That question, however, begs a prior question. What is it we want prisons to do? There seems to be four broad answers. We may want prisons to do one, or more, of the following:
- Be rehabilitative and reform prisoners.
- Be retributive and punish offenders.
- Deter future possible prisoners.
- Keep society safe from “unsafe” prisoners.
If the purpose of prisons is to reform and rehabilitate, or to deter, then they are blatantly failing. Prisons, by and large, do not reform, do not rehabilitate, and do not deter. Indeed, prisons may be doing exactly the opposite. Prison may be making it more likely that prisoners will continue with their “anti-social” activity, and may even become “better” at doing so.
A study published this month (February 2018) is pertinent.1 Studying a group of prisoners in the Netherlands, researchers found that after 3 months imprisonment, risk-taking in prisoners significantly increased, attention significantly declined and self-control significantly deteriorated. The researchers noted that this deterioration in self-control could “exacerbate the risk for aggressive or violent behaviour in high-risk individuals.”
Hardly a recipe for rehabilitation or reform.
It should be noted that this research does have limitations. The sample size was small (37 prisoners), there was no control group, and it was carried out in a specific cultural setting (the Netherlands). However, it is the first exploratory look at the effects of prisons (an impoverished setting as the researchers note) on the self-control functioning of prisoners. The researchers recommend further studies.
This research, though, does serve to make us stop and ask: do prisons rehabilitate, reform, or deter? The indications are that the answer is – NO!
If we are locking people up at a faster and faster rate (as we appear to be doing), then one of two things seems to be happening. Either people are displaying increasing levels of “anti-social” behaviour (i.e. the crime rate is going up); or we are locking people up because we want to punish to a greater extent, possibly for lesser and lesser violations of acceptable social behaviour.
Consider that many prisoners are in jail for crimes that not related to physical harm to another person. In the US for example, approximately half the prison population are there for drug-related crimes. In Australia, homicide and armed robbery has decreased significantly in the past three decades (although assault and sexual assaults have increased to a lesser extent), yet the rate of imprisonment has increased. Consider too, that a highly disproportionate number of people in jails are from indigenous populations or minorities that are discriminated against.
It would appear, from a cursory look at the statistics, and from the small amount of research, that prisons do not reform or rehabilitate. They may not deter either. The reading of statistics relating to incarceration rates and violent crime are ambiguous. Certainly there is a correlation between the two. But, as we know, correlation does not imply causation. It is possible to read the stats two ways. It is possible to infer that as incarceration rates increase, violent crime decreases. It is also possible to infer that despite violent crime rates decreasing, incarceration rates have increased.
There is, of course, a further factor for us to consider. That is, the cost of imprisonment. Throughout the western-styled nations the cost of keeping one person in jail for one year ranges from about US$50,000 to US$80,000 or more. Yet, even that figure is only the tip of the iceberg. A Washington University study found that for every dollar of correctional costs, a further ten dollars in social costs are generated.2
That is worth repeating. For every dollar spent on imprisoning someone, ten more dollars of social costs are incurred. So, the true cost of incarceration could be as much as half a million to a million dollars per year for every person imprisoned.
The question now is this: if prisons do not reform or rehabilitate, or deter, is the cost worth it in order to satisfy our collective need for retribution or revenge?
Part 2 will look at an alternative to prison.
1. Meijers, Harte, Meynen, Cuilpers, Scherder, Reduced Self-Control after 3 Months of Imprisonment; A Pilot Study. Frontiers in Psychology, February 2018, Vol 9, article 69
2. McLaughlin, Pettus-Davis, Brown, Veeh, Renn, The Economic Burden of Incarceration in the US, Working Paper #AJI072016, Washington University in St Louis, October 2016.