A prison refers to an institution often run by the government where persons who have committed crimes are confined and deprived of their freedom and liberty to a certain extent. Such persons are confined therein for specific durations of time as prescribed by law depending on the crimes they committed (Michel Foucault).
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Prisons go by many names depending on the jurisdiction in which they are found. They are also known as correctional facilities or penitentiaries. They should however be distinguished from jails which are confinement institutions where persons serving short prison terms and those persons in remand awaiting trial or during trial are held. Generally, only those persons who are considered a danger to society or a flight risk are confined in prisons during the duration of their trials after being denied bail (Denborough, p. 78).
The basic concept of prison is the physical confinement of persons found to have committed crimes accompanied by a deprivation of some of their basic freedoms. The main one is their liberty which is taken from them through the duration of their confinement.
The idea of prison and the justification for the same is multi-pronged. The intention is to keep the criminal away from the general public thereby apparently keeping society safe from criminal acts, as well as rehabilitation of the criminal and deterrence of further criminal behavior by the prisoner (Coyle, p. 111).
Imprisonment is one of the sentences that a person convicted of a crime may receive. It is usually prescribed by law depending on the crime in question and also differs in duration from case to case. It is perhaps the chief mode of punishment in society today.
Historically, the term prison was associated with poor living conditions, abuse and assault of prisoners, and basically inhumane living circumstances. Times have changed and there have been calls and efforts to make prisons less appalling places for those incarcerated in them.
For many years, hardly anyone commented on the living conditions of inmates in prisons. This is because in the eyes of many in society, those inmates deserved the life they lived in prison if only as punishment for their wrongs and crimes against society. They believed that those conditions were meant to deter repetition of criminal acts that would land one back in prison upon release and would also deter those who have never been to prison from committing crimes that would land them there (Andrews et al, 1990).
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In recent years there have been concerted efforts to rid prisons of their bad image and the stigma associated with them. This has been through the prisoner rights movement which has been advocating for the cleaning up of prisons both literally and figuratively as well. The movement has been informed by the need to champion prisoner rights; I will discuss the two movements, the Prisoner Reform Movement and the Prisoner Rights Movement in this paper.
Prisoner rights movement
This movement is informed by the principle that prisoners are also human and are thus still entitled to their basic human rights in spite of the fact of their incarceration. There have been arguments such as the now famous expression that prisoners are sent to prison ‘as’ a punishment and not ‘to be’ punished. They state that the punishment is complete once they have been confined or incarcerated.
The movement details a number of key rights that they say prisoners have been deprived of while in confinement. They say that prisoners are assaulted by prison officials and fellow prisoners without any action being taken to remedy such situations. They also state that sanitation and health conditions are awful in prisons and they are therefore unfit for human habitation (Andrews and Bonta, 2003).
The movement also faults the pay that those inmates who work while in prison receive for their work as well as the food that inmates typically eat.
Prison reform movement
This refers to the efforts that are being made to improve conditions within prisons and the greater penal system. They are aimed at making the system and the prisons themselves more effective as tools of effecting societal change and keeping society safe.
The movement derives from the ideal aims that a prison should achieve and the role they should ordinarily play in society. The main aims of the penal system as a whole are the rehabilitation of criminals and the reform of their behavior to make them model citizens as well as deterrence of crime in society.
The two movements are certainly well-meaning. They intend to make prisons humane places that would in all probability achieve the aforementioned aims of rehabilitation, reform of prisoners and deterrence of crime. They have gone a long way in doing so and have managed to advocate for the cleaning up of prisons and their image to become suitable institutions for societal change (Bruton 46).
There has been public outcry however, that the prison reform and prisoner rights movements have taken their efforts too far. They have not stopped at making prisons livable but have gone ahead to institute changes that would make some prisons more than comfy.
Many prisons have now become luxury institutions with over the top changes that have victims of crime crying out; where’s the justice? The prisoners have now been given access to items that would make the difference between life in prison and outside of it a matter of attitude only. Prisoners now have access to television sets, computers with internet access and three square meals a day that some underprivileged persons on the outside would crave.
There have also been efforts and breakthroughs on the contentious issue of Conjugal Visitation. This refers to the allowing of inmates to have prearranged visits by their spouses for the express purpose of fulfilling the sexual needs of inmates. This has been seen by some as an effort to reduce and eventually eliminate incidences of sexual assault and homosexuality in prisons which among other problems have fanned the fire that is the HIV/AIDS pandemic in prisons.
Granted; prisons reform is well intended by all means. However the reform should not be seen to be taking on a crusade-like outlook by prompting controversial changes that would make prisons too comfortable to achieve their purposes. As it is, some have been living lives that they could only dream about on the outside.
The concept of Model Prisons is a relatively new one. It arose in the 20th century and refers to prisons that have good living conditions including clean surroundings, proper food and also giving inmates access to activities geared towards not just reform and rehabilitation but also education of inmates. It is in these prisons that one is most likely to find the luxuries that have many in society lamenting the prisons reform movements’ activities.
Gone are the days when prisoners’ days were spent in their small cells whiling away time and counting days on their walls. Nowadays prisoners can access the internet for information, write emails to their families and even have sex in prison, and with the permission of the authorities!
One of the cornerstones of criminal justice is punishment. How then can the aims of punishment of offenders be achieved if the prisoners are seemingly enjoying their time in prisons? Such luxurious and comfortable lives only serve to erode the confidence of society in the system of criminal justice (Smith et al, 2002).
Victims of crimes and especially personal crimes such as assault and rape are crying foul over the issue as well. They want to see their aggressors change their ways so they will not inflict the pain they felt on others but they are now seeing their aggressors live in comfort while the pain they felt still lingers.
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In my opinion, being in prison is all in the mind. One can be in prison physically but absent oneself from the mental torture that is associated with incarceration. This seems to me to be one of the reasons for recidivism, the whole aspect of comfort in prisons raising a generation of “Prison-mongers” who would rather be in prison than outside it.
Rehabilitation without punishment is in my view impossible to attain and punishment in comfortable conditions is also unworkable. Inmates should live in humane conditions and not in comfort and luxury.
- Andrews and Bonta; Psychology of Criminal Conduct 2003. Web.
- Andrews et al, 1990; Juvenile Delinquency; Prevention, Assessment and Intervention. Web.
- Coyle, Andrew. Understanding prisons. OUP, 2005. 110-117.
- Delgado, James P. Alcatraz – Island of Change California: Golden Gate National Park Association, 1991, 101-122
- Denborough, David (ed) (1996) Beyond the prison: Gathering dreams of freedom. Adelaide: Dulwich Centre Publications 78
- James Bruton, Big House: Life Inside a Supermax Security Prison, Voyageur Press (2004), pg 45-47
- Michel Foucault; Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage, 1977 p 22-30
- Smith et al, 2002; The Effects of Prison Sentences and Intermediate Sanctions on Recidivism. Web.