True Crime & Justice

Does Our Modern Prison System Work?

Prison. This word conjures up images of big buildings with razor wire, locked gates and armed guards, enforced routine and a complete lack of freedom, or at least it does for me. I am disturbed by these images and fear ever being locked up in such a place. Prisons have evolved through the centuries, moving from being simple holding cells to the punishment itself. In the UK today, the suggestion is that imprisonment is the route to reform for individuals who commit criminal acts. However, the question remains: does prison work?

“We keep those sentenced to prison in custody, helping them lead law-abiding and useful lives, both while they are in prison and after they are released.” – HM Prison Service

An assumption that the simple imprisonment of an individual away from their community will automatically produce a level of reform is naive. Prisons, it could be said, are communities of their own and humans are remarkable at adaptation.

Even the feeblest individual will over time develop a method of dealing with their environment when they have no choice. While prison life is generally a very boring and mundane existence, networks form, contacts are made, new skills are gained and lessons are learnt.

Prison works to combine all of these which will undoubtedly be taken with them upon release back into society. Add this to a criminal record making employment more difficult and the result is an individual with a battle on their hands to stay on the straight and narrow. Certainly, there are instances where individuals have spent so much time in prison they have become institutionalized. They find life on the ‘outside’ very difficult to manage. Back within society they have to make their own decisions and fend for themselves.

There is no set routine, no three meals a day and no one to tell them what to do and when. For this reason, many lifetime offenders fail out with prison walls and actively seek to return to prison life, where it is familiar and guaranteed.

Related: Forensics Science and Dr Joseph Bell – The Real Sherlock Holmes

Prison, therefore, does not work to encourage some offenders to rejoin a functioning society. The view that prison will equal reform has developed over centuries of society trying to deal with criminality and issue appropriate corrections as punishment.  In the 16th and 17th centuries, prisons were used as secure units to house criminals before acts of punishment and humiliation were carried out, usually hanging for the most serious of crimes.

The conditions in holding cells were harsh, often unsanitary and poorly managed meaning many criminals died from disease before facing their punishment. During these times, punishments were public displays to show the consequences of criminal activity in order to deter others.

History of the Prison System

During the 18th century, society began struggling with the idea of public executions. Juries were becoming reluctant to convict individuals of the types of crime which would result in this punishment. The idea of ‘correction’ rather than just punishment became more popular and a gradual shift towards prisons housing criminals and punishing them through hard labour became more appealing.

This was also the time where the ideas of prison reform and rehabilitation started to emerge in a more serious light. The idea of using imprisonment as a vehicle to reform rather than just punishment is not a new one. Rehabilitation can be traced to ancient Greek philosophy when imprisonment was used as a penalty for unpaid fines handed down due to unacceptable behaviour. Over time due to widespread inability for people to pay fines at all, sentences of lengths of time were introduced. Reform itself often came from religious ideas of crime being a sin and prison should be a place to teach proper and acceptable behaviour. Under this view, prisons should be humane and focus on moral learning and correcting of behaviour to ensure release back into society was smooth and beneficial for all.

Prison Sentences

Figures from the Prison Reform Trust in 2013 state that in the UK 47% of adults who were released from prison re-offended and were re-convicted within one year and re-conviction figures increased further for those who were serving short sentences of less than 12 months (58%) and those under the age of 18 years (73%).

Research studies, such as those reported by Hedderman in the Handbook of Probation (2007), have indicated that re-offending rates have increased alongside the increase in prison population, suggesting the continued and increasing use of custodial sentences is becoming less effective. Moreover, a large-scale study published by Marsh et al in 2009 found no evidence for prison alone reducing re-offending. They found that alternative strategies, including substance misuse treatment and monitoring were more effective. Evidence to date is not conclusive, however, information is building suggesting that simple incarceration of offenders in prison, does not work to solve crime and is not acting as a deterrent to existing offenders or new offenders.

This, of course doesn’t mean that prisons and corrections do not have an important role to play in criminal justice. If an individual commits a crime, breaks the law that has been set by this country, there should indeed be consequences. Difficulties and hardships faced by offenders upon their release could be said to be their own making and some will have little sympathy.  Furthermore, there is the issue of justice for the victims of the crime and suitable punishment for those who have committed that crime and prison does work for that purpose.

The UK does not have sentences which commit an individual to prison for the rest of their natural lives.  An average ‘life’ sentence for the UK means 13 – 16 years, therefore most offenders will be released at some point and be expected to reintegrate back into society. The problem is whether current practices are simply creating a cycle for many offenders which is of no benefit to them or to the communities they are released back into. How does prison work in the long-term?

The question has to be asked; if there were more opportunities for those released from prison for employment, treatment and support, would this decrease the re-offending rate and prevent this cycle culture?

Related: Wrongful Imprisonment: When Innocence Is Not Enough

Alternatives To Prison

A big factor in such a drive for alternatives is cost and the dramatic increase in revenue required to continue to house, feed and contain and ever-growing prison population.

According to the Prison Reform Trust:

  • A prison place in England and Wales cost, on average, £37,648 in 2011-2012
  • Re-offending during 20087-2008 cost the economy between £9.5 and £13 billion

Community-based services are becoming and increasingly popular option in addressing this issue. Recent years have seen an increase in initiatives aimed to support and prepare offenders before release such as the Samaritans Listener Scheme in 2011 and the National Grid led offender training and employment programme.

The National Offender Management Service has reported that community sentences resulted in an 8% improvement in re-offending rates with a year when compared to custodial sentences of less than 12 months.

Prisons have evolved from dark solitary enclosures designed to hold criminals before punishment, to modern-day compounds capable of housing multiple prisoners under humane conditions. This development has come from a change in attitude in how to effectively and appropriately deal with criminality in our society. Not everybody accepts capital punishment as an appropriate consequence for crime. Public executions and hard labour are a thing of the past in the UK, replaced by ideas of prison reform and rehabilitation through teaching, guidance and experience.

The soaring costs of operating prisons, particularly with such increasing prison populations are demanding change and a consideration of alternatives.  Substance misuse and mental health are now recognised as significant issues which cannot be solved by incarceration alone. Addressing the cycle of crime evident through re-offending while adopting suitable punishment acceptable as justice is a challenge our society is still struggling to meet.

To cite this article: Guy, F. (2015, Jun 08) Does Our Modern Prison System Work? Crime Traveller. Retrieved from

Add Comment

Click here to post a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Site Categories