Prisons: Reform or Punishment?

“The only rational purpose for a prison is to restrain those who are violent, while we help them to change their behavior and return to the community.” ~ James Gilligan

Prisons are the most unsuccessful institution to carry out their actual purpose of ultimately rehabilitating convicts to eventually become law abiding citizens and productive members of society. 68 percent of prisoners released return to prison for committing a new crime within three years of leaving (US Department of Justice).

This is why prisons should act as restraints from normal society as punishment for crime, but should also function more so as a form of rehabilitation to help them reflect on their crime and change for the better of society. Recognising the purpose of imprisonment and understanding how we should handle prisoners is vital for preventing crimes and benefitting society as a whole.

Why prisoners should even receive fair treatment? Why should the criminal justice system aid criminals rather than punishing them when there’s been no justice for the innocent victims?

When people become dangerous to others, we restrain them regardless of who they are. Some of their freedoms are taken away from them as punishment by result of their restraint. Ideally, this would force them to reflect on their crime which would ultimately deter them from repeating the offense once they’ve been released, but it’s quite obvious that this is not the case. Although this system fails to work, as 68 percent of prisoners return to prison after released, the problem does not lie in the lack of punishment, but rather a lack of rehabilitation.

When people are punished, they often learn nothing. Increasing punishments would only expose the criminal to the revengeful, “You get what you deserve” mindset, which would not psychologically improve their behaviour and may even do the opposite. People learn from example, and this would only reinforce their violent behaviour by mimicking the “teach them a lesson” logic used on them in prison (New York Times, James Gilligan).

By us using a nonviolent form of rehabilitation, they’ll be able to return to society as normal citizens. This idea of people learning from example can be simply seen with children and their parents. When kids experience and see their parents do certain things, they will uphold those values in their own life. “Children learn about strong character from parents and other adults in their daily lives” (U.S Department of Education). Similarly, when prisoners are treated with kindliness and respect, it increases the chance that they’ll reflect those principles in the community once they’ve been released. James Gilligan and Bandy Lee’s Resolve to Stop Violence Project found that the extensive re-educational program for violent male criminals reduced the amount of violence in the San Francisco jail to 0 percent within a year’s time. The longer the men stayed in the program, the more effective it was. Of those who took the full length rehabilitation course, 83 percent fewer returned to jail within a year in contrast to a control group of men who did not partake in the program (NYbooks, Helen Epstein). In the end, it’s more effective that we use prisons as a tool of rehabilitation so prisoners won’t commit even more crime and can even be positive influences in society. After all, treating the root of the problem being the psychological behaviour of the subject is always more effective than trying to punish for the end actions.

In fact, the most ideal relief for society is for all prisons to include all different forms of therapy, like treatment for substance abuse and psychotherapy. This way, only positivity can come of prisons rather than almost nothing coming from incarceration alone.

Just throwing people in prison will NOT solve anything.

With any problem, the most effective way to handle it is attacking the root.

The U.S has been losing the war on drugs for years, with two-thirds of the federal drug control budget on incarceration alone (National Coalition for Effective Drug Policies). The last third being treatment, education, and prevention. If the U.S were to invest more at the root of the problem being educating people, especially the youth, the drug problem would significantly decrease.

The same applies with incarceration and rehabilitation. Putting people in jail will not stop crime, but will only stop criminals for their sentence time. By fixing the root of the problem being their psychological behaviour, then crime would significantly decrease as well.

But how about being punished for the crimes they committed? Don’t they deserve to be punished for their actions?

Essentially, yes they should, but their incarceration should act more so as a deterrence for other people not to commit crime, as well as for ensuring the safety of the general public. Yes, they do deserve incarceration as punishment but psychological treatment should not be viewed as a luxury as it is ultimately better for society. The deprivation of their freedoms for extended periods of time is enough. Depending on the severity of the crime, the offender’s sentence should match. The higher the severity, the more time and measures should be taken to ensure reform. As after all, only reform will really leave a positive impact on the overall community unlike the punishment alone.

Prisoners have it too easy.

Another problem with the current prison system is that too many freedoms are given to the prisoners which sidetracks the whole reason of being there. As the UK’s Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling put it, “‘’Prison is not meant to be a place that people enjoy being in. I don’t (want to) see prisoners in this country sitting in cells watching the Sunday afternoon match on Sky Sports.” (The Telegraph). Just like the rehabilitation issue, prisoners are not just locked up to be locked up, but there’s a reason why they’re there. If they are given too many luxuries then they won’t reflect on what they did wrong and they’ll come out of prison as the same person they were when they committed the crime. It is important for prisoners to understand that they’re in prison because they committed a crime and are there to reform.

Why any of this matters.

So why should you care? First off, it would save everyone money. The average cost in the U.S of incarceration for federal inmates in 2015 was $31,977.65 a year (Federal Register). That’s about $87.61 a day. Nobody else is paying for that except for the citizens of America. Once inmates do their time, they’re most likely to end up back in prison anyway, wasting even more tax money. Second, with rehabilitation, the chances of a prisoner committing another crime significantly decreases, ensuring our own safety.

By changing the way the prison system works with a program focused more on rehabilitation, we can not only reduce crime and save millions in tax dollars a year, but also create positive, contributing members to society that will ultimately make the world a better place.

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.