As prison populations rise to unprecedented levels, to what extent can it be argued that prisons work

In recent years the number of people in prison has risen considerably and looks set to continue creeping upwards. This raises questions over why the figures are rising and whether prison works. To address this, I begin by looking at the historical origins of prison, then move on to consider how this has informed present-day thinking about the purpose of prison. This will include exploration of ideologies of deterrence, incapacitation, rehabilitation, punishment/retribution and denunciation.

I move on to evaluate alternatives to prison and fresh perspectives on the penal system before looking at some reasons for the increasing inmate numbers and considering the effect of the exponential rise on the prison service. Finally, I draw a conclusion about the possible reasons for the tensions in reaching a consensus about what prison is for, plus put forward suggestions for supporting the prison service and help it to work for inmates and society alike. Early 12th century prisons served a coercive/custodial function, mainly detaining people until civil debts were met.

A prison’s effectiveness was measured by its success in holding people until this occurred (Muncie, 2001, pp159-160). Six hundred years later, the rationale behind prison changed to one of punishment rather than containment, though the population remained mainly debtors (Muncie, 2001, p162). However, the end of the 18th century saw the rise of the penitentiary, in which prisoners were sorted into hierarchical groups in a regime of punishment and rewards and subjected to hard physical labour and moral reformation (Muncie, 2001, p164).

Things moved on apace until, through the work of early 19th century philanthropists, issues such as justice and rehabilitation ascended in the prison system. Philanthropic societies across the UK committed to ushering in better conditions, useful employment and good habits of behaviour through discipline and compassion (Muncie, 2001, pp169-171). Perhaps this formed the inspiration for the rehabilitative yet punitive modern-day prison. With this in mind, I turn now to current ideologies of prison.

There are many different types of prison, operating at different levels of security (Sparks, 2001, p215). Whilst there is no definitive correlation between rising crime rates and a rising prison population, a link between the two often is assumed (Sparks, 2001, p213). Hence, prisons are seen as a means of controlling crime. Speaking in 2002, the then Home Secretary, David Blunkett, said that the purposes of prison were to protect the public, effect appropriate punishment and retribution, and ensure long-term rehabilitation programmes to reduce levels of crime (D315 CD2, 2005).

Prison is used in two different ways: looking backwards and imposing a sentence as a punishment proportional to the crime committed; looking forwards and touting prison as a deterrent against future crimes (Sparks, 2001, p204). I begin by explaining the latter. Deterrence is underpinned by classical criminology, ie, individuals make a reasoned decision to commit crimes. A would-be offender weighs up the benefits of carrying out the offence against the possible disadvantage of going to prison (Muncie and McLaughlin, 2004, p7).

Wilson (2003, p337) and Murray (1997; in Jewkes, 2006, p41) argue that an increased likelihood of penal sanctions decreases instances of crime. Wolpin?? s study (in Wilson, 2003, p337) of crime rates in England during the period 1894-1967 supports the view that deterrence impacts positively on crime rates. However, a person committing burglary for the first time in 2004 was twice more likely to go to prison than in 1996 (Morris, 2004; in Jewkes, 2006, p53).

Burglaries still occur today so an increased likelihood of sentence does not appear to be a key factor. Also, in the USA, almost half of the state prison population was imprisoned for offences committed whilst on probation or parole (Murray, 1997; in Jewkes, 2006, p41). Sturt argues that most of the total prison population is comprised of people with a chaotic history of addiction, social exclusion and perpetual unemployment (D315 CD2, 2005), whilst Feeley and Simon (2003, p438) argue that the majority of people arrested are drug users.

Research conducted in 2005 showed that UK drug users commit 57% of all crime (Winnett, 2005; in Jewkes, 2006, p48). These are not conditions for making the type of rational cost/benefits analysis assumed by the ideology of deterrence. But if locking people away doesn’t prevent crimes, in theory it stops them for the duration of their sentence. I turn now to incapacitation. This seeks to stop people committing crimes by restricting their freedom, eg, through imprisonment or by imposing supervision orders (Spark, 2001, p204; Feeley and Simon, 2003, p437).

Studies claim that a small increase in the prison population and longer custodial sentences can prevent colossal numbers of murders, assaults, thefts, burglaries and rapes that otherwise would be committed (Murray, 1997; in Jewkes, 2006, p41; Wooten, cited in Davis, 2003, p285). Given that almost every prisoner is eligible for release at some point (D315 CD2, 2005; De Haan, 2003, p391), incapacitation can’t work in the long-term. In addition, Bennett and Leech argue that opportunities for making new contacts for future criminal collaborations are rife.

Sturt states that three elements are essential for a person to lead a crime-free life, and that without them reoffending is inevitable: human contact or companionship outside prison, shelter and safety, legitimate money (D315 CD2, 2005). Prisoners are often released with nowhere to go, no-one to go to, and with no money (Browne, 2004; in Jewkes, 2006, p56), which can set them up for failure. With regard to rehabilitation, Cullen and Gilbert (2003, p350) claim that there is a popular view of this as a misplaced obligation on “… he state to care for an offender’s needs or welfare”. However, if a purpose of prison is to curb re-offending then inmates can’t merely have the keys to their cells thrown away, as incarceration with no treatment or training fosters recidivism (Rose, 2002b; in Jewkes, 2006, p52). David Blunkett claimed “reform or bust”, therefore treatment and training programmes across the prison service aim to change inmates’ patterns of destructive behaviour and provide improved life chances upon release (Rose, 2002a; in Jewkes, 2006, p49).

One example is Grendon Prison, where medical/welfare professionals, prison staff and inmates form communities built on mutual respect and social responsibility. The intense treatment programme promotes pro-social behaviour and cuts recidivism in a population of prisoners with a higher than usual propensity to reoffend. The programme aims beyond rehabilitation, to reform prisons so as to enable them to see the victim?? s perpective and the harm that their actions cause, to be more aware of their own and others’ dangerous patterns of behaviour, and to show that they have talents to use outwith crime (D315 CD2, 2005).

As two-thirds of prisoners are excluded from the majority of jobs due to poor basic education (Rose, 2002a; in Jewkes, 2006, p49), the potential benefits of rehabilitation to offenders and society alike are apparent. However, the exponential rise in inmate numbers means that resources are stretched thin, with funding for addiction programmes being shared across an increasing population (D315 CD2, 2005). Prisoners repeatedly false-start treatment programmes (Rose, 2002a; in Jewkes, 2006, p49, p51), which jeapordises chances of success. Perhaps the i?? 000 per month cost to house one inmate (Sparks, 2001, p215) would be better invested in reform and rehabilitation rather than simple containment. For many, the true purpose of prison is punishment of the ‘bad’ (ie, offenders) to effect retribution for the ‘good’ (ie, victims and wider society). This involves an element of expression of social disapproval (Sparks, 2001, p204). Foucault (2003, p418) argues that prison is one component of a wider carceral, ie, a powerful continuum of societal institutions and professions intent on legitimizing subordination of ‘deviants’ – in this context, people who commit crimes.

He argues that their offences become secondary to the “… attack on the common interest… departure from the norm”. Davis (2003, p289) concurs with this, arguing that the construction of crime and criminals creates self-perpetuating cycles of fear of crime and demand for more prison. In this respect, it could be argued that prison is highly effective as an agent of denunciation. But is it important for society to feel ‘better’ than offenders, or should the focus of prison be on reducing prison numbers, cutting crime and building safer communities?

With this in mind, I turn now to different perspectives on imprisonment and alternatives to the current penal system. Crime is a consistent, ‘normal’ facet of society (Muncie, 2001b, p63). According to Durkheim (2003, pp65-66), a society without it is impossible; in fact, crime is one of all societies’ defining factors. Due to this, Feeley and Simon (2003, pp434-437) advocate a ‘new penology’ and suggest a managerial approach to cutting crime by identifying high-risk groups of offenders and exercising long-term control over unruly behaviour to make crime “tolerable through systematic coordination”.

The higher the risk category into which an offender is placed, the longer their sentence. It is not proposed that prison should effect a change in a prisoner’s life nor have any rehabilitative function. Rather, the new penology views prison as a “social management instrument??? (Feeley and Simon, 2003, p439, pp444-445). However, as uneducated, unemployed young men of minority ethnic backgrounds and with a history of psychiatric disorders already are over-represented in the criminal justice system (Box, 2003, p272; Sparks, 2001, p216), the new penology would further marginalise already subordinate groupings.

De Haan (2003, p387) argues for an abolitionist approach, moving away from seeing prison as the remedy to crime control and instead tackling it through solving social problems in the context of the real, diverse world. His suggestion for “decriminalization, depersonalization, destigmatization, decentralization and deprofessionalization” most likely would be rejected by society – witness the rise of right realism in the 1980s, inspired largely by a population tired of lawlessness (Muncie and McLaughlin, 2004, p45).

But a philosophy of offenders being accountable/responsible for the consequences of their actions (De Haan, 2003, p388) might work for the petty offenders that comprise the bulk of the prison population. Von Hirsch (2003, pp346-347) concurs that penalties should fit the severity of the offence, with prison reserved for very serious offences such as murder, rape, armed robbery, and that discretionary rehabilitative measures be taken for lesser offences.

Such a birfurcation system has been utilized in the UK for many years, but it is sensitive to public mood (Sparks, 2001, p206). So why are prison figures so high and what is the effect on the prison service? Imprisonment as a first resort and for minor offences has been criticised since the late 19th century (Muncie, 2001, p190). However, during the 1990s, there was a rising trend to commit adult offenders to immediate custody (Sparks, 2001, p212). Home detection systems with electronic tagging are not utilised as frequently as was hoped.

There is a steady through-put of prisoners with an increase in the numbers of short sentences (Morris, 2004; in Jewkes, 2006, p53); the average custodial sentence is just 6-8 months (D315 CD2, 2005). In addition, broader political policies such as the ‘war on crime’ and ‘prison works’ (Sparks, 2001, pp246-247) have an impact. The effect is that overcrowding is inhibiting potential efficacy of the prison service. Relations across and between staff and prisoners deteriorate (Sparks, 2001, p217).

Furthermore, Leech claims that it is pointless to offer rehabilitation for short-stay prisoners, but that daily fire-fighting caused by overcrowding impinges on rehabilitation of prisoners with longer sentences. Sturt describes the exponential rise as the “single greatest impediment” to prisons, in terms of providing decent conditions and rehabilitation programmes (D315 CD2, 2005). On a higher level, the sheer weight of inmate numbers is damaging prison legitimacy and could lead to prisoner revolts (Sparks, 2001, p222).

Given all this, it is surprising if prisons provide anything more than perfunctory containment. In conclusion, it can be seen that there are many ideologies of what prison is for and how well it meets its aims. Some tout crime prevention and protection of the public through the threat of incarceration and incapacitative measures; other espouse treatment and training programmes for inmates to enhance post-prison life chances and provide alternatives to crime. Tensions arise from these competing perspectives, with political and public intuition arguing for more to be done to prisoners and offenders than for them.

However, mounting evidence demonstrates that prison doesn’t deter crimes, nor does it prevent recidivism. Prison may assuage an immediate societal need for punishment and retribution, but with increasing percentages of prisoners serving short sentences and coming from chaotic lifestyles of addiction and social/economic exclusion, it makes sense to take a longer-term perspective. Rehabilitation and reform programmes can open up employment opportunities for inmates upon release, plus treatment for addictions can curb the primary reasons for offending.

This could encourage would-be offenders to make a classical-style pros vs cons choice about committing crimes, but it fosters more active and positive choices. In addition, community sanctions such as electronic tagging could help preserve the familial ties that are so important for preventing recidivism. For prison ultimately to work, the culture of thinking about prisons and prisoners must change. Firstly, politicians and policy-makers must lose their fear of alienating the public.

A shift is required from human warehousing of petty offenders serving short sentences to more measured and concerted efforts to decrease the prison population, and prevent recidivism though in-prison treatment and training, and more joined-up welfare support upon release. Perhaps it is time to look back to the Victorian ethos of compassion to inspire the future of prison. Through these means, real alternatives to crime could be opened up to disadvantaged individuals. Whole communities could then be strengthened and made safer from within, through greater social inclusion rather than some individuals being forced behind prison bars.