Critically evaluate the idea that imprisonment will ‘cure’ offending

feb 20 2020

Abstract: Contemporary prisons are more interested in isolating the individual deviant element from the rest of society but not to a point that it will involve a heavy investment. This in turn does not help to rehabilitate offenders, but instead creates some sort of "criminal schools" - a man of questionable decency that has done wrong goes in, but a hardened criminal comes out. As such, contemporary prisons are actually a detriment to public order and make the work of the police harder.
Key words: Durkheim, Foucault, Discipline and Punishment, Prisonization, Prison Community

Foto: Peter Senko (2018)Foto: Peter Senko (2018)


The term „prison“ has always established an idea of a formal organization that isolates citizens who have been condemned for crimes in a court of law from their normal lives, and who are forced to learn and adapt to a new life in such an institution. The main aim is to punish offenders while at the same time have a deterrent effect and to rehabilitate prisoners.

Foucault’s Discipline and Punishment has been an opening inspiration for this essay and better helped me to understand the effect of prisons on reoffending. Various scientific disciplines paid attention to prisons. In what way can psychology and sociology as sciences be important when dealing with the idea of reoffending? Is there something that different theories agree on? What makes them similar and what makes them different? The goal of this essay is to clearly and hypothetically explain the theories of prisons and find a correlation between offense and rehabilitation. As well as describing the issues that come with punishment and imprisonment using academic opinions, theoretical analyses and empirical evidence.

The goal is not to portray prisons in a negative way or just plain declare them non-functional. Prisons do have their place in modern societies, and they do fulfil their primary objective. The best and so far, unchallenged way of dealing with citizens that break the law in a serious fashion is the removal of personal freedom and the process of incarceration.

This essay will describe and explain the various factors that have an impact on inmates which forces them to change their personalities and identities – they are being influenced by both other inmates and state officials. The first part of this essay will cover social deviance, criminality, theories of punishment by Durkheim, Foucault and the impressions that influence the incarcerated individuals and how exactly does social deviance factor into imprisonment. Next, this essay will describe how prisoners feel and interact with one another in an actual prison and the second part will culminate in the conclusion that more often than not, prisons work as schools for criminals. Further on, the core of this essay will consist of the above-mentioned theories and their impressions.

And finally, this essay will reach the conclusion – based on the pros and cons that imprisonment does not in fact help with reoffending, despite relative positive side-effects.

1 Social Deviance and Criminality

There is not a definite agreement upon which school originally devised the theory of social deviance. Among social and psychological academics, the interest in social deviance is connected with social pathology, which is a term originating from Herbert Spencer, the other half of 19th century and who was looking for analogies between biological and social development. The works of Émile Durkheim which were later on studied by Robert Merton lead to the creation of the theory of the sociological flip in modern criminology. It is the beginning of critical revaluation of biologically oriented criminology and the birth of alternative orientation to all existing criminological theories. (Crothers, 1987)

Structurally functional theories of anomie and criminality consist of the following assumptions:

  1. The reasons of different social behaviour do not originate from either biologically-anthropological or natural factors (climate, race) nor from the pathological social structure
  2. Deviant behaviour is a natural occurrence in any social structure

Deviant behaviour is an action that is different to normal and it confronts people in many environments. Social deviation is universally defined as an aberration or a violation of a certain social norm or a group of norms. While, at the same time, this might concern not just a lawful norm, but a social one, ethical as well a religious one.

Sociology does not offer any definitive answer but a row of competitive and contradicting visions regarding the origin of a citizen, his deviation and social order. Sociology of deviation is not a coherent discipline but a collection of relatively independent versions of sociology. Every theory has its own paradigm, history and opinion. Deviation becomes a regression towards a more wild state of an individual and conformity on the other hand becomes a more than acceptable success. These two sides of social deviation seems to indicate some sort of fracturing when it comes to social rules. Academics are divided when it comes to exactly defining true deviation. The decision comes from context, subject´s biography and reason. Many sociologists (such as Durkheim) favour the idea that deviation is a political phenomenon, primarily because it is connected with the application of rules. (Hall, 2012)

Criminal behaviour is that kind of behaviour that does not respect the law and acts in direct violation of it. There is no talk of crime unless that specific action is prohibited by criminal law. And criminal law is defined as a set of specific rules that were established by some sort of a manifestation of political authority and which apply directly to any and all citizens and must be followed at all times. Behaviour may be considered deviant and criminal primarily because a certain legal or normative regulation was broken. Proposals that society is based on a moral agreement or that criminal law is just a reflection of this agreement remains a conflict. Many criminologists (such as Durkheim) argue that a true consensus does not exist in any given society. Social order is composed of a number of social groups, out of which every single one of them is in agreement with their own interpretations of morality and criminality. Such diversity can lead to a moral conflict as well as a consensus. (Wilson, 2014)

A crime is considered to be the outcome of a certain social interaction, which is a process that includes laws that were broken, the police, court and lawyers that define such an interaction to be against the law. Such behaviour may end up marking a citizen as a criminal but it is not the behaviour itself that represents crime. Behaviour is criminal, in a court of law where the social action is identified as unlawful. Criminality exists only when the label and law are successfully applied to the behaviour of such an individual. (Simpson, 2000)

Durkheim states that the basic idea of crime comes from uncontrolled and irrational emotions. Also the desire to punish is an emotional reaction; an authentic expression of outrage from the public. Durkheim also gives accountability towards the strength and overall energy of punishment. Therefore even though a modern state has the absolute monopoly when it comes to dictate punishment, the general public feels more connected with the process of sentencing and as such gives it a context of social assurance and the evaluation of the punishment. Where Foucault sees only two sides – the criminals and the judges, Durkheim insists that there is a third side that is more important – the audience, so to speak; whose emotions are ravaged at first and calmed later. Strong emotional reaction should never come as a factor when it comes to sentencing; a punishment should be dealt as a cold hard fact in order to make sure that the criminal is fully made aware of the crimes, as well as the public – thus public proceedings or just the general awareness is raised to act as a deterrent. (Gutting, 2005)

2 Prison as a community

Prison has always been a community; while the term itself has many definitions. Communities are places where normal life takes place with certain boundaries, some more strict than others. Communities can be places where people offer services (institutions such as hospitals, university campuses, etc.) or it can be places of participation where people of similar origins or housing meet (playgrounds, parks, recreation premises, etc.).

There are no prisons that are strictly defined by their territorial borders. Thus, trying to explain the difference between a group of hundreds of people that are living behind a giant wall and several blocks of apartments where people are leading normal lives – it has become apparent to apply the use of the word community rather than prison. It is methodically useful to think of prisons as a prison community; as such a prison community is a system of relationships where a certain number of people, prisoners and personnel communicate openly and in secret according to both written rules and those that have been agreed upon in a utilitarian fashion by the inmates. Within certain social and legal boundaries, the inmates participate in many social relationships and activates – which all points to a prison being a valid community. (Hough, 2003)

Every criminal that enters a prison community has been sentenced to server time for a very specific criminal act; a very important factor of prison relationships is the experience with other people that an inmate had before being sentenced. Also, another very distinctive factor is the fact that being a member of a prison community is a violation of social relationships in an open environment (any environment outside of a prison) – which is called institutionalization, the inability to adapt to a normal life after spending a lot of time outside of it. While at the same time a human being is by nature a political animal and a personality is only by part determined by biological and hereditary factors. And its expression is primarily manifested when it comes to relationships with other people. A human being is what it learned to be, and every social interaction is important and prisoners are therefore products of human interaction. (Vagg, 1994)

A prisoner’s world is an anatomized environment. Its citizens are atoms interacting in organized chaos – dominant versus submissive. Such a community is without proper organization and good social structure, it becomes a dog eats dog world where there are no real social goals and the primary instinct is to survive. The prison’s conflict with bureaucracy and opposition against society is just barely one step above the conflict and opposition between them. Fraud and dishonesty are overshadowing sympathy and cooperation and social control is just partly effective. It is a world of individuals, whose day to day activities are impersonal. Prisoners are demotivated, unhappy, resigned, bitter, vengeful, more and more ineffective in their duties and socially incapable. The world of a prisoner is a world full of filth, stench and in which stupor and monotony is dominant. The disinterest for getting a job is also present, as well as the desire for love and sex. Prisoners are encouraged by their surroundings to feel pain and negative emotions from their sentencing. As such, prisons have their own cultures which are forced upon new prisoners and is passed on to from one generation of prisoners to the next. The code of prisoners is what makes the basic idea of the prison culture. This code defines the type and social range of proper interaction between guards and inmates. It forbids fraternization between inmates and the security personnel and in reality, inmates are cut off from any possibility of contact with anyone else besides other prisoners. (Crighton & Towl, 2008)

When a person or a group of people is being connected with a different group this process is called assimilation, which implies that the process of acculturation is present in one of those groups whose members were originally different from those in the group that they merged with. This suggests that proper adjustment comes from sharing emotions, memories and traditions of the original group. Men that enter prison are not exactly that different from those who are already there because vast cultural changes concern all of them, and they ended up in the same situation because of similar circumstances. Assimilation describes a process that is slow, procedural and during which a person learns to adapt to the culture that he or she was put in. Prisonization is thus very similar to assimilation; it is a term that is synonymous with prison acculturation. In prisons, there are very few role-models to copy – because they are created by the prisoners themselves. (Liebling, Price, & Schefer, 2011)

Philip Zimbardo, a psychologist from the University of Stanford proposed in his experiment that prisons are actually schools for criminals. Prisonization is a process during which an inmate gains the customs, habits, manners, institutionalized models of behaviour and the general culture of prisoners in a strict community. And thus, gains skills in order to fuel the basic instinct – which is survival. This further establishes institutionalization and forces the inmate to not reform and continue in a spiral of behaving like a criminal once their sentence is served. Therefore, imprisonment only stimulates the criminal behaviour of an inmate. (Zimbardo, 2003)

3 Principles of punishment

The first main principle of imprisonment is the isolation of the condemned from the outside world, what motivated him or her to committing a crime and from all normal human interaction (family, friends, etc.). The idea of a prison was established to supress revolts, plots and any activities that prohibit the secession from any part of government. The main goal has always been not to change prisoners into a homogenise and solidary population. Loneliness should be a positive tool of rehabilitation; it is supposed to cause introspection and regret; which was the general idea that Foucault proposed in his works on the penal system. While loneliness is the first condition that leads to submission; isolation ensures confidential confrontation between the inmate and the justice body of the government. An inmate during his isolation is supposed to undergo a personal psychological transformation, not simply a behavioural one – this would have worked if prisons used therapy and worked with psychologists. During the twentieth century it was assumed that removing any normal social interaction would have a positive outcome and that an inmate would discover his or her moral subconscious. (Barrett & Harrison, 1999)

The second principle of imprisonment was the concept of work alternating with breaks for food and spiritual guidance. Work along with isolation is defined as the main actor of prisoner’s transformation. Alongside work, regularity is a strong concept that every prisoner needs to understand – and it is applied without any use of force or repressive condition. Same technique is used in psychiatric hospitals – where patients need to adapt to a steady schedule, which was proved to have a positive impact on them as it takes their mind of destructive emotions and urges. By being employed in such a schedule, the prisoner is conditioned with habits, order and obedience. The use of prison labour is not the production or the improvement of skills but the establishment of state power, the application of the schematic of a submissive individual and his ability to adapt to social circumstances. (Matthews, 1999)

And finally, the third principle of imprisonment according to this essay is the quantification of punishments. The length of a sentence should be adjusted according to how much a prisoner has been rehabilitated and should end when the inmate in question is ready not to commit a crime again. The severity of the punishment does not have to reflect the severity of the crime, however – it can be adjusted according to the judge and jury to better form the program of rehabilitation (if that is obviously the main goal of imprisonment). (Law & Martin, 2009)

However, what is the current view of these principles according to academics in the relevant sociological and psychological fields? Isolation needs to be used to ensure the smooth process of imprisonment without any riots or violence. However, the inmate is rebelling against the system itself and years spent in prison may make him to grow a feeling of hatred towards society, which will manifest itself one his time is served, and he is released from jail.

Should a prison feel more repressive or as a place of rehabilitation? If it is repressive, then it is more likely that prisoners will feel omitted from society and normal life, will become people reduced to an instinct of survival and will not become otherwise available to change or rehabilitate. As such, reoffending is bound to happen – since the instinct of survival is much stronger than the need to be a part of normal law-bound society.

4 Conclusion

Relationships are formed both in prison as well as in the normal society outside of prison, groups are formed, and people are assigned with various social statutes and roles. A prison is a microcosm of our disciplinary society, where fellowships are created between inmates. This essay mentioned the term prisonization and proposed the idea of reoffending once prisoners are released because that the hostile environment has on sentenced individuals.

Despite all this negative feedback that the justice institutions have received over the years, they remain the best and unchallenged options for punishment any society has ever came up with.

It first analysed social deviance and criminality by referencing works of M. Foucault and then it moved on to establishing the proposal that every prison is a reflection of our society and has similar rules – albeit they all come down to reducing prisoners into survivors through isolation and rehabilitation. And finally, this essay described the three main principles of punishment and why they are the only viable option. This essay analysed whether imprisonment would help with reoffending and reached the conclusion that no, in fact it does not help, but currently there is no viable alternative and as such it is necessary.

Author: lt. MSc. BA Jan Janek


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