Does Prison Work? The Stats suggest not!

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 

Prison population england.PNG

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 

prison population and crime rate.PNG

  • 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 

what people are sentenced for.PNG

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 

long sentences for serious offences.PNG

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.

reoffending rates England 2019.PNG

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.

reoffending community service compared prison.PNG

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!

Conclusions 

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?

Sources 

This post is based on data taken from ‘Prison the facts, Summer 2019‘, published by the Prison Reform Trust.

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Sociological Perspectives on Punishment

One way of controlling and reducing crime is to punish offenders. Given that punishment typically involves restricting people’s freedom and sometimes inflicting harm on people, it requires some justification as a strategy for crime control. Two main justifications exist for punishment: Crime reduction and retribution. These methods link to different penal policies.

Reduction

One justification for punishing offenders is that it prevents future crimes. This can be done through:

  • Deterrence – Punishing the individual discourages them from future offending – and others through making an example of them. This relates to Durkheim’s Functionalist Theory that crime and punishment reinforce social regulation, where prison sentence for a crime committed reaffirms the boundaries of acceptable behaviour.

  • Rehabilitation – The aim is to change offenders’ behaviour through education so they can earn an ‘honest living’ on release

  • Incapacitation – Removing the capacity for offenders to re-offend through long term prison sentences, cutting of hands, chemical castration or the death penalty.

Retribution

Reducing crime is not the only function of punishment, it also performs a straightforward ‘retributive function’ – in which the criminal is simply punished for harming another person, and the victim gets a sense of satisfaction that the criminal is ‘paying for their crime. This is an expressive rather than an instrumental view of punishment – it expresses society’s outrage at the crime.

Left Realism

Left realists believe that prison alone is an ineffective method at reducing crime. They believe it needs to be combined with the practice of restorative justice…which involves the offender actively doing something to make up for the harm done as a result of their crime. This may involve measures such as reparation, (paying back) mediation, (offender meeting victim) reintegrative ‘shaming’, (facing offenders with the consequences of their actions and family conferencing which seeks to bring offender, victim and members of the community into some form of dialogue and ‘healing’ process. All this is very unlike the anonymous processing and exclusionist shaming of the courts and prison sentences.

Home office research suggests meeting the offender benefits 80% of victims who choose to participate. For some victims it is about forgiveness – letting go of anger in order to move on with their lives. But for many, meeting the offender is about confronting them with the real impact of their crime, asking the questions that never get answered in court, and the hope that – for some offenders at least – understanding the impact of their actions might help to prevent them reoffending.

The research evidence on RJ is stronger than for almost any other criminal justice intervention. Research using randomised control trials (Home Office/Ministry of Justice seven-year, £7m evaluation of the impact of RJ) has found that offenders who met their victim compared to those who did not, the frequency of reoffending fell by 27% (ie 27% less crime after RJ). However, at present fewer than 1% of victims of crime have access to a restorative justice process. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/sep/17/restorative-justice-cuts-crime)

Marxism

According to the Marxist Sociologist David Gordon prison benefits the Capitalist system in three major ways:

  • The imprisonment of selected members of the lower classes neutralises opposition to the system, keeping potential revolutionaries from forming together and taking political action.
  • 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
  • By punishing individuals and making them responsible for their actions, defining these individuals as ‘social failures’ we ignore the failings of the system that lead to the conditions of inequality and poverty that create the conditions which lead to crime. Our attention is diverted away from the immorality and greed of the elite classes.

NB – We are not talking about small numbers here – Focussing on the USA, David Garland argues that we have entered the era of mass incarceration. Approximately 2.3 million people are in jail in the US (about 750/100 000)

Focusing on the UK, the prison population has doubled since 1993 from approximately 40 000 to nearly 90 000 today.

There is evidence to support the Marxist view that it is mainly the marginalised who end up in jail – Looking at stats on prisoners we find that…

10% of men and 30% of women have had a previous psychiatric admission to hospital before they come into prison.

48% of all prisoners are at, or below, the level expected of an 11 year old in reading, 65% in numeracy and 82% in writing.

71% of children in custody have been involved with, or in the care of, social services before entering custody.

NB2 – While Right Realists would claim that locking more people up is a causal factor in the crime rate going down over the last two decades, this claim is challenged. This correlation may be a coincidence – other factors (such as abortion and the rise of ICT meaning more people stay indoors) may also play a role in this).

 Interactionism

Once a person is labelled as deviant, it is extremely difficult to remove that label. The deviant person becomes stigmatised as a criminal or deviant and is likely to be considered, and treated, as untrustworthy by others. The deviant individual is then likely to accept the label that has been attached, seeing himself or herself as deviant, and act in a way that fulfils the expectations of that label. Even if the labelled individual does not commit any further deviant acts than the one that caused them to be labelled, getting rid of that label can be very hard and time-consuming. For example, it is usually very difficult for a convicted criminal to find employment after release from prison because of their label as ex-criminal. They have been formally and publicly labelled a wrongdoer and are treated with suspicion likely for the remainder of their lives.

Total Institutions and The Mortification of the Self

Erving Goffman (1961) argued that places such as mental asylums, concentration camps and prisons function as ‘total institutions’ – places which are closed off to the outside world and where inmates’ lives come under the complete control of the institution.

According to Goffman, becoming an inmate in a total institution involves a process of “mortification of the self” – inmates are subjected to degrading and humiliating treatments designed to remove any trace of individual identity. For instance, personal clothing and items are confiscated, inmates are strip searched, their heads are shaved, and they are issued an ID number. The point of such treatment is to mark a clear separation between the inmates’ former selves and their institutional selves. Inmates are constantly under surveillance and they have no privacy. Minute behaviour is observed and assessed, and if necessary, sanctioned.

As a result of having every aspect of their daily lives controlled, inmates effectively lose the ability to construct their own identities and function independently. Rather than making sick people well, asylums make them more insane, and rather rehabilitating, prisons actually make prisoners more criminal.

Post and Late Modernism

In his classic text, entitled ‘discipline and punish’ Michel Foucault’s points out that punishment has changed from being very direct, immediate and physical – involving torture and sometimes death to being more focused on incarceration and rehabilitation. However, although punishment today may be less severe than in the past, the state has expanded its control over its citizens in more subtle ways and ‘invades’ our private lives much more than at it ever used to. This is especially true when you look at the way criminals are treated today. While prisoners are unlikely to be subjected to torture or death (unless you’re Muslim, black or stupid and live in Texas) they are subjected to an ever increasing array of what Foucault calls ‘technologies of surveillance’ – they are kept under surveillance programmes and are expected to reform their behaviour.

Prison is the most obvious example of this – with prisoners under (potential) constant surveillance, while those who avoid prison might have to subject themselves to being tagged, visit probation officers, or turn up to ‘rehabilitation classes’ (such as drug counselling or anger management) all of which involve surveillance and behavioural modification.

Foucault sees the growth of prison as a means of punishment as reflecting the move from sovereign power to disciplinary power – Sovereign power involves direct physical coercion to get people to obey the laws, and under this system punishments are carried out on people’s physical bodies – punishment is harsh – it is a spectacle.

Today, however, political and economic systems are maintained through ‘disciplinary power’ – power is exercised through surveillance – people change their behaviour because they know they are being watched. Prison seams more humane than physical punishment but in reality it is much more invasive as a means of social control.

NB – As with Marxism above, we are talking about huge numbers 7 million people (1/32 of the population) are either in jail, on probation or parole, and Garland uses the concept of Transcarceration to refer to this shift. Certain people move between various state institutions – from care – to prison – to mental hospital – throughout their whole lives, effectively being under constant surveillance by the state.

David Garland – The Punitive State and The Culture of Control

David Garland argues that there has been a relatively recent shift in attitudes towards punishment.

He argues that in the 1950s the state practised ‘penal welfarism’ – in which the criminal justice system did not just try to catch and punish offenders, but also tried to rehabilitate them, so that they could be reintigrated into society

However, since the 1950s individual freedoms have increased, while social bonds have weakened, life is more uncertain and less predictable, and (despite the fact that crime is now decreasing) the public are more worried about crime than ever.

As a result, the state has now abandoned ‘penal welfarism’, it is much less concerned with rehabilitation and reintegration of prisoners, it’s primary concern is now convincing the public that it is taking a tough approach on crime and reassuring communities that something is being done about crime.

Garland argues that we have now moved into a new era in which a ‘punitive state’ enforces a ‘culture of control’ – there are three main ways in which the state now seeks to control crime and punish offenders:

  • The state increasingly identifies potential groups who are at risk of offending at a young age and take early interventions. This links to the Actuarialism (risk management) strategy referred to in a previous topic.

  • The state locks increasing amounts of people up, Garland argues we have entered the era of ‘mass incarceration’ and ‘transcarceration’.

  • Politicians increasingly use the issue of crime control, and ‘being tough on crime’ as a means to win elections – in effect, crime control has become a political tool which politicians use to win power, rather than being about reducing crime perse.

Evaluations of Garland

  • This is an important contribution in that it draws our attention towards the ‘political nature of crime control – and it helps to explain the increasing prison populations and ‘transcacerated’ population even though crime has been decreasing for decades.

  • This is a rather cynical theory – Garland seems to be saying that politicians today simply use their ‘tough on crime’ approach to get votes and maintain power, rather than trying to do anything which will really address the underlying causes of crime. Is this really the case?

  • Michel Foucault would probably argue that this theory is too simplistic in terms of its understanding of political power – it diverts our attention away from other agencies of social control in preventing/ constructing deviance through surveillance.

Evaluate Sociological Perspectives on Prison as a Form of Punishment (Essay Plan)

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.

Related Posts

The Spirit Level – how inequality effects the crime rate