Do Prisons Truly Serve Society?

by tylercook on August 28, 2013

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Prison is an unpleasant subject: they are, after all, where people we’d rather not deal with go to disappear.  The idea, noble on its face, is that criminals are rehabilitated in prison, and can return to society changed by the experience (and convinced by it that they never want to return).  Unfortunately, that change is often for the worse rather than for the better, especially where lower-risk offenders are concerned.  Whether you ask the New York Times, the U.S. Department of Justice, or the World Health Organization, one thing is clear: rehabilitation is not anywhere near the most common result of incarceration.  Rather, two-thirds of inmates released from prison end up back in prison within three years, many prisons become dumping grounds for the untreated mentally ill, and fewer and fewer programs exist to help prisoners make the transition from “inside” to the free world.

A Cycle of Crime

But are prisons, on the whole, a social good?  Certainly they serve to remove elements of society that are dangerous, and a few criminals are so violent that our only choice is to isolate them from other people for a long time.  But much of the prison population – currently at the highest it’s ever been – consists of non-violent offenders, or victims of mandatory sentencing laws.  Many if not most of these never participate in rehabilitation programs – not that there are that many available.  And when people are released from prison – as the vast majority are – they are less prepared than ever to deal with the world.  Laws have been passed preventing ex-cons from accessing social programs or working certain jobs, which makes reentry especially difficult.  The communities left behind – particularly in poorer African-American and Hispanic communities, where the rate of imprisonment is egregiously high – are hurt by the absence of the imprisoned, and less able to support them when they return.  And statistics show that family members of those imprisoned tend to follow in their footsteps, meaning that crime begets crime.

Where Is The Good?

If prisons are not effective in reducing crime overall, either by deterrence or by rehabilitation, then how can we justify their use except in the most extreme cases?  One possibility is seeing imprisonment as a place for restraining the most dangerous, and for exacting punishment.  We have grown less comfortable as a society with the idea of punishment; while some states still allow the death penalty, execution is now considered somewhat barbaric in much of the developed world.  In light of this, the idea of removing a person from society not just for the good of that society but in order to “teach them a lesson” is one many of us do not wish to face head-on.  And there’s another problem: that “lesson” is all too infrequently learned: high-risk, violent offenders do not tend to change, and low-risk offenders tend to be hardened and damaged by the prison experience rather than being “scared straight.”

What is the Alternative?

One radical experiment in Norway has inmates living on an island, in bungalows, with every available amenity, job training, and health care.  Many find the idea of treating criminals well in prison hard to swallow, but it is worth noting that this prison has the lowest recidivism rate in Europe – just 16 percent.  If a prison could truly rehabilitate prisoners and allow them a second chance in society, wouldn’t we rather pay for cable TV and work programs than for guns and truncheons?  It’s a question worth asking as the population of prisons continues to rise – along with the cost of keeping them there, again and again.


Douglas Harrison focuses on Criminal Defense, Law & Justice, Personal Injury, Business Law and other related areas.




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