Purpose of Imprisonment

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Imprisonment within a government-run institution has been a part of law enforcement since civilisation began. Taking away an individuals personal freedom has been a convenient way to enforce laws and remove a potentially harmful person from society. Throughout history, prisons and the reason for imprisonment have changed, depending on the society.


Prison is � and always has been � about punishment for some wrongdoing or other. Some discourses maintain that one of the justifications for punishment is deterrence, and that prison is a deterrent. James Q Wilson argues that “the knowledge of swift processing and near certain incarceration could, in addition to incapacitating convicted criminals, also intimidate potential offenders” (Wilson, Criminological Perspectives, p 8). Other discourses appear to justify punishment and prison as retribution. The “just deserts” philosophy, which focuses on the gravity of the offence and proportional punishment, provides an example of this kind of discourse. During the mid-10s, Schichor and Sechrest termed this “vengeance as public policy” (Schichor and Sechrest, (Competing Logics of Community Sanctions, p 78).


Punishment in prison can also go hand in hand with rehabilitation. The Observer story on 5 May 00 details the experimentation in various rehabilitative programmes (psychological, drug treatment and basic skills education) in place in 10 of the 18 prisons in England and Wales (Policy File, p 44). Anne Owers, Chief Inspector of Prisons is quoted as saying “The commitment to rehabilitation is genuine ….. public protection [also] means trying to ensure that [prisoners] don’t re-offend once they are released. (Policy File p 46)


The two concepts of prison as punishment vs rehabilitation have been the subject of debate for over 00 years. During the 18th century, prisons shifted from the traditional role of custody and coercion to one of reform and rehabilitation, prompted by John Howard’s critical review of prison conditions “Distress in Prisons”. The government passed the 177 Penitentiary Act, which made the rehabilitation of criminals a function of all prisons.


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As pointed out earlier, prisons and the reason for imprisonment have changed, depending on the society. During the mid-1th century, crime was conceptualised in terms of a criminal or dangerous class. Industrialisation and urbanisation had created a middle class who feared the “other” lower working classes, and expected Government to be more interventionist and to provide more services. This included protection against crime and criminals. The various criminal justice functions, including professional police forces and the prison system, were centralised under the Central Government. The system of local authorities owning and running prisons in their own jurisdictions ended with the 1877 Prison Act.


But with this Act � and subsequent control to a Prison Commission � came yet another shift from reform to deterrence and repression. Debates had already existed between reformers and punishers, and now the focus was on general deterrence by severe punishment, rigidly applied.


By the end of the 1th century and the beginning of the 0th century, the theme of repression was beginning to be replaced � again � with rehabilitation. The use of prison for minor offences was costly, there was overcrowding, and recidivism was high (78% for petty larceny). Prison did not seem to be working. The official aim or purpose of the prison system, therefore, became to “encourage and assist prisoners to lead a good and useful life” (Sparks, Prisons, Punishment & Penality, p. 17).


This has more or less been the central rule of the English prison system, even being elevated to Prison Rule 1 in 164. Up until the late 170s and early 180s, rehabilitation and reform were accepted practice of prisons. The probation service and rehabilitation institutions came into being, and welfare and rehabilitative programmes increased. Explanations of deviant behaviour became positivist, where criminality was not considered to be a personal choice, but one determined by psychological or environmental factors. As McConville 18 indicated “….. it made no sense merely to punish; the offender should also be treated and society protected” (McConville, Chapter 4, p 1).


However, the 170s and 180s were a time when public concern about crime was a key electoral issue on both sides of the Atlantic. The “law and order” ideology of the times was a reaction to several unsuccessful attempts to control crime on the part of previous liberal governments, who had looked to social causation for crime, and had instituted several policies in the hope of alleviating these causes. Fear of crime was on the rise, and rehabilitation programmes were seen to have “had their day” and were abandoned. The various alternatives which replaced them, for example, “severe yet positive custody”, and “humane containment” were never really satisfactory as a policy for prison administrators, and appeared to be aligned with the “just deserts” philosophy. Even the current Mission Statement for HM Prison Service ….”look after [prisoners] with humanity and help them lead law-abiding and useful lives …” is rather ambivalent. It is difficult to classify or quantify what kind of treatment would satisfy prisoners’, administrators’, and the public’s ideas of “humanity”.


The management of prisons is currently in terms of performance indicators, efficiency of management practices and distribution of resources along the government’s stated target of Best Value. The new managerialist discourse, according to Feeley & Simon, “is neither about punishment nor rehabilitation, it is about identifying and managing unruly groups….. its goal is not to eliminate crime, but to make it tolerable.” (Feeley & Simon, Criminological Perspectives, p. 46) This is an interesting development, in that managers now only have to measure their performance to indicators they can control. There is no social end to be arrived at.


Setting aside for the moment the moral arguments about prison as punishment or prison as rehabilitation, let us consider another role served by prison � that of contributing to controlling crime. Charles Murray, a right realist theorist, advocates prison as a deterrent. In the Sunday Times of 1 Jan 17, he quotes the US Bureau of Statistics, saying that in the US, “the increase in the American prison population from 175-18 probably reduced violent crime by 10-15%, preventing ….. 0,000 murders, rapes, robberies and assaults….” (Policy File p 4). This is simply conjecture. No one knows how many crimes any one person will commit over a period of time. However, according to other real statistics quoted by Murray, the American prison population went from approximately 50,000 in 175 to approximately 650,000 in 18. It isn’t clear, therefore, how prison can be seen to be a deterrent with that kind of increase in prison population. Further, deterrence relies upon the opinion that crime is carried out with conscious thought; that the offender chooses to proceed with the crime. In reality, according to Claudia Sturt, Governor of Erlestoke Prison, a rising percentage of crime is carried out under the influence of drugs or alcohol and that person will not always be in a ‘normal’ state of mind. People do not always make rational choices.


In today’s UK prison system, there are currently some 70,000 individuals in prison custody; in 15 (according to Roger Bolton in Audio CD) there were 45,000 individuals in custody, an increase of approximately 60% in 6-7 years. Further, according to the Prison Reform Trust (1), “80% of local prisons and (%) …. of all prisons are overcrowded by more than 0%, with the worst handful being 70% overcrowded” (Sparks, Prisons, Punishment & Penality, p 15). Again, with an increase in population of 60%, prison does not appear to be an effective deterrent here either. Clearly, too, problems of overcrowding, rising costs of maintaining an ever-increasing number of prisoners, and the rising population’s impact on availability of rehabilitation programmes due to lack of resources, mean that the system is in crisis.


In February 00, in an effort to help level out the growth in prisoner numbers,


David Blunkett’s “Reform or Bust” speech announced plans for reforms for the prison system. “…More open prisons or hostels….. offenders convicted of non-violent crimes may be allowed out of prison on weekdays so they can go to work,” (Audio CD).


According to a report published 1 July 00, which is endorsed by the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf, and the Magistrates Association, courts must be issued with guidance to jail offenders for shorter periods and to use imprisonment less often to cut Britains record prison population. The rise in the prison population is partly due to the fact that people convicted of petty offences such as theft and handling stolen goods were now three times more likely to go to prison than in 11. It is difficult to see how the crisis can be alleviated, if the government announces a policy which the courts do not adhere to.


Of course, in the last few years, fear of crime by the public has increased, and judges and magistrates may be responding to this. Statistics of violent crime, published by the media, such as the Crime Soars story in the 1 July 00 of the Daily Mail, only heighten anxiety, and increase public pressure on the government and criminal justice system to “do something”. The media and other “common sense” discussions dismiss community service orders and probation as too soft. Despite the evidence, the public remain unconvinced that prisons do not prevent crime effectively, or that other means of supervision can prevent crime. By way of example, in response to David Blunkett’s “Reform or Bust” announcement, Norman Brennan, the director of the Victims of Crime Trust, said he was completely opposed to the initiative and accused the government of pandering to penal reform groups (BBC News 4 Feb 0).


It is not clear what the solutions are for the prison service, nor what the future of penality will be. The advent of privatisation of prisons is one alternative which might yet produce a positive outcome. Managerialism has as its goals good business practice in order to become efficient, and neutrality with regard to the goals of the system.


While it has generally been considered the role of the state to deliver or administer punishment, the current state of affairs in the prison system will only get worse without a vast amount of financial investment in new buildings, staff and equipment. The sooner the public sector is no longer responsible for the monster that is the prison service, the more chance there might be for creative solutions to some of the problems.


All the managerial theories in the world will have little effect, however, until we begin looking at crime and the causes of crime. It isn’t only the criminal justice system which can influence criminality and patterns of crime. Demographic trends, family relationships, living conditions in the community, as well as attitudes to criminality all play their part. To paraphrase Jock Young, real social crime prevention requires greater local democracy and control of the police, better community facilities, housing estates that tenants can be proud of, reduction in unfair income inequalities. Crime control must come from education, training and employment. Expectations, therefore, of prison being able to cure society’s ills are unrealistic at best.


The history of the imprisonment shows that the purposes of prison have always been contested. As Richard Sparks points out, “…particular criteria for delivering [punishment and institutional arrangements] [never] achieve a consensus of support.” (Sparks, Prisons, Punishment & Penality, p. 0). Punishment is a moral issue which evokes different feelings in everyone, especially when it is carried out on behalf of the public. There are questions of order and justice and control, which are always contested. Further, political ideologies and expedience have informed decision-making even up to the currrent day. Claudia Sturt of Erlestoke Prison states, “we have to convince the public it is in their interest to rehabilitate prisoners; they will then be less likely to be victims of crime.” (Sturt, Audio CD) This is a practical and worthwhile goal; however, if the prison population continues to escalate, resources will become increasingly scarce, rehabilitation will decline, and the prisons will end up being sites of coercion and custody once more.





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