Prisons suffer from serious problems associated with overcrowding, poor sanitation, violence, drugs, and sexual assault. State-run prisons experience the familiar problems of other public-sector institutions that face no competition: inadequate supply, poor quality, and high cost. To solve these problems, especially the cost factor, the UK has encouraged non-custodial and community services instead of prison time.
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The high economical cost of prison, the rising prison population, and humanitarian concerns regarding prison do not generally lead people away from the idea of prison usage altogether, though. The larger concern of public security prompts people to demand that the government do what is necessary to provide that safety. However, it is an expensive proposition to lock them up and throw away the key. People accept that some types of offenders require different, possibly non-custodial punishment requiring community service, curfews, and tagging. Research has shown that prison population level and time served per prisoner both would have to rise sharply to have a significant effect on crime rates. “If steps are not taken to reduce high prison population rates and stem the growth then the current eight and a half million in prison will soon become ten million or more. We will be creating a world where a significant minority is locked away, at great cost in human as well as financial resources” (Walmsley, 2000). In the UK, police station cells were previously filled to capacity prior to the implementation of non-custodial sentences. “In 1998, over 1500 prisoners were accommodated in police stations in the London area alone. Policemen and women are required to provide security, transportation, and escort duties, which are highly wasteful and inefficient” (Smith, 2002).
The conditions in most prisons are generally deplorable. They contain unsanitary living conditions and, when combined with the absence of adequate health and medical care, mean that prison inmates and workers are highly susceptible to life-threatening diseases like AIDS, hepatitis, TB, and food poisoning. No one can argue that locking away a formerly non-violent person into a tiny cell within walls is counterproductive. These and other problems associated with imprisonment can only discourage and frustrate inmates which many times lead to expressions of anger, depression, and added violent tendencies. Prisons are built with the express purpose of protecting the community. However, incarcerating people has been shown to have a negligible effect on the crime rate.
Violent criminals must be released earlier than their mandated sentence to clear the way for nonviolent lawbreakers, and most of these people, if they survive the prison experience, are worse off when they get out, as is society. Non-violent offenders should not be sent to prison. They can be sufficiently punished by doing tasks that serve the community and can still work, support their family and pay taxes instead of being a burden to taxpayers. The imprisoning rate can be reduced by transferring many nonviolent inmates to community corrections programs where the criminal can be electronically monitored under house arrest, and be extensively supervised. This method has been shown to be effective in controlling the movements of the offender. Once the non-violent criminals are segregated to societal functions and prison populations are reduced to a manageable size, correctional officers should change from their current roles of babysitting inmates to concentrate on the rehabilitation of prisoners. In combination, this approach would accomplish both the intended goals of the prison system to keep society and inmates as safe as possible.
In the UK, about 75 percent of young male offenders each year that are released from prison are sent back within two years. Over half of adult prisoners released each year are reconvicted within two years as well. This demonstrates that prisons are not viable rehabilitation institutions and they don’t deter crime (Findlay, 2005). Due to the negligible comparative benefit on recidivism, the crucial distinguisher regarding the effectiveness of prison is the economic and emotional cost of imprisonment as opposed to non-custodial punishment. “During 2003-2004, it cost an average of £27,320 per year to keep someone in prison. Cost to build a new prison is the equivalent of two district hospitals or 60 primary schools” (Howard League for Penal Reform, 2006). Prison is described by its detractors as an inhumane, brutalizing, and damaging experience. The horror of prison life has been well documented. Fights, knifings, and sodomizing are what prisoners deal with on a daily basis. It is such an excruciating place to exist, many also harm themselves. “During 2004, 95 people killed themselves in prison service care. This included 50 people on remand and 13 women. In addition, a 14-year-old boy took his own life in a Secure Training Centre in 2004. Data shows that in 2003, 30 percent of women, 65 percent of females under 21 and 6 percent of men in prison harmed themselves” (Howard League for Penal Reform, 2006).
There are obvious associations between ideological beliefs and attitudes toward punishment. “Studies have shown that highly religious people and those with a strong belief in a just world, the belief that good things will happen to good people and bad things will happen to bad people, held the most punitive attitudes to offenders” (Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, 2004, p. 27). Not surprisingly, conservative beliefs, measured by agreement with statements endorsing traditional social values, are linked with harsher punitive crime prevention measures and liberal political views with more lenient attitudes (Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, 2004, p. 27). Those who argue for prison reform often generate information regarding the costs of incarceration. They do this with the assumption that the public will be suitably shocked to find out what it costs thinking that they will change their views about the current prison system ideology. Some insist that the lesson may be that prisoners should be kept in more inexpensive conditions while still others believe that prison is a bargain compared to the costs of repeatedly arresting and processing. Society has made astonishing industrial and technical developments over the past century, but it has only made modest progress in regard to its answer to crime. “We have changed only the details like lengths of a sentence or the number of fines that offenders must pay but few people are questioning whether there might be a more effective manner of responding to crime” (Santos, 2001).
It has been argued by many over many years that imprisonment is expensive and ineffective, yet it continues to be a major feature of penal policy in the justice system. Arguments against imprisonment include the idea that prison is not being used as a last resort to deter criminal behavior, housing prisoners is expensive, imprisonment doesn’t deter crime and it is cruel and inhumane. Despite statistics that confirm these contentions, imprisonment has experienced a growing attraction as a political response to crime. An increased prison population and its inherent human and financial costs have little effect on the attitudes of some. The prison system operates on limited funding. The addition of prison time, while effective for keeping habitual criminals off the street, serves to further overcrowd prisons. This situation creates a ‘revolving door’ effect which releases violent criminals early and adds to an environment that is hardly conducive to rehabilitation. A strong argument for increased prison sentences is the positive consequences of deterrence. However, the significant increase in the prison population has not correlated with a similar reduction in violent crime. Confining people who previously were not a physical threat to society into a violent prison environment is, at least, counterproductive for that inmate and does nothing to protect society.
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Esmee Fairbairn Foundation. (2004). “Rethinking Crime and Punishment: The Report.” Web.
Findley, M. (2005). “Custody as the Challenge to Corrections.” IndyMedia UK. Web.
Howard League for Penal Reform. (2006). “Why the Prison System Needs Reform.” Web.
Santos, Michael. (27 January, 2001). “A Complexity of the Social Contract.” Prisoner Life. Web.
Smith, A. (2002) “Chapter 36: Competing for Convicts: Private Prison Provision and Management.” Around the World in 80 Ideas. Web.
Walmsley, R. (2000). “The World Prison Population Situation: Growth, Trends, Issues and Challenges.” BCS Statistics Crime in England and Wales Ottawa Conference.