Friday, 26 October 2012

How Effective Is Our Prison System?

by Bea Wilkinson

(image source:

Imprisonment is an increasingly common method of punishment in modern British society, its basis being to punish the offender by depriving them of their liberty. In the UK, each new prison place costs approximately £119,000 and the average cost per prisoner per year is £40,000. This taken into account, it could be assumed that the punishment system we currently have in place works efficiently and is successful in discouraging criminals from reoffending after release, or hopefully discouraging them to become criminals in the first place. In reality, the system is heavily debated. 
Many young criminals experience prison as a sort of ‘university of crime’. Almost 70% of young adults released from prison will be reconvicted within the first two years. This may be because inexperienced criminals are able to learn from older prisoners whilst they serve their time. 
Research has found that “the human brain continues to mature until at least the age of twenty-five, particularly in the areas of judgment, reasoning, and impulse control.” This could further explain why younger criminals are the most likely to be put back into jail. It has been found that “While adults rely on the pre-frontal cortex in certain cognitive tests, 18-25 year-olds rely more on the amygdala, a region of the brain associated with gut reactions and overall emotional responses. This changed over time, with greater reliance on the pre-frontal cortex as people aged.” This biological disposition to more irrational, compulsive behaviour combined with the way in which these young, impressionable offenders quickly pick up new abilities from veteran prisoners means that they are likely to increase the frequency and severity of offences when they are released.
A study in the late 1980s found that prisoners aged 25 or younger are initially more resistant to the prison structure which makes them more vulnerable to victimisation, compared to older inmates who are more passive. Young offenders enter at the bottom of the pecking order and find ways to feel more valued by their peers. This will make them less vulnerable to violence and by picking up the skills that they observe from experienced inmates, they broaden their experience and knowledge, earning respect as they do so. Prison hierarchy is a clearly a vital aspect of life inside jail yet almost certainly the most detrimental aspect to the overall rehabilitational success of confinement.
Young offenders
(image source: BBC)
To add to this disadvantage, it is not uncommon for prisoners to suffer huge psychological damage as a result of confinement. Again, this increases chances of further crimes and outbalances any positive traits learnt whilst serving time. A prisoner can become institutionalised as a result of serving time. They will become incredibly obedient and fully willing to follow the regimented daily routine of an inmate. This may result in earlier release as the prisoner is seemingly reformed. However, many criminals who have served long-term sentences find it incredibly difficult to adjust to everyday life once released. Adaptation to imprisonment is almost always problematic and can generate behaviours that can be dysfunctional in periods of post-prison adjustment. At best, prisoners are confused by normal life and can find it difficult to make mundane decisions where several choices are offered. Mental illness is a consistent cause of crime and injustice in the UK and worldwide. If our prison system is only making the occurrence of mental illness more and more prevalent, then the rate of crime will undoubtedly escalate.
Many would say that the simple idea of taking away prisoner’s rights to freedom is an adequate punishment – the actual conditions of jails are not intended to be the price that offenders have to pay. Quiet Rage: The Stanford Prison Experiment is a documentary compiled from real footage filmed during Zimbardo’s famous experiment. Quiet Rage shows explicitly how exposure to a prison environment for just a short period of time is enormously harmful to the human mind. It is clear from the film that the conditions of confinement are the least punishing aspect of prison. Confinement itself can cause extreme distress.
Lack of freedom can dehumanise prisoners, and rid them of a respectable (non-prisoner) identity. Prisoners lose the ability to see family on a regular basis, are forced to wear uniforms which drastically reduce self-esteem, live in fear and are constantly under supervision with minimum personal space. This seems like the ultimate punishment.
Programmes which are introduced inside prisons, such as token economy, are commonly used and seem to have positive effects. Programmes such as token economy may be a successful way to deter prisoners from committing crimes again once they return back to their normal lives. The primary goal of a token economy system is to increase desirable behaviour and decrease undesirable behaviour. The more long term aim of this programme is to teach appropriate behaviour and social skills that can be used in the inmates’ natural environment to prevent actions which may land them in further confinement. With clearly defined target behaviours and appropriate tokens that can be exchanged for rewards, this can be an extremely successful scheme.
Still, the effects of token economy are not guaranteed.  Token economy can be patronising and prisoners can refuse to comply, resulting in a reverse. The undesired behaviours may become more regular. This may lead to reoffending. It has been found that token economy programmes work well amongst inmates found guilty of crimes such as stealing, but less well amongst inmates found guilty of crimes such as murder.
It could be said that although criminals are not always reformed, prison is an effective crime deterrent in the sense that whilst prisoners are incarcerated, they are confined to certain areas and are ‘out of harm’s way’. The prison service can offer victims the comfort of knowing that the offender is behind bars. The Ministry of Justice say that ‘prison is the right place for the most dangerous, serious and the most persistent offenders’.
Many factors may influence the decision to commit a crime. Among these factors, public law enforcement and sanctioning activity play a crucial role. There is no question that prison is seen as a severe punishment for most people. The critical question is whether it is an effective punishment for potential offenders.  This depends on what motivates potential offenders. It is impossible to create a prison environment which will have positive effects for every inmate, because the range of crimes is so varied and, as in the outside world, every inmate is an individual with individual needs. Ultimately, the way we treat prisoners as a society reflects on our humanity. Dostoevsky famously wrote “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” However, it is also the mark of a functional, thriving society that its citizens feel safe and protected from those who would do them harm. People who kill, rape, steal, assault and engage in other anti-social behaviour are causing us, as individuals and as a community, harm and need to be dealt with.

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