change. Many thinkers as well have tried to get a better understanding of prisons.

Sociology can help to understand the justification of the prisons. In different places and at different times, societies have used several kinds of penal strategies. Currently, political authority is legitimated by using the Enlightenment notion of “social contract” (Cavadino and Dignan 1997, p.46). It “provides a philosophical foundation for the existence and power of the modern state” (Held 1984, quoted in Smith and Natalier 2005, p.12). This means that people should give up with some of their liberties if they want to be protected by the State. If people commit crimes, they will go to prison but after a time of punishment, they will be able to re-enter the society as citizen. The social order, maintained by culture and power is necessary because it maintains peace in the society. Durkheim (quoted in Garland 1990, p.24) talks about “collective conscience”: prisons are the result of a moral phenomenon because society requires a moral framework. He explains that vengeance is the primary motivation which underpins punitive actions so the explanation is not totally rational and owns much to the Christian theology of sin, guilt, punishment, expiation and redemption (Coyle 2005, pp.19-20). But it is possible to make a critic of Durkheim’s theory because it is no longer the society who punishes but more a specific state apparatus. Nevertheless, prisons are linked to social structure and economy.

A cynical argument would be to asset that prisons are the result of the capitalist society: in order to keep the labour force, it is better to siphon it off than to kill it. But, it is as well the most expensive kind of punishment: it costs £37,305 per person and per year to keep someone in prison and this money can be used for other purposes such as education. Currently, prisons are an industry and both public and private prisons do exist. Sometimes, firms hire out prison labour to do different products. The Marxist theory highlights the relation between the dominant class and subordinate class, which is exploited. Penalty serves to articulate state power, to protect the rich people and to legitimate the use of power in controlling political dissent, according to Marx (Smith and Natalier 2005, p.19). Similarly, criminal justice encourages people to work instead of begging or stealing and criminal law limits unrest arising from social inequality because revolution is more difficult. Prisons could be seen as an instrument of class control where inequalities are reproduced and emphasised. But he Marxist theory, highly influenced by political and economic beliefs presents an important pattern of determination as being an exclusive one. And whereas Marxism states that punishment reinforces class division and ruling class dominance, Durkheim thinks that it reinforces solidarity which is not class based. But it is the beginning of a more global reflexion about power.

It can be interesting to understand what punishment tells about the distribution of dominance. Sometimes, society deals more with sense than reason when it comes about punishment. Though, prisons can be seen as revenge. Prisons serve the interests of the powerful and any group who challenge them are kept under tight control and regulation. Law is used to legitimate the use of prisons. In different times and in different places, people who were incarcerated have been there for different reasons. As a reminder, Baudelaire and Sade have been imprisoned. On the other hand, during war condition, some individuals have killed thousands of people without going into prison. Our culture legitimates who is a criminal and has the power to decide who has to go to prison. It is important to consider as well the issue of legitimacy, that it to look to the claim made within the distribution of power to justify authority. Weber explains that there are three kinds of power: charismatic, legal rational and traditional. And all systems of power use legitimacy. Michel Foucault has worked a lot on the power issue, a system and regulation which is imposed upon a population. He shows that sovereign power replaced with disciplinary power. With his well-known metaphor of the Panopticon, Foucault analyzes the self-regulation of the behaviour due to the fact that people cannot tell if they are subject to the gaze of a guard: “The major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power” (Foucault quoted in Smith and Natalier 2005, p.29). The justification for the prisons is present in our every-day discourses, through which knowledge are reproduced. The rise of community corrections allows the expansion of state power to be hidden and really softly, control masked. Foucault states that the defects of the prison have all been recognised and criticized from as early as 1820s up to the present day while they are deeply rooted in our society. He explains this contradiction by arguing that prisons divide working class against themselves, enhance the fear of the prison and thus guarantee the authority and power of the police (Garland 1990, p.150). But people should keep it mind that this is reductionist to think that prisons are only a tool of power.

Waddington notices that when it is used inappropriately prison can be “an expensive way of making bad people worse” (Home Office 1990, quoted in Coyle 2005, p.174). So, the questions which have to be asked is if society can get rid of prisons altogether, and if it should. This essay will consider the thesis of the abolitionists and then, try to understand what can be done instead of using prisons. Some people points out the crisis of legitimacy, referring to prisons as others question if the use of power is morally justified and if, generally, prisons are efficient. Prisons cost money, they are morally degrading, they do not solve the problems and they enhance the division which exists in society. Consequently, it has to be considered why society still uses them. Abolitionists are pro human rights and they promote a positive response to social harm: they state that it should not and cannot be regulated effectively by criminal law and thus, that “the role of criminal justice system should be radically reduced” (De Haan 1991, p.203). They think that prisons only worsen problems and thus that they are counter productive, theory which was outlined by Foucault. The appropriate reaction toward crime, which is a result of the social order, is not punishment, according to them. Thus, they are for depenalisation, decriminalisation, decarceration, diversion, decategorisation, delegation and deprofessionalisation (Cohen 1988). Their approach of the problem of prisons is essentially reflexive. They point out an ethical paradox and wonder if it is logical to solve violence by another form of violence. The relationship between crime and its control is complex and society take the risk to degrade and to segregate people, by sending them to jail. It could be seen as simplistic and absurd to want to compensate one pain by another that society inflicts on the prisoner. In addition, while the criminal is blamed, the victim is ignored most of the time.

Abolitionists propose different alternatives to prisons. They laud more mutuality, more solidarity and a social regulation which would work semi-autonomously. They are in favour of social policy rather than crime control policy, compensation rather than retaliation, reconciliation rather than blame allocation. To sum up, they are more for inclusion than exclusion. They defend the idea of an informal justice, considering that criminal justice system necessitates decentralization with neighbourhood courts as replacement. They assert that crime control is not the solution. However, a wide variety of solutions exist toward each problem: violence is a social problem yet propriety crime is an economic problem. Criticised by some feminists who were wondering what should be done about rape criminals or violent persons towards women, abolitionists answer that prison can only reinforce the misogynistic behaviour of individuals and though that it is not the solution. It can be can stated that their vision of the world is quite naïve and idealistic. Even so, they define themselves as pragmatic. This theory has many strengths: it is more ethical, there is a wide variety of responses to each problem and social policy is a bride concept. Nevertheless, it is not possible to omit to stress some weaknesses: abolitionism sounds like a Utopia, the approach is essentially reflexive and the risk of such a practice could lead to social chaos. It is probably impossible to achieve a kind of program such as social policies. It is not obvious that crime prevention would be more successful with non punitive measures. And the question to be asked is how justice is possible in an unjust society. But in any case, the theory of abolitionists helps to rethink and redefine prisons.

There are other alternatives than totally getting rid of prisons. Instead of minimising state intervention: it could be possible to think about a punishment more effective, responsive and accountable. This essay will try to consider some examples. Probation means that court can be persuaded that punishment was inexpedient, regarding both to the character of the offender and the nature of the offence. This is an important alternative to custody. It can be community penalties. Another solution is the rehabilitation, which means that offenders can be cured of their criminality by the provision of training and treatment. Then, it is a benefit for the society. Another punishment possible is the re-integrative shaming which means that offenders should be shamed and that they should accept they have committed something wrong. After this period, which is not supposed to be exclusion or stigmata, the society could readmit them, helped by reintegration. Another concept is “restorative justice”: repairing instead of punishing. The word “reparation” is used when someone makes amends for the damage caused by the offence, considering that it can take various forms. Other intermediate sanctions exist: community corrections, periodic detention, home detention, suspended sentences, fines, electronic monitoring and so on. There are several advantages of using them: minor offenders are protected from the potential harm of imprisonment, a wide range of sentencing options are available, it could help to save money, it can solve the problem of overcrowded prisons and this is good for rehabilitation. In Japan, only the most dangerous offenders are imprisoned: as a result, a low crime rate is observed (Smith and Natalier 2005, p.190). But it is certain that this kind of alternative punishment can work for people such as psychopaths or people immersed in a strong subculture. So prisons should be rethought. The conclusion of the Woolf Report was that “a stable system prison should be built on three interdependent pillars: security, control and justice” (Coyle 2005, p.37). But it takes time for the things to change: even if the principal recommendations have been accepted by the government, it has not provided any timetable about how and when the prisons will radically change.

To sum up, the prisons has to be legitimate with the public, the penal staff and the penal subjects. It is not the role of the people to give the justification: they should be clear and obvious. This essay have shown that prisons are a really important issue in our society: the use of imprisonment has increased as courts have been committing more offenders to prisons with longer sentences. The society gives some justification about it but our attitude toward penal institutions is ambiguous. Sociology helps to understand it better, highlighting the role of the social contract and the issue money and power. But some theorists try to find some alternatives to custody e.g. the abolitionists or others, who have brand ideas but that have to be critically evaluated. If prisons are ineffective, too cruel, incoherent or too expensive, since corporal punishment is not acceptable anymore and because killing people is a morally problematic, it is essential to consider the new initiatives in punishment. Because what is really striking is the fact that “prisons exist and continue to be used, but there is no coherent or overarching framework explaining why we have them, how they should be organised and what they should do with offenders.” (Smith and Natalier 2005, p.175).


Cavadino, M and Dignan, J. 1997. The Penal System. London: Sage
Coyle, A. 2005. Understanding Prisons: Key Issues in Policy and Practice. Berkshire: Open University press
De Haan, W. Abolitionism and Crime Control: a Contradiction in Term in Stenson, K. 1991. The Politics of Crime Control. London: Sage
Dyer, C. 16/11/2007. Longer sentences have led to jail crisis says top judge – The Guardian [online] Available from : http://politics.guardian.co.uk/homeaffairs/story/0,,2212162,00.html [Accessed 16 November 2007]
Garland, D. 1990. Punishment and Modern Society. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Goffman, E. 1968 Asylums. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Matthews, R and Young, J. 2003. The New Politics of Crime and Punishment. Cullompton: William Publishing
Smith, P and Natalier K. 2005. Understanding Criminal Justice: Sociological Perspectives. London: Sage Publications LTD

Originally written for a competition by the Howard League for Penal Reform for essays on the topic of “Why Prisons Don’t Work”. You can read the winning (and excellent) essays here.

It is often said “prison works”. It is less often said what it means for a prison to “work”. Traditionally prisons have been argued to serve at least one of three functions: to punish the prisoner, to protect the public, and to rehabilitate the offender to prevent them committing another crime. However, on closer inspection, the reasons given seem to have secondary important to the need for society to feel like something is being done, that justice is being served, that law and order is being kept, with near-total disregard for those who find themselves shut out of society with no hope of redemption.

The first function given for prison, punishment, has always seemed to have the least force. Setting aside the dubious civility of a society which seeks revenge upon its citizenry, is spending £30,000 a year on keeping someone in prison when most prisoners really hurting them, or us? (1) Rehabilitation, a far more worthy aim, is chronically underfunded and ultimately useless in a system which is often referred to as a “university of crime”, where young impressionable offenders quickly pick up new skills from veteran prisoners and criminals and escalate their offences when they are released. Which leaves the protection of the public as the remaining reason, and the reason that prisons came about in the first place. Imprisoning those who threaten others seems slightly more justifiable. But this has to be balanced with the human rights of those convicted of crimes themselves – can we justify the imprisonment of such people? Does our society ultimately benefit from keeping people away under lock and key?

In 1993, the psychologist Terrie Moffett published a paper in the Psychological Review that argued that there were two fundamental types of prisoner – the adolescent-limited and the lifelong-persistent. The adolescent-limited are young, primarily men, who commit crime to support themselves, for fun, as part of a gang, or other reasons, who eventually mature, settle down and give up the lifestyle that was contributing to their criminality. The second type, lifelong-persistent, are people who commit crimes casually and often, moving through the criminal justice system in a perpetual cycle of crime-arrest-conviction-incarceration-release-crime and rarely, if ever, breaking out of that cycle. There are a variety of reasons both types end up in prison, including poor education, drug addiction, racism (young black men are twice as likely to go to prison than to university. (2)) and mental health difficulties, which are again rarely, if ever, given the attention they deserve.

Neither type of prisoner are prevented from committing more crime or given the chance to change their lives through serving prison sentences. The adolescent-limited, young and not really thinking about the consequences of their actions, find themselves permanently disadvantaged for the rest of their lives; upon release from prison, they struggle to find housing, meaningful employment and integration into society. It becomes easier to continue to commit more crimes to support themselves. Some will settle down and find councils and employers to give them a chance in life, but their potential, especially the potential of young black men, is severely compromised by serving a prison sentence, a physical block to their life’s progress as well as a permanent addition to their CV. Likewise, the lifelong-persistent are let down by our society. To deal with the reasons for people returning to prison over and over again, we require drug treatment programmes, mental health treatment, adult education, housing programmes, and ways of giving people pride and hope in themselves. But, when regarding that list, how much of it can be achieved effectively in a prison?

However, the rhetoric of the redtops of this country considers such proposals merely “pampering criminals”. Their attitude is largely that prison is for punishing people that society disapproves of. But if by prison “working”, we mean “reduces crime”, the only crime reduced is that which the imprisoned would have committed while doing time – as mentioned earlier, the recidivism rate for people who have been to prison more than twice is nearly 70%, so clearly prison does not “teach people a lesson”. But most advocates of prison do not care about that: they want to “see justice served” as opposed to actually seeing crime reduced and those who commit crime changing their lives. Jon Venables and Robert Thompson were both locked up for ten years – one has now been rehabilitated and is trying to build a new life, one has gone back into prison for breaking his parole. The press wants to see them both imprisoned at great cost to the taxpayer regardless of their current circumstances, and with the broad support of their readers, it seems. With such calls, can we really say society cares about whether prison works or not?

Ultimately, the way we treat prisoners as a society reflect on our humanity. Dostoevsky famously wrote “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” However, it is also the mark of a functional, thriving society that its citizens feel safe and protected from those who would do them harm. People who kill, rape, steal, assault and engage in other anti-social behaviour are causing us as individuals and as a community harm and need to be dealt with. We need evidence-based solutions to tackle the problems that leads people to commit crime. But is prison really effective at this? Can prison deal with poverty, drug addiction, racism, patriarchy, social breakdown, senses of insecurity, resentment, or entitlement? Unlikely. Perhaps prisons “work” to give us a sense of satisfaction that something has been done – but do prisons “work” to create a safer, more secure society that protects its citizens, prevents crime, and rehabilitates those citizens who find themselves on the wrong side of the law? The evidence would suggest that as a society we have got our definition very wrong.

(1) Kanazawa, Satishi (24th August, 2008), “When crime rates go down, recidivism rates go up”, Psychology Today. Accessed 19th April, 2010.
(2) Smart Justice (2004), “The Racial Justice Gap: Race and the Prison Population Briefing”, pg 2.

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