As far back as 2380 BC, there are records of basic laws and justice. The idea of imprisoning someone as punishment dates back to Roman times but only became popular again recently. Nowadays, prison systems in the UK and US are seen as overcrowded, overused, and often ineffective. Many argue that change is needed and that doing so will benefit society as a whole. We look at what’s being suggested and how it might help.
Does prison work?
Prisons exist for a few reasons. Mainly, they’re used to punish and rehabilitate people who have committed crimes. They’re also used to protect the public from these criminals, and to deter people from criminal activity in the first place.
In the UK, the vast majority of offenders will be released back into their communities. However, nearly half of all prisoners go on to reoffend within a year. In the US, 67% of ex-prisoners reoffend, and 52% are re-imprisoned within three years of being released. Clearly, something isn’t working.
What is prison reform?
Prison reform is the attempt to create a more effective prison system. It focuses on improving conditions inside prisons and making sure that inmates are rehabilitated rather than just punished. The aim is for offenders to eventually be successfully reintroduced into society without offending again.
There are two ways prison reform can be achieved:
Reducing their usage. Rather than locking people up, the issues causing them to commit crimes should be addressed, and punishments should reflect this. For example, providing community-based alternatives such as interventions or therapy to young first-time offenders.
Improving their conditions. Instead of being an unfriendly environment that creates resentment and encourages future criminal activity, prisons should promote rehabilitation back into society. Prisoners should have as normal a routine as possible, with opportunities to work, exercise, and undertake cultural activities.
What are the main issues?
Aside from high rates of reoffending, there are several other factors related to prisons in the UK and US that are often criticised. In the US, perhaps the biggest issue is the number of prisoners. Nearly a quarter of the world’s prison population is found in the US, with over 2.3 million people currently imprisoned there. Some of the other issues affecting both the US and the UK include:
- Overcrowding. There is a greater demand for prison space than space available. This is partly linked to the high rate of reoffending as offenders are in and out of prison frequently. Overcrowding means that conditions are poor as resources are stretched.
- Conditions. This factor is linked closely to overcrowding. Bad food, lack of access to sanitation and healthcare, and limited chances for fresh air and exercise are all examples of poor conditions some prisoners face. They can have a hugely negative impact on mental health.
- Crime rate. Even inside prisons, crime is common. Drug smuggling, violence, self-harm, and organised gangs are often seen. Offenders meet other criminals and are encouraged to commit further crimes.
- Cost. It costs around £25,000 in the UK and $31,000 in the US per prisoner per year to keep someone behind bars. This adds up to an annual spend of around £3 billion each year for the UK and around $81 billion in the US.
- Lack of rehabilitation. Many inmates don’t get the help they need to become functioning members of society. Lack of funds for rehabilitation programmes means that criminals leave prison only to commit further crimes.
What are the alternatives?
Prisons are generally the default punishment for unwanted behaviour. However, the number of people in these institutions is increasing around the world. Although the most serious crimes may have no alternative punishments, many minor crimes will often also result in imprisonment. There are some alternatives, known as non-custodial sentences, which may be more effective punishments:
- Supervision. The offender is free to remain part of society, but they have to be monitored for a set period. An electronic ankle monitor, curfews, and regular contact with probation officers are some of the measures that can be used.
- Community service. Offenders must contribute to the society they have detracted from. Usually, this takes the form of unpaid work for a set amount of time.
- Supervised rehabilitation. Offenders have to attend supervised training, drug or alcohol treatment, mental health care, or education.
- Fines. Offenders must repay an amount to society that’s equal to their crime.
- Suspended sentence. The offender is given a prison sentence that is ‘suspended’ meaning they’re not actually imprisoned. However, if they commit another crime during the term of their sentence, they automatically go to prison.
In all of these situations, the offender remains part of society and has more chance at rehabilitation. They aren’t away from their families and aren’t as at risk of being drawn further into crime by other criminals in prison.
You can find out more about crimes, their causes, effects and social impact on our Criminology subject page.
How do other countries operate?
Not every country in the world has the same approach to prison systems as the UK and US. Perhaps some of these can be used as an example for how our prisons could be reformed:
The Netherlands has the opposite problem to the overcrowding seen in the US and UK. They’re having to close prisons due to a lack of prisoners. Rather than simply imprisoning criminals, they look to cure the problems that result in their criminal activity. For example, if offenders have a drug problem, they treat the addiction.
The country now has one of the lowest rates of imprisonment in Europe. Instead, they use alternatives to prison where possible. It’s mainly those who are too dangerous to release or those who are vulnerable and need the help available inside who receive prison sentences.
In Norway, they have overhauled their prison system. The focus of imprisoning someone is on their rehabilitation, not on revenge for their crimes. Daily training, educational programmes, and comfortable living conditions are a part of this system. The aim is to get the inmates ready for their release back into society. And it seems to be working. Norway’s reoffending rate is now around 20% after two years, down from roughly 60-70%.