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Prison makes bad people worse Essay

In the year 2002, there were just over 68,000 persons in prison in England and Wales, 6,000 in Scotland and 1,200 in Northern Ireland. In the case of England and Wales, this is a few thousand more than in 1999, but at this time the plateau stood in marked comparison to the trend up to 1997-8 and it was by no means certain that this could be maintained, (Morgan, 2002). These findings serve to highlight the progressive increase in rising prison numbers in the UK the causes of which are continually in debate and beg the question; what happens when there is no more room left in our prisons?

For the purpose of this essay, this author assumes that the statement “prison makes bad people worse” infers that an offender, who serves a custodial sentence, is more likely to re-offend upon release. Before evaluating this statement and reaching a conclusion, this author will introduce a brief history of the prison system in an attempt to offer an understanding of how imprisonment has become the most severe penalty imposed on offenders in the UK today. Prisons all over the world have existed for many years for the purpose of confining those in society who have committed a crime serious enough to warrant such a sentence.

The purpose of prison is now not only to inflict a punishment but also to attempt to rehabilitate offenders contrasting with the early days of imprisonment where little rehabilitative work was done. A custodial sentence is now the most severe penalty that an offender can be sentenced to in the UK following the abolition of the death penalty in 1965. Imprisonment is intended to punish offenders through restricting freedom and liberty as well as unfavourable living conditions in the name of ‘less eligibility’, (Morgan, 2002).

This in no way is intended to suggest that conditions in prisons are inhumane although reports exist from previous investigations that would suggest otherwise. Punishment for offenders was served in a very different manner prior to the nineteenth century. Punishments at this time in the main consisted of physical punishment which would often involve torture, public humiliation and even execution. After decades of this type of punishment being administered, the torture and public humiliation elements ceased.

The infliction of physical pain was replaced by the principle that the loss of rights and wealth would serve as an adequate deterrent for further offending. Although this altered form of punishment apparently focused on the mind of the individual, it could still be argued that custodial sentences still impose an element of physical torture indirectly by food rationing, sexual deprivation and solitary confinement. These aspects of punishments are still relevant within the penal system today, (Flynn, 1998).

Many different explanations exist for why this change from physical punishment to imprisonment came about, one of which argues that the reason for the shift was due to humanitarianism and reform which would offer a more humane and civilised alternative to the methods of previous years, (Wilson, Ellis, Mikulski, & Nash, 2003). An opposing argument suggested that this was not the case and that the defining of a new age and more effective punishment by focusing on the reform of offenders into the ‘disciplined subject’ were the main reasons for this shift in operation, (Foucault, 1977).

Despite this argument, one of the most influential factors associated with how prisons operate in the UK today is the concept of human rights. The 1998 Human Rights Act governs these rights. Along with this, the Prisons Inspectorate introduced guidelines on what factors should constitute a healthy custodial environment based on international human rights principles. Arising from the World Health Organisation’s influence, four tests are used to identify whether a healthy custodial environment is present. Firstly, prisoners must be held in safety.

Secondly, they must be treated with respect and dignity as human beings. Thirdly, they must be able to engage in purposeful activity, and lastly, prisoners must be prepared for resettlement into the community prior to release, (Owers, 2003). Because of the unpleasantness of imprisonment it is necessary for this type of punishment to be justified. Prison can be very unpleasant for many offenders as their liberty is severely reduced, their contact with family and friends is minimised, and it can infer many social disadvantages that may lead to offenders becoming socially excluded upon their release from custody.

In order to justify imprisonment as a viable punishment, numerous theories or arguments have been introduced in an attempt to support this sentencing option. One argument that attempts to justify imprisonment is the concept of Reductionism. This argument suggests that custodial sentences reduce the number of crimes committed. Those in agreement with this theory also argue that the number of crimes committed will be less if someone is punished in this manner, than there would be if no punishment were imposed at all, (Cavadino & Dignan, 1997).

This theory also suggests that society as a whole, has a greater influence than the individual and therefore an offender would be powerless to justify not going to prison if he/she had committed a crime that endangered public safety, (Abercrombie, Hill, & Turner, 1988). However, it could be argued that this theory suggests that crimes are only committed by those who are in prison ignoring the concept that there are many in society committing crimes that have never been caught.

Deterrence is another theory used to justify imprisonment as an appropriate punishment by arguing that people will not offend because they are too fearful of the consequences should they be caught as the punishment is seen as too severe. There are two elements to this theory, firstly there is individual deterrence which suggests that an offender will not re-offend because the punishment they received last time was so severe that it has deterred them from doing it again.

Secondly, there is general deterrence which argues that a punishment imposed on one offender for a crime will deter others from offending, as they know exactly what the consequences are. At first glance, deterrence theory appears to hold validity, but in reality research findings have indicated that sentencing offenders to custodial sentences has a more influential effect. Once an offender has been in prison they may find themselves labelled by the rest of society and categorised into a stereotype with unfavourable connotations.

This may hinder their attempts to live lawful lives for example; problems getting a job and even psychological effects, which may become apparent in their behaviour, (Cavadino & Dignan, 1997). This evidence could be used to support the argument that prison does make people worse. Rehabilitation theory suggests that some forms of punishment can actually reduce the likelihood of re-offending and alter an offender’s behaviour and attitude. Together the prison service and the probation service are heavily involved with rehabilitation as well as the treatment and training of offenders, (Wilson et al, 2003).

As a main aim of the prison service to assist in the rehabilitation of offenders, the provision of accredited programmes such as PASRO (Prisons Addressing Substance Related Offending) and ETS (Enhanced Thinking Skills) attempt to address prisoners’ offending behaviour whilst in prison. However, a report by the Social Exclusion Unit found that the prison experience causes such damage to an offenders’ rehabilitation that it outweighs the effectiveness of the programmes, (Solomon, 2003).

Another criticism of the penal system is that many offenders are sentenced to such short periods of custody that they are unable to gain access to any rehabilitative interventions. This evidence could also suggest that prison can make bad people worse. The theory of incapacitation implies more emphasis on public protection rather than the behaviour of offenders which coincidently is another main remit of the probation service.

Quite simply, this theory argues that if an offender is in custody they are unable to commit crime and therefore ensuring public safety for the duration of the sentence giving piece of mind to members of society, (Ainsworth, 2000). It could be argued that this theory fails to recognise that crime often occurs within prisons including violence, bullying and drug offences. Another criticism of this theory is that as mentioned earlier, the public will only be protected in this manner for the duration of a sentence.

Lastly, retribution theory holds that punishment is imposed on an offender to redress the balance between offenders and their victims in making sure that the offender suffers for their crime. Ainsworth (2000), recognises that seeing an offender incarcerated may make the victims feel that justice has been done. However, this is often not the case as many offenders receive sentences that the victim may feel does not reflect the harm that has been caused to them as a result of the offence.

Now that some of the justifications for imprisonment have been discussed, it is now possible to explore conformity within prisons which may assist in reaching a conclusion on whether the statement “prison makes bad people worse” can be justified. Conformity, a theory closely linked with labelling theory, suggests that an individual may conform to social rules or may even assume a social role because it is recognised as the norm in their environment. Heavily influenced by the levels of power, social roles exist predominantly in the prison environment especially between prison officers and offenders.

One study that attempted to explore power dynamics and how easy it is to assume a role was conducted in August 1971 by psychologist Philip Zimbardo and was named the Stanford Prison Experiment. Twenty-five male volunteers took part in the experiment and were taken to a mock prison where each person was assigned a role of either prisoner or guard. The guards had the authority to dictate 24 hour a day rules to the prisoners the results of which were shocking and are still referred to today. A number of prisoners had to be released due to mental health illnesses arising from the trauma of the situation.

The experiment, which was intended to last for two weeks, was terminated after six days due to the pathological reactions of the prisoners who ironically had been selected for their normality. The findings were that the environment transformed the participants and after a few days, the role dominated the person, (Alexander, 2001). This experiment highlighted social power as the being the major factor in the participant’s behaviour as all the guards at some point displayed abuse, authoritarian attitudes, and appeared to enjoy being in control.

Zimbardo argued that this abnormal behaviour is a product of transactions within an environment that supports this behaviour. The labels placed upon the participants became valid in this environment and pathological behaviour was the outcome, (Wilson et al, 2003). This experiment still has implications for the prison system today in that Zimbardo argued that the current prison system is guaranteed to cause severe pathological reactions within prisoners causing a debasement of their humanity, low self esteem and making it difficult to integrate into society outside of prison, (Wilson et al, 2003).

This would suggest that labelling and conformity theories are a case for prison making bad people worse. Whilst in prison an offender may assume a role that could be continued upon their release. Zimbardos’ experiment provides an adequate basis for discussing the sociological theory of a prison subculture sometimes referred to as the inmate code. The prison society exists apart from the rest of society and therefore it is understandable that norms and values are very different between the two. Sykes (1958) found that the inmate code is something that may give a prisoner an identity and help them to cope with the effects of imprisonment.

The code is thought to include certain rules such as not fraternising with staff, acquiring a position in the inmate ‘pecking order’, and giving the impression of toughness in emotion and physical appearance. Clemmer (1940) argued this to be part of the prisonisation process which arguably reinforces criminal behaviour as prisoners become used to opposing authority which is likely to continue in the outside world, (Cited in Morgan, 2002). Therefore, attempts at rehabilitation may be hindered by this and could be used to argue that prison makes bad people worse.

So what statistical evidence is there to support the statement “prisons make bad people worse”? Reports into the subject have found that prisons have a poor record in reducing re-offending and that 59% of offenders are reconvicted within two years of release. For male youths under the age of twenty-one, the reconviction rate is 74% over the same period of time. Research findings from the Social Exclusion Unit have indicated that re-offending by ex-prisoners costs society approximately ? 11 billion each year and that they are responsible for one in five recorded crimes, (Solomon, 2003).

This evidence would appear to suggest that people who have served custodial sentences have been made worse by the experience and that imprisonment is not an effective punishment. Contributing to this argument is the theory that these statistics are only obtained from recorded crime suggesting that the figures may in reality be significantly higher as many crimes are not recorded. In conclusion it would appear that there is much evidence to support the claim that prison makes bad people worse such as the statistical evidence revealing reconviction rates.

On the other hand, there are also arguments for prison as an effective punishment such as the justifications for imprisonment including rehabilitation and deterrence theories. It would appear that prison does indeed have an influence on some prisoners re-offending but it would be difficult to assume that this is the case for all offenders who have served a custodial sentence. This would suggest that for some offenders prison is effective and for others it is not.

Having said this, it is important to recognise that prison does ensure public safety from offenders who pose danger to society, but only for the period they are in custody unless they emerge from prison rehabilitated. For those offenders who could be dealt with in another manner, community penalties offer the versatility in sentencing options necessary to provide effective punishment without contributing to the growing problem of increasing prison numbers. It is therefore vital that the most appropriate punishment is imposed individually taking the crime and the offenders’ circumstances into account when sentencing.


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