Critically Analyse Imprisonment as a means of Punishment Essay

“Modern societies have at their disposal an unlimited reservoir of acts which can be defined as crimes. They make very different uses of this reservoir, at least they differ in their use of one of the most important forms of delivery of pain; imprisonment” (Christie, 1993). This is a definition of imprisonment from the perspective that it is based on a representation of an industrial, Westernised culture. Punishment in this instance is linked with the concept of “social control” (Hudson, 1996).

The philosopher Flew (1954), suggested five criteria to when punishment is necessary, these were; that the offence must involve an evil, or unpleasantness to the victim, it must be for an offence, actual or supposed, it must be of an offender, actual or supposed, it must be the work of personal agencies and finally that it must be imposed by authority or by the institution against the rules of which the offence has been committed. If these criteria are met then theoretically imprisonment will result. The notion of imprisonment as a form of punishment can be analysed to see if it is an effective service or not, and if there are any real problems that exist, what possible alternatives there are to replace its existence.

The current patterns of imprisonment show that the average prison population in the year 2000 was 64, 600. The estimated trends show that even if the custody rates and sentence lengths remain at 2002 levels, which are doubtful the prison population will be at an estimated 91, 400 in June 2009. The average female prison population increased by 3% to 3, 350 reaching its highest level since 1901. There were a record number of prisoners (492) that were received into custody for life in 2000.

The number of prisoners in England and Wales expressed as a rate per 100,000 populations was the second highest in Western Europe. There was also evidence that 58% of prisoners that were discharged from prison in 1997, but who were reconvicted of a standard offence within two years of release (Home Office findings, 2000). The custody rate at the Crown Court has risen from 44% in 1992 to 64% in 2002; however it seems that the Magistrates courts have been making increasing use of its custody rates at an increase from 5% in 1992 to 15.5% in 2002 (Projections of long term trends in the prison, 2002).

These patterns show that the general trends that are apparent are the prison population is continuing to rise, and will do even if the current rates remain the same in future years. There is the trend of an increasing amount of women who are in prison which has become a matter of controversy. England and Wales therefore will have to deal with the ever increasing need to accommodate its prisoners. There is an increase in the more serious criminals i.e. murderers; therefore more life sentences are being imposed. However there is also evidence to suggest that despite these criminals spending time in prison the reconviction rate is rising and is currently representing over half of the prison population. This then leads to the question of whether imprisonment as a form of punishment is really working in this country based on these figures.

Some of the purposes that imprisonment is supposed to serve can be highlighted to understand their importance. The first is the main idea of retribution. This can be defined as “paying back what is owed” or the “debt to society”. It is the idea of the utilitarian that by committing a crime an individual has the duty to society to accept punishment. There is also the concept of annulment, whereby if the criminal is punished for their offence, then it had never actually occurred. It is as if the offence has been cancelled out by the punishment. A retributivist would say that a person should be punished if they take advantage of things in life, for example if they have committed a theft then they have taken advantage of property, and must therefore be punished.

There is the notion of penance, whereby the individual who commits a crime can look back at what he or she has done and understand their wrongs. They are being made an example of with comparisons of people who abide by the rules (Walker, 1991). The link between punishment and retribution is very close, however a punishment cannot be purely defined based on this approach. It has been said that “the prison has increasingly become an institution of containment rather than retribution” (Carlen, 1989). This suggests that retribution is not as high a priority as it used to be and that prison is now a place that holds the underclass, a group of de-generates because society doesn’t know what else to do with them.

Rehabilitation is also a term that has been associated with imprisonment. This notion is a more recent development in imprisonment. It focuses on “re-establishing the links between the offender and the wider community” (Carlen, 1989). The general rehabilitation model has been put forward suggesting the punishment be fitted to the offender rather than the crime itself. However the idea of rehabilitation has been criticised for not working and it has been stated by criminologists that “treatment” was often better understood as “punishment” (McMahon, 1992). Ericson, 1975, has said that there should be “alternatives outside the prison system”. It appears that rehabilitation has been used to try and prevent criminals from re-offending through the use of treatment programmes; however this evidence suggests that this is not always an effective approach (McMahon, 1992).

The notion of deterrence can easily be linked to imprisonment, as it is seen as one of the main reasons as to why punishment exists. It would be the view of most traditional utilitarian penologists. Deterrence can be understood as the consequences of ones actions. The more serious a crime is, obviously the more serious the consequences will be and so the individual ideally should be deterred form any future actions (Walker, 1991). Deterrence can come in the form of concepts such as zero-tolerance, an approach adopted by police in New York, America which should soon be apparent in Britain. This places such a tough emphasis on catching criminals that it aims to deter any possible villains that may be planning to commit a crime. By using imprisonment as a punishment, it is hoped that it will act as an efficient deterrent.

Finally there is the notion of incapacitation. This view is somewhat more brutal, as it focuses on eliminating completely the criminal from society and earth as we know it. It seems that in this instance, incarceration is simply not enough, the reason being that sentencing is proving to be much shorter and the criminal has more opportunity to re-offend. Based on the figures that have been found on the reconviction rate, it appears that this view may be quite profound in more recent years (Walker, 1991). However this is quite an extreme view and since the death penalty has been abolished in this country such ideals may be difficult to enforce.

Now that some of the purposes or views have been established for imprisonment, the extent to its effectiveness can be analysed. Lord Falconer, the Minister of State for Criminal Justice, Sentencing and Law Reform has praised prison. The figures show that there was a 200% increase in the number of prisoners entering effective drug treatment. There has been an increase since 1997 of prisoners completing the offending behaviour programmes. The average time that the prisoner spends on purposeful activity per week is rising. There have been 4,664 completions of offending behaviour programmes, which have exceeded the KPI targets of 3,600 in the years 1999/2002.

The percentage of prisoners that have tested positive for drugs under Mandatory Drugs Testing has gone down by 4.1%. The prison service has also gained a good relationship with stakeholders such as The National Probation Service, which concentrates on the offender’s life after prison, The Youth Justice Board, which focuses on educating juvenile prisoners. It also has strong links with The Voluntary Sector and The Private Sector. Lord Falconer also displayed an understanding that because the prison population is rising and because more people are being sentenced for longer, there is a greater need to cater for these groups in society. Lord Falconer stated that “used properly, prison does work- and work to change prisoners’ lives for the better” (Home Office, Prisons, 2000).

However, despite the evidence to suggest that prison is successful, there are many arguments to suggest that imprisonment as a form of punishment does not work. When looking at the material costs of imprisonment, they are considerably high. The cost per uncrowded place for 1999/2000 is �25, 965, which is a 1.4% increase on the previous year’s figures. The actual cost per prisoner for the years 1999/2000 is �25, 805. There were also 91 self-inflicted deaths in prisons in 1999 compared with 83 in 1998 (Home Office, Prisons, 2000).

Mr Narey said that “he was not prepared to keep on apologising for failing prison after prison” (Alan Travis, The Guardian, 2001 from Cavadino and Dignan, 2002). It appears that there is a crisis growing amongst the prison service with overcrowding, tension between staff and prisoners and escapes and prison riots. In 1977, Humphry and May, wrote a newspaper article summarising some of the problems that the prisons are faced with: “a number of lifers with nothing left to lose; overcrowding which forces men to sleep three to a cell and understaffing which weakens security. Prisons, too, are forced to handle men with profound psychiatric problems in conditions which are totally unsuitable”. This is known as the orthodox account of the crisis (Cavadino and Dignan, 2002).

The Home Secretary Jack Straw has been noticed for saying that he wants harsher sentencing for robbery and persistent offenders, and with the notion of “three strikes and you’re out” prison sentences for domestic burglars it seems that there is still a drastic sign of the prison population rising. The figures also presented before show that there is a reconviction rate of 58% within two years of them being released. On the 31 January 1999, the local male prisons were overcrowded by 20 %. With the overcrowding, this leads to overall bad conditions. In certain prisons some inmates do not have 24 hour access to toilet facilities. At Wandsworth prison, industrial action was threatened due to the prisons infestation of rats and cockroaches (The Guardian, 24 January 1987, from Cavadino and Dignan, 2002).

As the prison population continues to rise, the amount of staff are not supplied to fulfil the growth. It is also due to the economic situation of the prisons as the budgets that are set are not stretching to pay the staff sufficiently and is not big enough to employ too much more. The effect that this has is that inmates may be left in their cells for longer periods of time, and any contact to the outside world may also be restricted. There have been an increasing amount of riots in prisons such as the ones at Hull in 1976, Gartree in 1978, and Albany in 1983. “Since the mid- 1980’s, there have been more prison riots in Britain than in any other European country” (Cavadino and Dignan, 2002).

It appears that these problems show no evidence of ceasing in the prison system. With these problems goes on a deeper level the idea that the whole of the penal system is being negatively affected. The resources of the probation service and after-care service may be neglected as there is not enough staff to cope with the amount of offenders that leave prison and need to be monitored, but cannot be done in an effective way. The legitimacy of the prison service is also being questioned as the once promises of its purpose “being to rehabilitate offenders, give them both training and treatment, curing them of criminality and benefiting them and society as a whole” are obviously not working (Cavadino and Dignan, 2002). These are the worrying aspects of imprisonment which show that as a punishment it is not effective, because not enough time, finance and effort have been contributed to its success.

If then, imprisonment does not work effectively as a form of punishment then it be may be necessary to begin to think of some alternative plans of actions to deal with criminals. The responses to possible alternatives have been sectioned into two possible groups, ideological and practical. From an ideological point of view there is the suggestion that the concept of “just deserts” should be re-introduced. There is also the suggestion of what is known as the “law and order ideology” whereby there is tough Strategy A programmes.

This is where offenders will be dealt with in a very serious manner. The offenders are then not seen as being members of the community. This approach may work in that once imprisoned, the offender will feel the punishment more severely and so may reflect on what they have done, however, if all offenders are to be treated in this harsher fashion then the prison population will continue to rise and so that area of weakness will still be predominant. It may also be that this approach will only work from a political point of view whereby being this tough on criminals will be in favour of the public.

There is also the strategy of “bifurcation” which means that there are a “dual- edged” focus on offending where there is a different approach taken between “ordinary” offenders, with much more serious offenders i.e. murderers. This system worked in such a way that the petty criminals would be expected to fulfil some duty of community service rather than serve time in prison, whereas the serious offenders would receive harsher sentencing for their actions. This approach may be much more effective in increasing the amount of resources that there are available and be legitimate, in that rehabilitation can be focused on much more readily. These are just two out of several responses that have been made to the ever increasing problem of imprisonment.

Based on the evidence put forward it appears that the intentions and purposes of putting people in prison are quite strongly understood. To be imprisoned is for reasons of retribution, incapacitation, deterrence and the possible notion of rehabilitation. These reasons stand out clear, but the problem that exists, is that the purposes of imprisonment are not being fulfilled. There is some evidence that prison is effective in that the figures show for example, that less people are testing positive for drugs, however most of the positive aspects of imprisonment are associated with promises and targets. There is a high political stance on the effectiveness of imprisonment as a form of punishment, with the Government wanting the public to feel safe and to have faith in the system.

However, the truth is that the “crisis” of the prison system is not being dealt with in an efficient manner and the evidence has been put forward to confirm this. With the prison population rising, the conditions are worsening and the general tension becoming more apparent there are definite problems with this particular system of punishment. There are alternatives procedures which could be used to improve some of the areas of weaknesses; however, there will still be the need for an update in resources to cope with the expected demand that will be upon the imprisonment process. Once this has been achieved then the purpose for which it was established will maybe able to fulfil its duty.

Bibliography

Carlen, P, 1989, Paying for Crime, Open University Press, Milton Keynes

Cavadino, M and Dignan, J, 2002, The Penal System, Third edition, Sage, London

Christie, N, 1993, Crime Control as Industry, Routledge, London

Ericson, R, V, 1975, “Responsibility, Moral Reactivity, and Response Ability”. Some Implications of Deviance Theory for Criminal Justice, University of Toronto Law Journal 25.

Hudson, B, 1996, Understanding Justice, Open University Press

McMahon, M, 1992, The Persistent Prison- Rethinking Decarceration and Penal Reform, University of Toronto Press Incorporated, Canada

Walker, N, 1991, Why Punish, Oxford University Press, Oxford

www.homeoffice.gov.uk/news_index_prisons.htm

www.leeds.ac.uk/law/ccjs/ukweb-2.htm