Does the answer to criminality lie in imprisonment?

High Down Prison, Sutton, Surrey, United Kingdom, Pick Everard ArchitectsPrisons are a grey area to society and few people know what goes on within the high security institutions; most people consider them places where the worst of society are taken to consider their misdeeds and some may relate them to fantastic spaces, as shown in the popular TV programme Prison Break. The purpose of prisons in society is to punish criminals by giving them a negative, life-altering experience that deters them from disobeying the law once more, and it is expected by the time the individual leaves they are ready to re-join society as an upstanding member. Prisons are built on the principle of deterrence rehabilitation, and an individual’s experience when separated from society aims to give them the chance to recognise their wrongdoing and help them to grow and understand that they cannot repeat that kind of behaviour.

However, there is a lot of evidence to suggest that prisons may be detrimental to society rather than beneficial for a number of reasons. Firstly, the cost of running prisons is very high for the government. Food, staff and maintenance are all costs that need to be met in the facilities that accommodate thousands of people. Overcrowding and substandard living conditions are often faced by prisoners, because they are perceived as degenerates in society, and therefore treated in a poor way. Neither do prisons appear to reduce crime, as, despite people being convicted every day, more people still commit the same crime and reoffending is also a very common occurrence, suggesting that prisons don’t serve their purpose.

Prisoners are also segregated from the public and can lose contact with family because visitation is highly restricted and regulated, and scientific research has proved that isolation (from family and those you care about) worsens mental health and is adverse for emotional wellbeing, and in this light, prisons have the opposite effect to what they aim to achieve. Furthermore, because prisoners have often been isolated from the public for so long, when they are finally released they find it very difficult to join society once more. As they have been incarcerated, they also have a criminal record, which makes it harder for ex-convicts to move forward because they are given a label that, for example, affects their chances of obtaining a job. This leads onto another issue, as often ex-convicts may be unable to obtain work and therefore may steal to provide food and other necessities for themselves, and the reoffence results in them being sent to prison again, where the cycle of reconviction rather than rehabilitation repeats itself.

High levels of violence and suicide also characterise prisons and this raises the question whether these institutions are the best place for an individual’s behaviour to be corrected, if they are constantly being subjected to negative stimuli. Prisoners are often abused, in many cases by staff, and this is supported by Zimbardo’s Stanford Experiment in which ordinary people were given the roles of either ‘guards’ or ‘prisoners’ (Zimbardo converted a basement of the Stanford University psychology building into a mock prison). Within a few days, the ‘guards’ began to display extreme brutality towards the ‘prisoners’ simply because they had the power to do so, therefore if normal people can display such cruelty, then what sort of behaviour do actual guards have towards convicts?

There are issues of social control, as people are forced to go to prison for their crimes even though they may be sorry for their actions, not understand they were wrong (due to lack of education) or in some cases, have been wrongfully convicted. Prisons are a construct that society forces onto others as a form of deterrence through punishment and some psychologists would argue that they are a form of social control and ultimately serve no purpose.

Overall, I believe that prisons are the best correctional technique society has and a better method may be developed at a later time, and the positive aspects of prisons, like the fact they remove people that are a severe risk to the wellbeing of the general population (eg terrorists) outweigh the negative aspects. It is very difficult to create a justice system that is perfect because so many factors require consideration.  In summary, I believe that prisons are valuable to society and improvements like offering psychiatric support can be made. Hopefully in the future a more effective justice system will exist.

Erica, Deputy Head Girl


Photo credit:
Anthony Coleman / View Pictures/ Universal Images Group

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