Does Prison Work?
Since the beginning of recorded history, imprisonment has been used as a method of punishing those who have broken societies laws. However, the nature of prisons has changed throughout history to adapt to societies norms. In recent years, our custodial facilities have been questioned more and more as a form of state punishment. In this essay I will attempt to answer the question of whether imprisonment is really an effective form of punishment in terms of it being a deterrent to criminal behaviour, as well as its effectiveness in rehabilitating those who have broken the law. I will also be answering questions such as “Are all types of criminal behaviour equally likely to be reduced by the use of prison as a deterrent?”.
Defining State punishment
A normal citizens definition of punishment would likely follow along the lines of “A deterrent to an actual or supposed offender, inflicted by an institution or authority against whom the offence was committed” Flew (1954). This is a simple definition, the main criticism against it being that it doesn’t go into specific detail concerning mitigating circumstances such as the nature/severity of the offence, or the victims of the offence in question.
State punishment was defined by Criminological theorist Nigel Walker as “A sanction imposed on law breakers, which is decreed by law with the passing of legislation ordered by judicial authorities (in this case the courts), and is executed by legitimate state law enforcement agencies (The courts, the probation services, the prison authorities etc)” Walker (1991). Leading on from this, Nigel Walker identified 7 key characteristics of state punishment:
1. The punishment is painful to the offender, whether this pain takes the form of physical, mental, or emotional suffering.
2. The punishment is intentional, and serves a purpose
3. The punishment is legitimate
4. The punishment is justified (partially determined by the culpability of the offender)
5. The punishment targets illegal acts/behaviors, as opposed to thoughts. (You cannot punish somebody for simply thinking about breaking the law)
6. The punishment denotes the culpability the offender has in breaking the law
7. Those who order and administer/supervise the punishments must be aware of all 6 of the above characteristics.
Prisons effectiveness as a form of state punishment
Prison is the most commonly known (and therefore most commonly questioned) form of state punishment. Its effectiveness as a punishment in general is assessed according to a number of differing criteria. In this section I focus purely on determining its effectiveness as a form of state punishment, which means assessing how well it achieves each of the overall aims of state punishment.
Retribution – This is assessing how well knowing the offender is in prison compensates the victims who have suffered as a consequence of the law being broken (for example, the comfort/security a family feels knowing that a burglar who committed crimes against their property is off the streets and behind bars). How prison is fulfilling this aim depends on the offence in question. What I mean by this is that victims of a minor crime (such as assault) are likely to be satisfied by the fact that the offender(s) are spending time in custody, having their freedom temporarily away from them, albeit temporarily. In contrast to this, those suffering as a result of a major offence (for example, a grieving family of a murder victim) will take scant comfort from the fact that the person who was responsible for their loved ones death is not only still alive themselves, but also likely to walk free in the future, due to the fact that the length of the average “life” sentence is between 20 and 30 years (dependant on the offenders behavior during their custodial sentence).
Deterrence – This assesses how effective prison is at deterring offenders from breaking the law again after they are...
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