Is the purpose of prison to punish or to reform?

There are disturbing trends across the world that suggests prisons have become warehouses of punishment and despair that violate the basic terms of human dignity. Not a lot of good is coming into prisons or leaving prisons on parole.

This week’s New York Times reported alarming rises in rates of incarceration on both the state and federal level for Blacks and immigrants:

About one in every 31 adults in the United States was in prison, in jail or on supervised release at the end of last year, the Department of Justice reported yesterday.

An estimated 2.38 million people were incarcerated in state and federal facilities, an increase of 2.8 percent over 2005, while a record 5 million people were on parole or probation, an increase of 1.8 percent. Immigration detention facilities had the greatest growth rate last year. The number of people held in Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facilities grew 43 percent, to 14,482 from 10,104.

The data reflect deep racial disparities in the nation’s correctional institutions, with a record 905,600 African-American inmates in prisons and state and local jails. In several states, incarceration rates for blacks were more than 10 times the rate of whites. In Iowa, for example, blacks were imprisoned at 13.6 times the rate of whites, according to an analysis of the data by the Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy group.

In Brazil, the rape of a 15-year-old girl who was imprisoned in the men’s prison is creating outrage over her violation:

It was at Abaetetuba, in the northeastern state of Para on the fringes of the Amazon, that a 15-year-old girl arrested on suspicion of petty theft was illegally placed among 34 male inmates in late October. For 26 days they treated her as their plaything, raping and torturing her repeatedly.

Sometimes she traded sex for food; other times, she was simply raped, federal investigators here said. The police in the jail did more than turn their backs on the violence. They shaved her head with a knife to make her look more like a boy, investigators said, and now are blaming her for lying about her age….

Women make up only 5 percent of Brazil’s prison population, but the number is growing. States have not built enough jails and prisons with separate facilities for women, even though federal law requires such separation.

The BBC reports an opposite trend in Australia where justice was not just delayed but denied in the matter of the rape of a 10-year-old girl and a judge’s refusal to jail nine Aborigine males who confessed to the crime:

If that girl had have been a white child living in suburban Brisbane there is no way that nine defendants would have walked out of the court. So we just immediately saw it as some element of racism in there, which we were appalled about. There’s very little about this case that does not draw outrage – right from the Department of Child Safety’s handling of this young girl’s life… to the judge and the prosecutor… He didn’t even ask for a custodial sentence.

Have prisons failed us? Or is the system of justice irrevocably broken? Must we demand a return to a rougher “Wild West” system of law and order where Sheriffs and their posses — instead of judges and juries
— mete out the will of the community without the possibility of parole?


  1. What nation are we discussing? That makes a huge difference to the answer to your question.
    In the US I would say that the purpose of prison is neither to punish nor reform; it’s to warehouse criminals for an extended period of time to give society a respite from their depredations.
    Of course those criminals are normally even worse when they’re finally discharged 🙁

  2. We’re talking about prisons the world over, jonolan!
    Since the 16th century the idea of prison has to been to reform the offender, not to punish or persecute or stow away from society:

    Peasants dispossessed by economic and social change in 16th-Century England created a crime wave in London. In response, Bridewell Prison was established on the premise of rehabilitation: teaching inmates a trade and developing useful work and social habits.
    We have somehow lost that ideal that people can be made better through incarceration and it is that disconnect between purpose and practice that encourages the building boom in more prisons and less social services.

  3. I think that the prison system breakdown is symptomatic of the breakdown in society as a whole.
    As society breaks down – those affected most by this breakdown clamour for more rules and regulations to control the situation ( not necessarily solve or cure it ) and to punish the offenders.
    New laws inevitably mean more criminals – which inevitably mean in most cases that more prison places are going to be needed.
    I think our justice system is broken – and our prison system has broken down.
    In the UK we have ASBO’s ( Anti Social Behaviour Orders which instead of being shaming have become badges of honour amongst feral teenage gangs.
    The prison system is so crowded that most people are eligible for parole after they have served half their sentence.
    This summer releasing prisoners early due to overcrowding had tragic results.
    The horrific stories you have highlighted just emphasise the difference between the law and justice – as well as the appalling racial double standards that exist. When our authorities behave in such a manner it sends a message that such behaviour and activities are acceptable.
    ie – if it is OK for prison officers to sanction the gang rape of a 15 year old girl – there will be people that feel they can do it as well – likewise with the aborigine girl – you can bet your bottom dollar that would have been a very different outcome if the the ten year old girl had been white.
    I do not think Sheriffs and posses is the answer – but I do think a radical overhaul of our whole ethical/belief system is in order. The colour and sex of the victim should not determine the sentence – ie killing a person be they black or white or yellow should get the same sentence and the same goes for rape, child molestation etc etc.
    That way we may eventually teach people and society that all lives are equal.

  4. That’s a fantastic comment, Nicola, and I thank you for raising my eyes to the rape of the 10-year-old in Australia. I had planned to write about American prison trends today and your article inspired me to look at the worldview of reform and prison through a few examples.
    I hope we’ll get more insight into prison systems in other countries in our comments stream.
    You’re right the system is set up backward — instead of loving and teaching children the right way — we instead let the adult rot in the child until the adult is of legal age so we can punish the disconnect and lock them away to be forgotten.
    We’re in for a world of hurt when “street cred” overrules getting along with each other and when criminality pays better than the average labor salary.
    The world has a long way to go in honoring the disaffected and bringing them back into the mainstream with education and/or good paying jobs.

  5. David, I think it’d more accurate to say that in 16th Century England the purpose of prison was reformation of the convicts.
    As times and cultures change so do the purposes of our prisons. The rhetoric may stay similar, but the purpose can be shown be what is done – actions speak louder than words.

  6. Well, jonolan, practice vs. purpose may change in implementation, but in the American federal prison system the prime focus in on reforming the inmate and returning them to productivity in society:

    The Federal Bureau of Prisons protects society by confining offenders in the controlled environments of prisons and community-based facilities that are safe, humane, cost-efficient, and appropriately secure, and that provide work and other self-improvement opportunities to assist offenders in becoming law-abiding citizens.
    You won’t get parole unless you participate in some sort of self-improvement program or counseling while doing time. It may all be pretend, but you have to play to get set free.
    Then, while on parole, you are required to check-in, take courses/work and lead a straight life or you get sent back on a violation.
    Even states like Nebraska have the goal of reformation and returning the inmate to a productive role in society:

    Parole in Nebraska was established in 1893 with the Governor holding sole power to parole an individual. By legislative action that was enacted in August 1969, the Parole Adminsitration was established. Nebraska’s parole officers play an extremely important role in the transition that an inmate makes when they are released into the community. The officer’s goal is to assist each parolee in achieving a successful discharge from parole supervision and to become a responsible member of society.

  7. “We’re in for a world of hurt when “street cred” overrules getting along with each other and when criminality pays better than the average labor salary.
    The world has a long way to go in honoring the disaffected and bringing them back into the mainstream with education and/or good paying jobs.”
    This highlights another problem in this *instant age* – Crime pays – hard work doesn’t. Even with the minimum wage – it is far less hassle to nick a few mobiles and flog them off than got to work for 40 hours a week.
    The other more worrying trend is the number of crimes that are drug related.
    I am rather radical in my views on this – I believe that we need to take the approach of legalising most drugs like we do alcohol and tobacco – with the firms who win the contracts for supplying state outlets also being responsible for both the purity of the drugs and the research and development needed to make them much safer and purer.
    My reasoning is this – people will always seek escape through their drug of choice. Most of the horrors of drugs come from bad mixes – hence the involvement of large pharmaceutical companies in research and providing measured pure doses.
    The main social impact of this would of course be the elimination of all the crimes that accompany drug supply at the moment.
    Any taxes raised must of course be spent on medically treating those who have problems with addiction – rather than social/recreational use.
    (Waits to get shot down in flames for this one)

  8. You make a compelling point about removing the profit from street drugs, Nicola.
    When I was in Junior High school (ages 13-15) we had an elderly social studies teacher who said to us one day in class, “I think anyone who wants to do drugs should be given anything they want and then they all should live on an island together away from the rest of us.”
    Now that was pretty dramatic and strong thinking for a Republican hotbed like Nebraska. It was refreshing in its honesty, though, and liberal or conservative mind alike had to admit the teacher had a valid point and addiction and dealing with it in a realistic way.
    We do need to remove the profit particulars from homemade drug deals — and we do that, as you suggest, by professional pharmaceutical purification, monitoring and then “sin taxing” it all to provide for the poor! 😀
    We already give funded methadone doses for heroin addicts — and there are many in the health community who feel methadone is just as dangerous as heroin and ever harder to “hook off” than heroin when you want to go entirely clean and sober.

  9. There is a similar growth of opinion on the methadone/heroin question over here too.
    I like the way the mind of your social studies teacher works.

  10. Hi Nicola!
    I know people who prefer to self-medicate on heroine than go on methadone. They say methadone is more evil and once you’re on you can never go off without having your mind break into insanity.
    I prefer heroin addicts to crackheads. Crackheads never come down. They’re always wild. Heroin heads, when they’re high at least, nod off and just get really quiet.
    I vividly remember that teacher and his lesson. He knew what we didn’t: Some people hate their lives so much that they will risk death to do drugs to numb their misery as an avenue of escape. Who can blame them? It’s their life. Let them live it — but away from us on an island. 😀
    He was in his final year of teaching before retirement so, I think at 72, he felt freer to teach us the truth as he knew it without worrying about repercussions.
    I can’t image something like that being taught in class to teenagers today without one of the students ratting him out to a parent for prosecution.
    What is the recidivism rate in the UK for paroled inmates? Has that rate been going up or down over the last decade?


    The latest figures (2003), show that 61 per cent of offenders were reconvicted within two years; and 73 per cent of young offenders aged 18-21. The reoffending rate for male adolescents (aged 15-18) was 82 per cent.
    Successful rehabilitation can have a dramatic effect on reconviction rates. In-prison drug treatment schemes, coupled with close monitoring for several months after release, have resulted to reductions in reconviction rates to around 30 per cent. Similar results have been achieved by prison work and education.
    Over 60 per cent of UK prisoners use hard drugs in the year before entering prison. In 2003-04, the Government only made available 4,700 in-prison drug rehabilitation schemes to cater for a prison population of 75,290.

  12. Thanks, Nicola.
    I appreciate the detail.
    I think what you suggested earlier is right on target: We are so scared of crime and violence that we keep passing new and more punishing laws that once you’re in the system, it’s hard to get back on the right track because you’ve been tainted, you’re being watched and one wrong step and you’re back in the can.

  13. That second link is quite telling, Nicola! It seems parole violations are a problem because there isn’t enough policing outside the prison to continue the reformation in the real world.
    So instead of pouring more money into protecting parolees from themselves — we build more warehouse prisons so store them away. What a waste.

  14. You hit the nail on the head there David – both the prison and the probation services are woefully understaffed.
    The Home Office has just been split in two and the whole department is in disarray.

  15. I think the reason they understaffed is because convicts are seen as not worthy of ongoing rehabilitation. So the game becomes behave in prison and when you’re out, head back into your old ways and if things blow up, you can still get “three squares and a cot.”

  16. My dear grandmother had roughly the same opinion, only on prostitution – that it should be regulated by the government and that all service workers would be required to be regularly screened for STDs etc – imagine how quickly we’d be out of debt as a nation if that were the case!

  17. That’s a great philosophy from your grandmother, Gordon!
    Why not legitimize pay-for sex and tax it and make it entirely safe for everyone involved? Nevada does it so right.

  18. I think the problem is that there is a disturbing gap between the public’s idea of precisely what the purpose of a prison should be and what would be better for humanity as a whole.
    The general perception is that prisons are there to remove the prisoners from the streets so that they cannot cause further harm.
    I believe that should be more of a side-effect than the main purpose, which should be to rehabilitate.
    Obviously there are some exceptions to this – and a number of violent offenders are probably never going to be rehabilitated. Consider though the number of people incarcerated for (non-violent) sex crimes and drug offences. These offences could simply be removed from the books and the money saved in the prison system spent on rehabilitation centres, monitoring legalised brothels etc. Add the tax income to that and you have a bit of a windfall for the government.
    Once people can receive an affordable, clean supply of drugs and/or sex the amount of violent crime is likely to drop sharply as a great deal of it stems from these two sources.
    For the remaining people in prison many of them come from poor backgrounds with little or no hope of escape. Although we would ideally sort this situation out by supporting and educating them as they grow up this is difficult. In these instances prison should provide an opportunity for them to get an eduaction and be able to take a job when they are released.
    There remains the problem of the stigma they face on release but I do belive this will lessen somewhat if the prison system no longer contains a high percentage of drug abusers who have ended up there robbing grannies to gain their next fix.
    If we could fix all thes issues then prisons would become (primarily) a place in which to house the violent element that has little or no hope of reform. If we ever get to that position then I would be happy for the purpose of prisons to revert to that.

  19. Hmmm…So we deal with the admittedly poor prison system by legalizing a large proportion of criminal behaviors? Is this truly the way to improve a society?
    Just noticing a trend in the comments and wondering…

  20. Well said, urbanspaceman!
    I think the whole prison system needs to be re-thought. Currently too many prisons focus too much on keeping the peace inside the walls instead of forcing changes in the prisoners.
    I do not understand their ability to work out all day long and watch TV and generally have fun. Inmates should either be in their cells or in a classroom or working. Leisure time is a freedom they should not enjoy. Make prison life hard, but bearable, but not an experience they would wish to repeat.
    For the Lifers, I fear they need to be on lockdown for 23/7. If they are incorrigible and unsalvageable due to their own desires, then remove them and warehouse them alone until their deaths.

  21. Parole has value, jonolan, in that we can track them in the real world as a “test” of their reformation and if they fail, they go back inside.
    Many inmates up for parole six-nine months before they’re set to get out will skip a parole opportunity and serve out their time so they can be released without restriction.

  22. The US Department of Justice stated in 2005 that only about 45% of parolees completed their sentences successfully, while 38% were returned to prison, and 11% absconded. These statistics are relatively unchanged since 1995! A stable trend of sub-50% success? Parole has value? Value to who, the gangs who want their soldiers back on the front line?
    This is why 16 states have already abolished parole completely and 4 other states have abolished it for certain violent offenses.

  23. Love the article, jonolan.
    The numbers are depressing. The system is broken. Why end parole and then still leave them to rot in a prison system that is still broken? Not everyone gets a life term. What do we do with those who get out without parole restrictions? Fix it all around and pay for it — and we’ll have a better society.

  24. Got, jonolan.
    We also need to find a fairer way to dispense justice. Right now, even if you’re “guilty” — if you have the right lawyers and enough money, you can buy your way out of hard time.

  25. There you have what I think is the root of the problem, David. The US legal system is weighted towards those wealthy enough to afford good lawyers.
    Or…conversely, it’s weighted against those without enough money to afford good lawyers.
    I think a lot – not all by a many means – of what is described as racism in our legal system is actually an economically-based classism instead.

  26. But, jonolan, if you compare the incarceration rates for Whites and Blacks against the poverty rates — you’ll see Blacks are poorer and serve more time than Whites. Is that economic Classism or is economic viability based first on skin color?

  27. “Is that economic Classism or is economic viability based first on skin color?”
    David, the above statement doesn’t necessarily involve a choice; it’s and not an either, or proposition. The legal system can be classist while “economic viability” could be partially based of racism.
    We don’t to my knowledge have incarceration figures broken out by Race, Income and Population Density. We’d really need a cross-referenced chart to get a clear picture.
    I’ve been hunting for one,but so far to no avail.

  28. Here you go, jonolan:

    While changes in aggregate incarceration rates show that recent increases represent a clear departure from the past, these aggregate figures mask the extreme concentration of the incidence of incarceration among poor, low-educated, and predominantly minority men. While incarceration rates have increased for all groups, the increases have been greatest for African-American and Hispanic males with the lowest levels of education. By the end of the century, the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that the lifetime likelihood of going to prison stands at nearly one-third for black men and fifteen percent for Hispanic men and about six percent for white men.

    Spending time in prison has become an increasingly common life event for low-skill minority men in the U.S. The Bureau of Justice Statistics now estimates that one in three Black men can expect to spend time in prison during their lifetimes. A growing body of work implicates the prison system in contemporary accounts of racial inequality across a host of social, economic, and political domains. However, comparatively little work has examined the impact of the massive growth of the prison system – and growing inequality in exposure to the prison system – on racial inequality over the life course. Using a unique data set drawn from state administrative records, this project examines how spending time in prison affects accumulated work experience and wage trajectories over a 14-year period. We explore how racial differences in both the likelihood of imprisonment and the effects of spending time in prison inform our understanding of widening racial inequality in employment, earnings, and exposure to poverty through adulthood.
    That’s close enough to make my point that minorities in poverty serve more prison time than White elites.

  29. David,
    I would need income levels as well to make a solid case. Since the study is based on poverty, it might not adequately reflect Racial differences. It’s a bit hard to tell from a synopsis.
    Also the study is flawed because it doesn’t take into account population density. The Black vs. Hispanic incarceration rates are not fairly represented because of the disparity between the numbers of Blacks and Hispanics in urban conditions. Urban poor always have much higher incarceration rate than rural poor.
    Yes, undoubtedly the poor stand more chance of prison than the elite.

  30. I don’t think population density is important when considering Race and incarceration rates based on poverty. If you read the links to those sites I cited the evidence is rather clear on the matter.
    If you’re going to get into minority density in population equations to determine Classism in incarceration then wouldn’t you also need to determine the Racial and socio-economic standing of the convicting juries, ruling judges, prosecution and arresting officers? You quickly spin down the rabbit hole in wanting more specific information when the general trend makes the point.

  31. David, there’s a direct correlation between population density and crime rates within the same economic demographics. I’ll try to dig up links to the reports.

  32. Love to see the links if you can find them.
    I’m especially interested in also reading more about what you wrote — “Urban poor always have much higher incarceration rate than rural poor.” — in the context of population density and actual crime rates.

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