Prison makes bad people worse

In the UK the prisons have a maximum capacity of 80,000 inmates. At the end of April 2004 the number of people serving custodial sentences rose to above 82,000. The prisons in the UK are currently over capacity. Where are the extra 2000 inmates if there is no room for them? (Johnson 2004) For the purpose of this essay the statement that ‘prison makes bad people worse’ is assumes to mean that serving a custodial sentence increases the likelihood of an offender re-offending.

Before an attempt is made to examine the issue in questions a brief history of the prison system will be explored in an attempt to understand how prison has come to be the most serious method of punishment in the UK today.

Prisons as mere places of confinement have existed for many years. Prisons as we know them today-places to which offenders are sent to receive punishment, there also to be worked on and changed-are a feature of modernity, a product of the industrial age.

Since the abolition of the death penalty in 1965 imprisonment has been the most serious penalty the courts can impose in Britain.

The punishment of imprisonment for sentenced prisoners might be both loss of liberty and harsh living conditions in the name of ‘less eligibility’ or deterrence (Morgan, R 1997). Prior to the nineteenth century punishment for criminals was very different. The focus of punishment in these historic times was the body. Punishments were physical in nature with execution and torture being combined with public humiliation. Within just a few decades the brutal torture and public humiliations stopped.

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The body was no longer the major target for penal repression.

Punishment ceased to be centred on torture as a technique of pain; it assumed as its principle object loss of wealth or rights. While this type of punishment apparently now focuses on the soul rather than the body it could be argued in many ways that imprisonment as a punishment does concern the body in a more indirect manner by rationing of food, sexual deprivation and solitary confinement . This trace of torture is enveloped increasingly, by the non-corporal nature of today’s penal system (Foucault 1977). There are different arguments for the reason behind this shift from punishment in a physical manner to imprisonment.

An orthodox approach argued that the reason for this was due to humanitarianism a (Portsmouth University 2003). nd reform, a more humane and civilized alternative to the brutality of earlier years Foucault (1977) argued that this was not the case; he believed that the reason for the changes was the defining of a new age, better punishment by operating not on bodies or fear but on the reform of offenders into the ‘disciplined subject’. Regardless of Foucault’s argument the one factor that underpins punishment in the UK today is Human Rights.

The 1998 Human Rights Act sets out a number of conventions which all people have a right to. The Prisons Inspectorate has developed the concept of a ‘Healthy Prison’ which is based on the World Health Organisation’s four tests of what constitutes a healthy custodial environment which is based upon international human rights principles. These four tests are: that prisoners are held in safety; that they are treated with respect and dignity as human beings; that they are able to engage in purposeful activity; and that they are prepared for resettlement (Owers, A 2003).

Punishment needs justification because it is something which is harmful, painful or unpleasant to the recipient. Prison causes physical discomfort, psychological pain, indignity and general unhappiness along with a number of social disadvantages which lead to offenders becoming socially excluded. There are a number of justifications or theories for punishment. Reductivism justifies punishment on the grounds that it helps to reduce the incidence of crime.

It is claimed by supporters of this theory that if punishment is inflicted the incidence of crime will be less then if no punishment were imposed (Cavadino & Dignan 1997) These arguments are supported by utilitarianism; a moral theory founded by Jeremy Bentham which stated that the greatest good was defined by the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. Society as a whole is given greater weight than the individual (Abercrombie, Hill & Turner 1988). Many theories of punishment come under the heading of Reductivism and are assumed to reduce the levels of crime.

Deterrence is the idea that crime is reduced because of people’s fear of the punishment they may receive if they offend. Deterrence is divided into two categories, individual deterrence where an individual commits a crime and finds the punishment so unpleasant that the offence is not repeated fro the fear of the same happening again. General deterrence is when the punishment of a crime does not deter the offender who committed it but the crime is meant to put others off from committing the same crime. While it may seem common sense that this would be effective in reality this is not the case.

Research has shown that punishment has other effects which out weigh any deterrence. The catching and imprisoning of offenders leads to them being labelled as criminals and this labelling process makes it difficult for them live law abiding lives. Their self image can change from a law abiding one to that of a deviant and this impacts on their behaviour (Cavadino & Dignan 1997). It could be said with this evidence in mind that prison makes people worse. Rehabilitation theory is based on the notion that punishment can take a form which will improve an individual’s character and behaviour and reduce the likelihood of them re-offending.

The main aim of the probation service is the rehabilitation of offenders and the central aim of the prison system is the treatment and training of offenders (Portsmouth University 2003). One of prisons main priorities to assist in the rehabilitation of offenders is the provision of accredited offending behaviour programmes for prisoners which are based on evidence-based practice. Home Office research found no evidence between re-conviction rates for prisoners who had participated in programmes.

The study suggested that there has been a shift in programme targeting to low risk offenders who are not suitable for the cognitive-behavioural approaches used. A report by the Social Exclusion Unit demonstrates that any positive effects that come from the offending programmes are far outweighed by the damage that the overall prison experience inflicts (Solomon, E, 2003). Another important point to note about rehabilitation in prison is that offenders who are serving short sentences do not get access to these programmes and it is these offenders who are more likely to get caught in the revolving door of the Criminal Justice System.

This evidence does not directly indicate that prison makes bad people worse but neither does it demonstrate that prison can reform bad people. The theory of incapacitation does not centre on the idea that changing the behaviour of the offender will reduce crime but the notion of public protection. Whilst the offender is incarcerated he or she will not be able to commit further crime and this in turn will reduce crime. Along with this is the notion that the members of the public will feel safer knowing that they will not fall victim to a perpetrator who is locked up (Ainsworth 2000).

James Q Wilson (1975) stated that a twenty percent reduction in street robbery could be achieved by locking up offenders for longer (Cavadino & Dignan 1997). In reality this would result in a massive increase in prison numbers which due to the fact that prisons are already full would be impossible. With retribution theory punishment is an attempt by the victim and society to redress the balance between offenders and offended by seeing that the perpetrator is punished and suffers accordingly. This knowledge that the culprit is suffering may make victims feel that they have had their ‘pound of flesh’ (Ainsworth 2000).

Retribution theory is the opposite of reductionism. Where reductionism looks forward at the effects of punishment retribution looks back at the offence and believes that in some way two wrongs will make a right. In many cases retribution and reductionism are combined in a compromise situation and punishment is justified if it is both deserved by the offender and likely to act as a deterrent (Cavadino & Dignan 1997). The justifications for punishment are wide and there are many more than are noted here.

Regardless of the justification for sending a person to prison the important factor to be considered is the impact that a custodial sentence has on an individual prisoner. When talking about deterrence as a justification for prison, labelling theory was explored as a possibility for making prisoners more likely to re-offend due to them trying to fit into a role. Expanding this further is the idea of conformity, where an individual conforms to social rules or assumes a role because it is the norm. Social roles are built on a polarity such as powerful and powerless.

These kinds of roles exist in the prison setting with the inmates being powerless and the prison officers powerful. An important question that needs to be examined is how easy it is for people to assume a role. A key study was carried out in 1973 by Psychologist Zimbardo which investigated this. Volunteers were recruited to take part in a two week study on prison life. 25 men took part in the study; each person was assigned the role of either prisoner or guard. These roles were assigned by the toss of a coin so that each participant had an equal chance of being prisoner or guard.

The mock prison was in the basement of Stanford University. The results of the study were shocking. The prisoners were increasingly passive and dependant as the days went by and the guards became increasingly aggressive. One prisoner had to be release just 36 hours after the study began because of uncontrollable crying and fits of rage along with disorganised thinking and severe depression. Three more prisoners were released on successive days with similar symptoms. A fifth prisoner was released when he developed a rash over his whole body following his ‘parole’ being rejected.

The experiment, which was meant to run for two weeks, had to be stopped after 6 days because of the pathological reactions of the prisoners who had originally been selected for their normality. Throughout the experiment social power was the major dimension. All the guards at some point behaved in abusive, authoritarian way and appeared to enjoy the power and control (Gross 1996). Zimbardo argued that the abnormal behaviour demonstrated is best viewed as a product of transactions within an environment that supports such behaviour.

The participants were labelled and put in a situation where these labels became valid and elicit pathological behaviour (Portsmouth University 2003). The main concern with the results of the Zimbardo experiment is the implications that it has for the prison system. Zimbardo believes that the current prison system is guaranteed to generate severe enough pathological reactions is prisoners and guards to debase their humanity, lower their feelings of self-worth and make it difficult for them to be part of society outside of prison (Portsmouth University 2003).

This evidence is a clear demonstration of how labelling and conformity theories are evidence for prison making bad people worse. The inmates assume the role expected of them and find it difficult to leave this role when they are released. The work of Zimbardo leads neatly to a sociological idea of a prison subculture or a inmate code. This theory is demonstrated throughout prisons regardless of the justification for punishment. Prison is a society within a society with distinctive structure, aims, values and practices separate from the wider society. The inmate code is something which all prisoners adhere to.

The is code includes not informing on other prisoners, not fraternising with staff, a need to be tough and resist exploitation and a need to maintain ones position in the prison ‘pecking order’. Violations of these roles are often controlled via bullying (Ireland 2002). This prisonisation process does not help with rehabilitation but acts as a breeding ground which provides reinforcement for criminal behaviour. The inmates become socialized into the way of life which demands opposition to authority and the formal system represented by the prison staff.

Any attempts at reform are neutralized by this. According to Sykes (1958) this inmate code is developed to help inmates cope with the pain and deprivation of imprisonment. There is much evidence about the sociology of prison and about the current penal crisis which concerns overcrowding as one of the main factors. The fact of the matter is that prison has a poor record in reducing re-offending – 59% of prisoners are reconvicted within 2 years of release. The reconviction rate for male young adults (under 21) over the same period is 74%.

For prisoners who are sentenced for burglary, one of the most common offences, the reconviction rate is 75%. It has been concluded by research from the Social Exclusion Unit that re-offending by ex-prisoners costs society at least i?? 11 billion each year. Ex -prisoners are responsible for approximately one in five recorded crimes (Solomon, E, 2003). This is not direct evidence to suggest that the reason these people have re-offended is because they have served a custodial sentence which has made them worse. The evidence merely raises questions about the use of prison as a punishment for some offences.

Prison is the right place for many criminals but the wrong place for others. Those convicted of violent crimes should be given custodial sentences. Prison has an important role to play in protecting the public from those who cause harm and punishing crimes that society takes most seriously. It is also right that there are many offenders who should not be taken into custody when they could be dealt with appropriately in the community. Community penalties allow offender to repay their debt to society rather than warehousing them in prison.

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Prison makes bad people worse. (2017, Nov 27). Retrieved from

Prison makes bad people worse
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