Last Updated on January 11, 2019 by Karl Thompson
1. Functionalists would point to the positive functions prison might perform in society –Prison could act as a deterrent – thus reinforcing social regulation; and it should also work to maintain equilibrium and balance in our society – making up for the failings of other institutions such as the family and the education system – restoring order through incapacitating those who break the law.
Ultimately however, one might criticize the effectiveness of prison – given that there is a 60% reoffending rate it isn’t really effective in restoring equilibrium in the first place – what prison does most of the time is resocialise people into criminal norms, in the extreme people become institutionalized and unable to reintegrate into society once released.
2. Marxists argue that by relying on prison, we ignore the failings of the system that lead to the conditions of inequality and poverty which lead to crime. Furthermore, the imprisonment of selected members of the lower classes neutralises opposition to the system; the imprisonment of many members of the underclass also sweeps out of sight the ‘worst jetsam of Capitalist society’ such that we cannot see it; and we may also add a fourth benefit, that all of the police, court and media focus on working class street crime means that our attention is diverted away from the immorality and greed of the elite classes.
Supporting evidence for the Marxist view comes from the fact that there are higher rates of imprisonment in more unequal countries.
Left realists criticise Marxists for absolving criminals from blame – people in jail mostly deserve to be there and their victims are most likely to be working class themselves.
3. Michel Foucault sees the growth of prison as a means of punishment as reflecting the move from sovereign power to disciplinary power – in traditional societies power was exercised on people’s physical bodies – punishment was harsh – it was a spectacle – today power is exercised through surveillance – the state no longer beats criminals – it just subjects them to increased surveillance – the theory is that people change their behavior because they know they are being monitored constantly. Prison seams more humane than physical punishment but in reality it is much more invasive as a means of social control.
One criticism of Foucault is that he fails to recognize that many prisoners do not change their behavior even though they are being watched!
4. Since the 1980s there has been a significant increase in the use of imprisonment in the United Kingdom – numbers have roughly doubled since 1990 with the total prison population now standing at about 84000 and we have one of the highest rates of imprisonment in the western world.
This increase has gone hand in hand with the implementation of Right Realist policies that emphasize rational choice theory as the cause of crime and zero tolerance as the solution to crime. The state claims that tougher penalties are one of the major causes of declining crime rates.
5. However David Garland points out that the crime rate has fallen in many countries over the last two decades, even in those that do not imprison as many people as the UK.
David Garland’s view the increasing use of imprisonment in the United States is that we now live in a era of mass incarceration – the United States locks up a massive proportion of the unemployed (Garland estimates as many as one third of all unemployed people are actually in jail in the USA) – and many of these become locked in a cycle of ‘transcarceration’ – where they shift between different agencies of state control and never fully reintegrate into society once having been in jail.
Garland actually argues that the reason the US and the UK lock up so many people is because of neo-liberalism – neo-liberal policies have made these societies more unequal and more individualistic – life has become harsher – and thus it is easier for the state to justify harsher penalties.
6. Critics of the ‘overuse of prison’ argue that we should employ alternatives – by using curfews, community service and treatment orders – because these have a lower reoffending rate – mainly because they do not remove an offender from society.
It is also worth noting that the characteristics of the prison population are very different to the characteristics of the population as a whole. People who are over-represented include ethnic minority groups, men, the underclass and the young. It is also worth noting that many female prisoners are likely to have suffered physical and emotional abuse and many claim they are in jail because of pressure to do criminal acts coming from their male partners.
7. To conclude, given the massive reoffending rate – and thus failure of prison to rehabilitate offenders – critical perspectives such as Garland’s remind us not to fall into the simplistic analysis of Functionalism and Right Realism who see prison as an effective means of social control.
The critical approaches of Marxism, Foucault and Garland are probably the most useful here as these remind us that it is the rise of neo-liberal hegemony since the 1970s and right realism since the 1990s that have lead to an increasing crime rate, and then to the increases in prison populations experienced in neo-liberal countries such as the UK and the USA.