Does Prison Work as a Deterrent?

In October 2012, David Cameron made a statement about the prison system and that prisons should be made to work for the offenders. He also said that punishment and rehabilitation should in fact take equal precedence in preventing crime. The Prime Minister said that the debate on punishment had become too ‘black or white’, and that the prison system should be one that has a positive and rehabilitative impact on an inmate’s life, rather than merely a punitive one. 

Ideally a prison should serve to discourage people from committing crimes and certainly dissuade prison inmates from reoffending. But in light of the recent TV show The Prisoners on BBC One, one simply has to ask whether the prison system as it currently stands works to rehabilitate offenders or does it work to punish them? Or does it actually fail to achieve either of these tasks by not being harsh enough and not offering the right support to rehabilitate inmates? 

Prison is a place for people who break the law and warrant a term in confinement. It is where some offenders are sent so they may not remain a part of normal society. During the time they serve in a prison, people who have committed offences will ideally learn better than to commit crimes once released. The aim of a prison is to deter people from committing a repeat crime because of fear of being imprisoned again. 

But what actually happens in real life may be far from the ideal situation – as the documentary mentioned above showed us. According to one of the inmates that the TV show follows, prison offers a better way of life; it offers free lodging and boarding and is a far easier option than dealing with real life outside gaol. One highly motivated prison inmate even makes a promise to commit an offence again soon so that she may be returned to prison. 

It is true that the debate about crime and punishment is complicated. Simply increasing a prison sentence or making it harsher may not always work for an offender. It is important to study whether people react positively or negatively to punishment. It is true that fear is an effective deterrent, but it is also true that some rehabilitation and social support may be a better solution and have more far-reaching effects on society. 

If a prison sentence is something prison inmates actually prefer to their real life, then there is something tragically amiss. Perhaps inequality and depravation are where much of this crime is born. It is important to take into consideration factors like rising unemployment and rising social inequality and to understand to what extent these factors affect crime. Addressing these deep-rooted issues is certainly the more sustainable way to address the problem of crime. 

But having said that, it is also important to keep things in perspective and strike a balance between rehabilitation and punitive action. In the shorter term, crime must be tackled by way of positive support as well as punishment. Prison life must reflect the crime committed and must serve the purpose of being a deterrent. After all, a prison is meant to strike fear in people’s minds and keep them from breaking the law – not motivate them to go and live in it as a preferred way of life!