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Imprisonment Is Expensive and Ineffective Essay

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Updated: Sep 1st, 2021

It has been argued by many over many years that imprisonment is expensive and ineffective, yet it continues to be a major feature of penal policy in the justice system. Arguments against imprisonment include the idea that prison is not being used as a last resort to deter criminal behavior, housing prisoners is expensive, imprisonment doesn’t deter crime and it is cruel and inhumane. Despite statistics that confirm these contentions, imprisonment has experienced a growing attraction as a political response to crime.

The United States has the highest prison population rate in the world, some 686 per 100,000 of the national population (Walmsley, 2003). From 1993 to 2003, the prison population increased by 66 percent, 191 percent for women. The rapid growth in the prison population has not been fuelled by escalating crime rates nor by an increase in the number of offenders appearing before the courts. Harsher sentencing has resulted in our ever-increasing prison population because prison is not being used as a last resort. The prevalent imprisonment trend, in which non-violent offenders receive harsh and mandatory jail terms as a result of current ‘wars’ on issues like drugs, etc., invokes a high human cost to those who caused no harm to another individual or property. The practice is also costly to taxpayers.

Prison is described by its detractors as inhumane, a brutalising and damaging experience. “During 2004, 95 people killed themselves in prison service care. This included 50 people on remand and 13 women … Data shows that in 2003, 30 percent of women, 65 percent of females under 21 and 6 percent of men in prison harmed themselves” (Why the Prison System Needs Reform, 2006). Data such as this has not reversed the inclination to imprison as modern methods of punishment in this way has become a way of life for the Western world. Michael Santos quotes David Garland regarding the modern use of prisons: “Whatever the reasons for their initial design; prisons and other strategies of punishment have expanded and persisted. And during the course of their evolution, most human beings have come to accept these cultural artifacts as the only acceptable response to crime. Thus, a system of punishment has become an integral part of western civilization, and many citizens believe we could have no society at all without prisons” (Santos, 2001).

An increased prison population and its inherent costs have little effect on the attitudes of some. There are substantial variations in public attitudes with better educated people expressing less punitive measures than those in blue-collar occupations. Less punitive measures require offenders to pay back to victims, in a system commonly referred to as restorative justice, which shows them how to be better citizens. This system has a stronger resonance to many as an alternative form of punishment. “The public are not as punitive about crime as is often supposed. There is skepticism about prison and a great deal of support for prevention. Treating underlying problems of drug misuse and mental illness are popular ways of responding to crime. People want better alternatives to prison” (Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, 2004, p. 6). Society has made astonishing industrial and technical developments over the past century, but it has only made modest progress in regard to its answer to crime. “We have changed only the details like lengths of sentence or the amount of fines that offenders must pay but few people are questioning whether there might be a more effective manner of responding to crime” (Santos, 2001).

The practical characteristics of modern punishment do not reduce crime and recidivism. Punishment is a system of power and parameters within a system that are utilized to turn the people of a nation into docile and obedient drones. This methodical system of domination and of socialization is structured upon the suppression of the populous. Brutality is one way of controlling the body as an outside force. Governmental institutions devise techniques to master and control those bodies from the inside instead, producing citizens who habitually do what is required of them, and thereby limiting the need for external force. Offenders are so stigmatized, demoralized, and de-skilled in prison that after release they tend to re-offend, to be re-convicted and transformed into career criminals (Garland, 1990).

Most prisoners leave prison no better equipped to fit into society than when they entered it. Some leave a good deal worse off. At its worst, prison simply provides a reinforcement of delinquent attitudes and skills, and contact with potential accomplices. It almost certainly involves disruption and severance from family, friends and employment. A third of prisoners lose their homes as a result of going to prison. Almost nine in ten prisoners face unemployment on release (Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, 2004, p. 11). Prisoners’ families are left to lives of destitution as a result of this system, while the system continues to produce recidivism, failing to reduce crime. The leadership in a society sets its sights on the delinquent class by turning the prison system into a political advantage. “Victims of crime are most frequently from the lower classes, and strikes against property or authority are individualized and usually relatively minor; this ensures that crime is not too much of a political liability” (Foucault, 1977).

The prison system creates a well defined criminal class and by maintaining a controllable criminal class, politicians are able to justify strong police and supervision forces which can also be used for wider political purposes. Since people know that a prison term brings a stigma that remains with an individual for life, they tend to avoid taking risks with the law and ostracize those who do. The prison does not control the criminal so much as it controls the working class by creating the criminal, which is the unspoken rationale for its persistence. Fear produces a perceived need for punitive punishment. People tend to attach importance to a simple approach in which criminals are punished.

Those who argue for prison reform often generate information regarding the costs of incarceration. They do this with the assumption that the public will be suitably shocked to find out what it costs thinking that they will change their views about the current prison system ideology. Some insist that the lesson may be that prisoners should be kept in more inexpensive conditions while still others believe that prison is a bargain compared to the costs of repeatedly arresting and processing. In addition, the government sends out mixed messages to the public and the courts regarding sentencing. Public opinion as perceived by the mass media and politicians is presented as considerably more punitive than research shows it to be.

There are several approaches that could reduce the level of incarcerated individuals throughout the country and encourage prison reform. One is to limit the general growth of prison populations by providing alternative sentencing options to the courts. These procedures along with community sentencing could be successful if sufficiently funded and managed. If it isn’t sufficiently funded and managed, it could lead to an even greater use of prison. Integrating prison and probation services more completely could provide for more effective rehabilitation of criminals upon their release. This integration offers the probability of public, voluntary and private sector organizations providing a variety of drug and alcohol treatment, mentoring programs, job training and restorative justice programs to which offenders might respond. Providing these and other services should lead to better results for offenders in community sentences, in prison or after release. Systematic reforms at the national, state and local levels relating to housing and accommodation, employment and education, physical and mental health, drugs and alcohol, finance benefit and debt, family ties and offender attitudes could have far-reaching effects on reducing the need for prisons and encouraging the rehabilitation and assimilation into mainstream society of former inmates or avoid the process of imprisonment altogether (Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, 2004).

Prisons have been shown to be ineffective in deterring crime, used as a primary means of punishment rather than a last resort and have proven to create more problems than they solve. As a result of governmental reliance on imprisonment as a first response, too many individuals who might have otherwise remained productive citizens are incarcerated at the expense of the public. While they are in prison, they are damaged in numerous ways as a result of poor treatment, poor funding or simply as a result of the resulting prison record that prevents them from finding employment, housing or otherwise supporting themselves and their families. As has been shown, the prison system has been broken for many years, it is time for it to be reformed into a more effective, more beneficial system not just for the criminals, but for the benefit of the rest of society as well.

Works Cited

  1. Esmee Fairbairn Foundation. “Rethinking Crime and Punishment: The Report.” (2004).
  2. Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Pantheon, 1977.
  3. Garland, David. Punishment and Modern Society: A Study in Social Theory. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1990.
  4. Santos, Michael. “.” Prisoner Life. 2001. Web.
  5. Walmsley, Roy. “World Prison Population List.” Home Office. (2003).
  6. “Why the Prison System Needs Reform.” Howard League for Penal Reform. (2006).
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