Tucumbu Prison in Paraguay, South America, houses some of the most dangerous convicted criminals in the country.
It is based in the middle of a slum, and is hideously underfunded and overcrowded – originally built to house just 800 inmates, it currently houses 4000.
The prison features in a recent Netflix documentary series: Inside the World’s Toughest Prisons in which Raphael Rowe spends two weeks inside the prison finding out what life is like for the inmates and guards.
This is an insightful documentary which should be of interest to students studying the Crime and Deviance Module as part of A-level sociology.
A prison of contrasts
There appears to be a very clear structure in the prison, with three main regions being explored in the documentary:
The first is a zone run by the catholic church which seams to be relatively safe and normal (by prison standards) – where prisoners can stay if they agree to abide by 50 rules laid down by the church. This is where Raphael stays, and like prisoners in this area he’s expected to work for 4 hours a day. Work seems to help prisoners as some of them are earning hundreds of dollars a month making products they sell, and they seem to be able to keep a good chunk of the money.
The second is the much rougher outside zone, in the open air, where it seems mainly drug addicts hang out – here one of the ways of making money is to scavenge through rubbish for old bits of food, and plastic bottles.
The plastic bottles can be sold as plates, which inmates used to get their daily food ration, which is the only thing they get for free from the prison authorities. Anything else has to be paid for.
The final reason is the ‘enterprise region’ – where prisoners run full on businesses, such as restaurants, there’s a tattoo parlour, barbers, and a laundry. in this section people can pay around $300 a month for a room – and a few do seem to be making that much money!
Relevance to A-level sociology
This is clearly most relevant to the ‘social control’ topic within Crime and Deviance – this prison offers an interesting contrast to the way things are done in UK prisons.
There are very few guards per prisoner, who mainly let the prisoners get on with their lives, and there seems to be very little in the way of surveillance or rehabilitation going on.
However prisoners are also allowed the freedom to set up businesses, earn money, and have a lot of freedom when relatives come in.
It seems to be a very liberal approach to punishment – individuals are left to rise or fall depending on their own individual efforts which the state doing nothing other than providing what seems to be just one meal a day.
You could also use this as a case study for qualitative research methods.
What can prison population statistics tell us about Crime Control in the UK? Is Prison an effective strategy for controlling crime?
These are questions that should be of interest to any student studying the Crime and Deviance option within A-level sociology.
Scotland, England and Wales have high prison populations
In England and Wales we lock up 40% more people than in France and almost twice as many people as they do in Germany, which are broadly comparable countries.
Yet there is no link between the prison population and levels of crime
England and wales have seen a rising prison population and a rising then a rapidly falling crime rate
Finland has seen a declining prison population and a rising and then a gradually declining crime rate.
Canada has seen a broadly level prison population and yet a relatively stable crime rate.
Most people are serving short sentences for non-violent offences
Nearly 70% of the prison population are in for non-violent offences – which means that 30% are in for violent offences. In those prisons where the two populations are mixed, this must be awful for some of those non-violent offenders.
People are getting sentenced for longer
I’m not sure what’s underlying this rise in more serious offences …. the most obvious long-sentence crime of murder has decreased in recent years, so maybe this is for violent gang related and terrorist related crimes which involve in harm rather than death ? Something to research further!
Does Prison work?
In short, if controlling crime is what you hope to achieve, then no it doesn’t because nearly 50% of those sent to prison are recalled within 1 year of being released.
However, there are more reasons why you might want to lock people up other than just rehabilitating them and preventing future offending – there is an argument that they just deserve to be punished whether they reoffend or not.
How do community service orders and suspended sentences compare to prison?
it seems that both of these are more effective at preventing reoffending, but the difference isn’t that great:
63% of people who serve sentences of less than 12 months reoffend compared to
56% of those who receive community orders and compared to
54% of those who receive suspended sentences.
HOWEVER, this may be due to the fact that those avoiding jail have different circumstances and/ or different characters to those who do go to jail – they might just be the kinds of people less likely to reoffend already!
Overall these prison statistics suggest that while we like to lock people up in England and Wales, there is little evidence that doing so prevents crime.
Maybe we should be looking for cheaper and more effective solutions – such as early intervention (initially expensive but cheaper than several years in and out of jail), or public shaming for example?
Unlike with social class, the home office does record explicit data based on the ethnic backgrounds of those stopped and searched, arrested and imprisoned. There are a lot of different official statistics on ethnicity and crime, reflecting the different stages of the criminalisation process:
Stop and search stats
Penalty order notices and cautions
Those who are subject to court proceedings
Those convicted in court
Those sent to jail from court
Prison statistics (those in jail) (not shown in the table below)
Of course in order to be properly comparative, we need to look at the numbers from each ethnic group at each stage in proportion to the overall numbers of each ethnic group in the population as a whole, as the table above does.
Official Statistics on Ethnicity and Crime – The Most Obvious Differences between Ethnic Groups…
Proportionate to the overall numbers in the adult population as a whole…
Black people are approximately SIX times more likely to be stopped and searched and SIX times more likely to be sent to jail;
Asian people are THREE times more likely to be stopped and searched than White people, but have a similar chance of being sent to jail.
The rest of this post provides a little more detail on how the stats vary at different stages of the criminalisation process.
Stop and Search Statistics by Ethnicity
According to this BBC summary (2013) The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) said in some areas black people were 29 times more likely to be stopped and searched. The commission said the disproportion between different ethnic groups remained “stubbornly high”.
The highest “disproportionality” ratios were found in the following places:
In Dorset black people were 11.7 times more likely than white people to be stopped
In West Mercia, Asian people were 3.4 times more likely than white people to be stopped
In Warwickshire, people of mixed race were 4.4 times more likely than white people to be stopped and searched.
The report also looked at the use of Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act under which police can stop and search someone for weapons, without suspicion that the individual is involved in wrongdoing, providing that a senior officer has a reasonable belief that violence had or is about to occur.
Under section 60, In the West Midlands, black people were 29 times more likely than white people to be targeted and Asian people were six times more likely than white people to be targeted, which is what the above spoof advert mush be drawing on.
EHRC chief executive Mark Hammond said “the overall disproportionality in the use of the powers against black, Asian and mixed race people remains stubbornly high.”
Prosecution and trial statistics
The Crown Prosecution service (CPS) is responsible for deciding whether a crime or arrest should be prosecuted in court. They base it on whether there is any real chance of the prosecution succeeding and whether it is better for the public that they are prosecuted.
Ethnic minority cases are more likely to be dropped than whites, and blacks and Asians are less likely to be found guilty than whites. Bowling and Phillips (2002) argue that this is because there is never enough evidence to prosecute as it is mainly based on racist stereotyping. In 2006/7 60% of whites were found guilty, against only 52% of blacks, and 44% of Asians.
When cases go ahead members of ethnic minorities are more likely to elect for Crown Court trail rather than magistrates (even through Crown Courts can hand out more severe punishments), potentially because of a mistrust of magistrates.
Sentencing and prison statistics
Jail sentences are more likely to be given to Blacks (68%) compared to Whites (55%) or Asians (59%), whereas Whites and Asians were more likely to receive community services. But this could be due to the seriousness of some ones offence of previous convictions.
Hood (1992) found that even when the seriousness of an offence and previous convictions were taken into account Black men were 5x more likely to be jailed and given a sentence which is 3 months (Asians 9 months) longer than whites.
The current actual prison statistics broken down by ethnicity look something like this:
The British Crime Survey indicated that 44 per cent of victims were able to say something about the offender who was involved in offences against them. Among these, 85 per cent of offenders were said by victims to be ‘white’, 5 per cent ‘black’, 3 per cent ‘Asian’ and 4 per cent ‘mixed’. However, these stats are only for the minority of ‘contact’ offences and very few people have any idea who was involved in the most common offences such as vehicle crime and burglary. Therefore, in the vast majority of offences no reliable information is available from victims about the ethnicity of the criminal.
Though not ‘official statistics’ because they’re not done by the government routinely, it’s interesting to contrast the above stats to this alternative way of measuring crime. Self-report studies ask people to disclose details of crimes they committed but not necessarily been caught doing or convicted of. Graham and Bowling (1995) Found that blacks (43%) and whites (44%) had similar and almost identical rates of crime, but Asians actually had lower rates (Indians- 30%, Pakistanis-28% and Bangladeshi-13%).
Sharp and Budd (2005) noted that the 2003 offending, crime and justice survey of 12,000 people found that whites and mixed ethnicity were more likely to say they had committed a crime, followed by blacks (28%) and Asians (21%).
According to the government’s Prison Population Statistics – as of 31 March 2016 the total prison population in England and Wales was just over 85,400. The number of people in jail has been increasing especially rapidly since Michael Howard declared that ‘Prison Works’ in 1993 – a mantra adopted by successive governments. Since that time, the prison population has doubled, with an average increase of 3.6% per year. (In Scotland and Northern Ireland the increase was considerably less during this period)
This trend would suggest that we have truly entered the era of mass incarceration (David Garland’s concept), but does prison actually work?
Does Prison Work?
If your measure of success is rehabilitation and the prevention of re-offending then it appears not: the proven re-offending rate within one year is just under 25%, and about 37% for juveniles.
NB These are the ones we know about, and this is only re-offending within one year, the actual re-offending rates are more than double this figure and the National Audit Office, re offending costs us the equivalent of staging another Olympic Games every year.’
To put these figures in context, if a school had 25-50% of its pupils who achieved no GCSEs, OFSTED would be called in and the management sacked, yet for some reason we tolerate these levels of failure where prison is concerned.
Possible Reasons why Prison Doesn’t Work
Firstly, most (as in about two thirds) have no qualifications and many prisoners have the reading age of a 10 year old when they go into jail – and lack of educational programmes in jail does little to correct this. Basically most prisoners are unemployable before they go inside, and they are doubly unemployable when they come out with a criminal record.
Secondly, our prisons are crammed full of people serving sentences for non-violent crimes, many of whom come from troubled and complex backgrounds – for example, 25% of prisoners grew up in care and over 40% have no home to go back to when they are released.
Thirdly, at the same time as the prison population doubling, in the last five years the number of staff employed in the prison estate has been cut by 30%, with the prison budget being slashed by a quarter.
The result is overcrowding and terrible conditions. It is estimated that 1/5 prisoners spends 22 hours a day in their cells; violence and drugs are rife and suicide rates are at their highest for 25 years.
This means that many jails simply aren’t the kind of environments which are conducive to rehabilitation – this is the focus of many documentaries, most recently the BBC’s ‘Life in Wandsworth Prison‘
This documentary demonstrates how under-staffing has resulted in a lack of care for prisoners, with many being locked-down for 23 hours a day, with scant mental-health care provision where required (which many prisoners do). In addition to this the documentary also shows how drugs are readily available in the jail, with weed being openly smoked in front of the guards and it’s clear that many of the prisoners are victims of violence while inside.
It costs £36 000 a year to keep someone in jail, maybe this money could be better spent on social schemes to prevent offending?
There’s a couple of really useful documentaries relevant to the crime and deviance module which have been on recently, which you might want to grab for college estream if you teach Sociology – As I see it you can get a good three-five years out of a good documentary.
Life Inside Wandsworth Prison demonstrates how under-staffing and overcrowding have resulted in a lack of care for prisoners, with many being locked-down for 23 hours a day, with scant mental-health care provision where required (which many prisoners do). In addition to this the documentary also shows how drugs are readily available in the jail, with weed being openly smoked in front of the guards and it’s clear that many of the prisoners are victims of violence. Available on iPlayer intil Friday 16th Sept – So either watch it now, or you should be able to grab using estream connect for another 11 months.
Britain’s Most Wanted Motorbike Gangs? is available on iPlayer until February 2017 and is useful for evaluating the relevance of all kinds of theories of crime – subcultural theories and interactionism especially.
Finally, don’t forget Bake Off – You can use this to demonstrate how social control works through the Synopticon – through the many watching the few rather than the few watching the many. I’m not going to explain this here, more on that later, but THINK about it and you should be able to figure out what Bake Off’s really about, and it ain’t just biscuits.
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.
Privacy & Cookies Policy
Necessary cookies are absolutely essential for the website to function properly. This category only includes cookies that ensures basic functionalities and security features of the website. These cookies do not store any personal information.
Any cookies that may not be particularly necessary for the website to function and is used specifically to collect user personal data via analytics, ads, other embedded contents are termed as non-necessary cookies. It is mandatory to procure user consent prior to running these cookies on your website.