Analysing the approaches used to combat crime

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Not long after beginning this class did I know why my professor insisted the course be renamed to 'The Sociology of Punishment.' Our studies quickly delved beyond the simplicity of corrections (prisons, parole, probation, etc.) as I learned how to blend history with theory, in order to better understand crime, and the ways in which we [as society] can control such an issue. Most striking to me was the dramatic contrast to the approaches taken to correct, or combat crime: rehabilitative vs. punitive. Looking at the past in its' greater social context is key to any situation - but none that I have found more important than that of crime and overall social control. Although it may seem like commons sense, it is my belief that by better analyzing our history could we improve on the problems we face today and the ways we deal with punishment in America.

American penology during the 20th century was mainly defined by rehabilitative ideas. Stemming from the Juvenile Court Movement, there was a shift to "understanding" and "treating" offenders. The rehabilitative ideal held that human behavior was a product of previous causes which could be identified and overcome with specific, scientific treatment. Criminals during this time were dealt with therapeutically, not punitively. The proliferation of penal services began and so emerged teams of professional correctional specialists (psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, vocational counselors, etc.) that were placed behind prison's walls.

Following this rehabilitative trend was the push towards a more academic focus on social control. Many theories were announced but none more influential than Labeling Theory. This focus here shifted from to the offender to the criminal justice system as a whole. Decentralization reforms continued as more programs were implemented by the government to help juvenile and adult offenders.

It was not along until rising social and political turmoil overtook the nation during the sixties and seventies creating a "crisis of legitimacy" in the American government. Crime increases were attributed both poverty and drugs. Politicians changed their perspectives from rehabilitation to "get tough" penal policies that were centered on deterrence and incapacitation. There was more so a focus on "just desserts" (retribution), the escalation of penalties and the search of the 'habitual offenders.' Such a dramatic change occurred between the span of only two decades, all because of the nation's politicization of crime and criminal justice. Government exploited the media to their political advantage, to increase public fear, and shut out any influence of experts and evidence.

Most baffling of all is not the actual shift in penal policies in America during this time, but the fact that such ignorance still exists today. Thomas Blomberg, author of American Penology best identified this as 'social amnesia.' It "reflects the tendency if American penology to ignore history and precedent when responding to the present of informing the future. Instead, discarded ideas and practices are reinvented and repackaged; meanwhile, the expectations for these practices remain the same, name, effective crime control (223)." Social amnesia does not only ignore the past mistakes and tries to recreate solutions with inherent problems mirrored with a façade-like appearance, but it interprets the past selectively. They are shaped by current perceptions rather than the culture of the time. The best example of this, as referenced to widely in penal reform, is the turnover rate of 'rehabilitative practices.' People like to believe these scientific-based, therapeutic solutions were ineffective, but in fact, they were never administered as designed. Because of this disillusion, society assumes that the only other option is the opposite - in this case - neo-conservative crime measures. Politicians and legislatures were so quick to jump on "get-tough" as a quick solution without taking a look at the roots of prevalent index crime rates. Once any 'success' was reached, conservatism was being accredited to.

Public opinion has been expressed in penal reform that ranges from both rehabilitative and punitive. One major difference is that rehabilitation must include some consideration of the social differences underlying the creation of what is increasingly a permanent prison under-class. Punitive policies appear cleaner and offer an immediate short-term appeal - that is - they take the danger away from middle-class Americans and banish prison inmates to rural, super prison of increasing size and of higher numbers. By any definition this can only be a short-term consideration. The United States is by far the largest prison nation in the world, and spends more annually at a rate that cannot be sustained. More and more prison inmates, substantially comprised of drug offenders, white-collar criminals, and others outside violent offenders, can only cause greater levels of anger and resentment and ultimately a failure of any prospect of re-entry into American society by greater and greater number of inmates. Currently the U.S. sentiment is towards punitive incarceration, but one difference in the last twenty years is that the composition of prison populations is increasingly divided on the lines of race and color. America, already the world's largest prison nation, is in danger of over-stepping into institutionalized racial ghettos, and reversing the impact of civil rights and greater enlightenment in understanding why people become criminals, in considering the differences between punishing and correcting, and moving back from the prospects that America will become more deeply and tragically divided.

Essay Two

After his request to be allowed to write about life as a Corrections Officer is refused by the Department of Correctional Services (DOCS), author Ted Conover takes the unusual step of applying for and being accepted as a prison officer as seen in his book Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing. Over the course of a year, his experiences and his reflections on the role of prisons and how being 'inside' affects prisoner and prison officer alike leads to his conclusion that (318), "we pay billions of dollars in this country to run institutions that few would argue leave the people who go through them - inmates and prisoners alike - worse off in many ways".

The institution of Sing Sing features strongly in the book. The construction of the institution was in a climate of constant daily brutality, incessant beatings and institutionalized cruelty. Alexis de Tocqueville (famous for Democracy in America) wrote, "…an unnatural silence and the unmistakable undercurrent of terror in the silence." The brutal enforcement of rules forbidding speaking by inmates, and Conover's descriptions of Officers he worked with and for, leads to his own observation that 'while everyone knows prison can warp the personalities of prisoners, few stop to consider how it can do the same to those who work inside' (107). An earlier report from a prison M.D. also opined '…whippings have been wounding to more than just the prisoners…' and '...destroys all sympathy until each enabling quality of his nature is lost' (176).

Chronologically, Conover begins with his training period and ends with his quitting his job and the subsequent publishing of Newjack. The training is militaristic and produces a prison officer who in many ways is the equivalent of an armed Police Officer. Prison Officers are paid less, frequently take their jobs because of the lack of employment opportunities in upstate NY and from the beginning are immersed into a world or rules, of patterns of conduct that reflect 'them and us' and in the words of one instructor (Turner) "…rehabilitation is not our job. He truth us we are warehousers of human beings" (41).

Conover is especially critical of individual offers - especially Wickersham, a senior Officer that existed, in Conover's words, to give new officers a hard time, to put the fear of God into them. Multiple incidents are narrated in which Wickersham belittles new officers but Conover also reveals that Wickersham was himself abused and brutalized in a 1983 prison revolt. From the cigarette-shaped scars on his arms, Conover considers that Wickersham's behavior is his attempt to 'prevent' other new officers suffering his same fate. His constant goading, constant preoccupation with enforcing rules make Wickersham less of an autocrat and more an officer whose life has been forever affected by the prison environment.

Conover openly portrays how the job affects his family life and his own stability. His description of Sing Sing is applicable to both prisoners and prison officers. ''You feel it along the walls inside, hard like a blow to the head; see it on the walls outside, thick, blank and odorless; smell it in the air that assaults your face in certain tunnels, a stale and acrid taste of male anger, resentment and boredom. You sense it all around you in the pointed lack of ornamentation, plants or reason for hope (171)."

Conover recognizes individual incidents of rebellion when prisoners simply refusing to obey rules because their own point of resentment or rebellion has been reached. They know they cannot win, know they will be punished but refuse to cross their own defined limits of obeying orders and commands. But it is in Conover's descriptions of incidents involving himself that better support his central thesis that prisons damage inmates and officers alike.

Conover's first personalized incident involves his children. Against a backdrop of his children looking at him from the bars of their crib, Conover scolds his son and even spanks him for his behavior (224). Conover compares the imagery of his children looking through their 'bars' needing him as their father to lift them to their 'freedom'. Their simple refusal at first leads him to shout at them, to order them - and his segue to his role as a 'father figure' to the real inmates, especially the younger ones, is poignant.

Extending this theme, Conover describes a scene where a young inmate asks where he is going and Conover replies simply, 'home'. His description of the reaction on the young inmate's face as, "looked like a kid who had learned his father was leaving him," and Conover reflects, 'Yup, home…god you poor knucklehead, why didn't anybody take care of you. Where were your parents?'

In a third scenario, Conover discovers an inmate (Delacroix) with a prison-tattoo on his back that is a poem from 'The Diary of Anne Frank.' The imagery of the prisoner's feeling he is like Anne Frank, hidden away from the Nazis, imprisoned is clear and indicative, to Conover, of the failure of the prison to be anything more than a punitive center of incarceration.

The progression of Conover as a journalist wanting to write about life as a correction officer into an author convinced that inmates and prisoners alike are brutalized, changed and lead lives worsened by being in a prison - all in a year. Given the progressive increase in the numbers of prisons, in the enlarged size (warehouse) nature of prisons and the racial and social polarization of the prison population, it raises many questions Americans must face in the near future.

Essay Three

In his book The Warehouse Prison, author John Irwin contends that politicians consciously manipulated public opinion surrounding crime, the fear of the criminal class and the need for expanded and harsh penal programs because of three root reasons: (1) to divert the public's attention away from serious social and political problems; (2)  to exploit the public's fears in order to win elective office; (3)  to establish larger penal institutions, including supermax prisons, to control the 'dangerous class' (p.8).

Irwin analyzes the period from the 1960's thru the 1990's in presenting evidence supporting his claims. Broadly, this period saw a swing away from reformative thinking into programs focusing more on punishment and an almost banishing of convicted offenders away from society thereby 'protecting' middle-class America. The Conservative focus was not upon addressing inner-city blight or inequalities in education and civil rights. Instead, multiple Republican Presidents consciously classified the 'dangerous classes as the problem and not the underlying social inequalities.'

Barry Goldwater (five-time Senator and the Republican presidential candidate in 1964) energized the new conservative voter base by proclaiming 'no wonder law and order has broken down, mob violence has engulfed great American cities and our wives feel unsafe in the streets' (227). The imagery, the suggestion that the 'dangerous classes' are coming after normal Americans, is intentionally diverse  -  Goldwater wanted Americans to be diverted away from causes and conditions such as Civil rights and the isolation and poverty of (mostly) black inner-city populations.

Ronald Reagan (Governor of California 1967-75 and US President 1981-89) used the same diversionary approach in his Administrations. Declaring, "Government's function is to protect society from the criminal, not the other way around" (230) against focuses on the image of the 'dangerous class' coming after Americans. Reagan championed the attacks on the "social thinkers of the fifties and sixties who discussed crime only in the context of disadvantaged childhoods and poverty-stricken neighborhoods" (233) and leaves no doubt of the intent to punish more, create bigger and more harsh prisons including Supermax institutions all under this imagery of protecting Americans.

Lastly, on this point, President H. W. Bush (US President 1989-93) with the support of the conservative Christian right-wingers led and exemplified by Jerry Falwell, used in even more inflammatory and diversionary tactics in using the Willy Horton incident - Horton, a convicted felon, committed rape and robbery during a weekend furlough program - to defeat his opponent Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential campaign. Bush campaigned for harsher sentencing and further manipulated the public with sham 'drug purchases' involving FBI agents - all subsequently shown as being artfully staged to advance his political agenda and divert focus away from inner-city condition in the areas surrounding the White House.

I believe Irwin proves his case very convincingly for his first two points.

Irwin illustrates his conviction on the conscious goal of establishing punitive and harsh penal institutions to control the 'dangerous class' even more convincingly.

Early American institutions were modeled after English experiences where the aristocracy consciously used harsh, cruel punishments (including capital punishment and banishing) against lower-class offenders that challenged their privileged life. American prisons in New York and Pennsylvania were equally harsh in their treatment of isolation, forced silence and open and frequent beatings.

After WWII the public's sentiment changed to more of a rehabilitative consideration but this all was swept away by the post-1960's political shift to the Right and the growing influence of the Christian Right/Moral majority. The increased number of convictions from the 'War on Crime', which can be considered the 'War on Drugs', led to the shifting of focus towards punishment of prisoners (and less on rehabilitation or focus on societal issues) and the need to build more and larger prisons.

The expression 'warehouse' is Irwin's own imagery to connect large structures that are comparable to large factories - a by-product of America's industrialization.

The supermax prisons were an extension of the massive increase in the prison population in warehouse-types prisons where the prison conditions did lead to gang development and increased violence potential and harsher incarceration conditions such as solitary confinement and restriction to a single cell block. These prisons are built typically in rural environments; the imagery, the connection with 'banishment' is obvious. These prisoners were not being shipped to an external colony but the concept of physical separation and isolation is clear. Irwin details the dangers of this approach and the larger problems this is causing for re-entry of prisoners, long-term damage to their ability to cope and almost ensured recidivism.

Irwin describes the underlying mentality very clearly. This dangerous lower-level class, illustrated in popular TV shows such as 'Oz' and 'Scared Straight' must be banished to harsh, overcrowded prisons where the programs of enforced isolation and destruction of rights -  even destruction of hope - will all serve to create a permanent, dangerous underclass with high rates of recidivism.

Irwin was himself incarcerated. His descriptions of how our Presidents have used diversion to further their political goals and the longer-term problems our society will face because of warehouse-prison mentality, is very clear and very chilling.

Essay Four

In the United States, we face the issue of increasingly high incarceration rates, which often leads to prisons being filled to their limits with poor conditions and environments for inmates. After serving their time - most commonly for drug and property offenses - prisoners are released back into society. Annually, nearly 700,000 offenders are released from State and Federal prisons. However, more than sixty-percent of these same people recidivate soon after being released (PowerPoint). Recidivism can include re-incarceration, parole revocation, new convictions, and court ordered returns to facilities. The high levels of recidivism in America have created widespread concern and doubt about the effectiveness of the criminal justice system. In order to reduce these statistics, policies must be implemented that help prevent people from re-offending.

When analyzing the causes of recidivism, it is crucial to look at and examine the greater social context of each prisoner. Important factors to consider include - but are not limited to: the person's circumstances before being imprisoned, the things that happened while they were incarcerated, and the period after they are released from prison, both short and long term. Much of the evidence behind the causes of recidivism is aimed at the social assimilation of the offender. Personal and situation characteristics - including the individual's social environment of friends, family, community, and state-level policies - all have an impact on the risk of being re-arrested or re-incarcerated.

Throughout this course we have read and/or seen several prison release documentaries. According to one documentary by Andrew Lichtenstein from Huntsville, Texas, the author said this about those leaving prison: "…there is very little jubilation or celebration. The mood at the bus station is more often one of nervousness and reflection. For most men just getting out, the joy of freedom is often tempered by the anxieties of what to do next." One of the main reasons why people find themselves back in jail is because it is difficult for the individual to fit back in with 'normal' life. They have to reestablish ties with their family, return to high-risk places and secure formal identification (rather than six-digit prison tags); they often have little to no real employment history, and now have a criminal record to deal with. Many prisoners report being anxious about their release; they are excited about how their life will be different "this time" which does not always end up being the case.

The claim can be made that society 'imprisons' ex-convicts after their release by social stigmatization and the limitations put on them in work and education. Many employers are hesitant, or refuse to hire convicted felons, especially those with past drug and larceny charges because they would be responsible of handling money in the workplace. This makes it extremely difficult when nearly one-third of the 95-percent of prison population that's released each year is involved with property and drug offenses (PowerPoint). When it comes to education, government-approved loans and financial aid are often turned away to those previously convicted. Even people with smaller misdemeanors are disqualified.

Recidivism can interpreted as a clear-failure rate on behalf of the criminal justice system. To combat this issue, measures must be taken externally and internally. Government must realistically assess their criminal laws to punish only those charged with serious crimes (violent and non-violent) - versus accounts of: "Four years for a minor marijuana charge, six years for being caught with a dirty drug spoon, seven years for cashing an $85 bum check" (NPR TX documentary). I'm not saying these offenses should be ignored, but they should not receive such harsh reprimand. While I also understand the safety and precautionary measures taken by employers and education officials in turning away ex-convicts, I find it unfair to most. It's as if we are punishing these offenders, even after they've served their legal sentence… shouldn't prison in of itself be enough? Next, it is important to also recognize that crime does not end when you get inside - in fact, it can become even worse. Jails are composed of social hierarchy structures with power at the top by gang leaders who control other inmates. Illegal activity goes on in and outside cell walls by both prisoners and the staff (e.g. sneaking in of cigarettes, other contraband, etc.) Also, it would be more beneficial to prisoners for release in the immediate and long-term if they were to participate in group-based exercises to help mimic the type of socializing they'll find re-entering society. This is helpful for all inmates, but especially those who have served sentences in solitary confinement, where many "lose their ability to be social" (NPR documentary). If these measures were taken more diligently, within three years after release we would not see nearly half of as many offenders back in prison either because of a new crime or because of a technical violation of their parole (BJS) as we have the past several years.

Despite the slowing growth rate of prison populations in the 21st century, the data on recidivism and re-arrest rates only affirms the significance of the problem here in America. High population numbers causes crowding in facilities, with little personalized care and treatment aimed towards rehabilitating offenders rather than punishing them. To reduce recidivism nationally, it is recommended that more programs and efforts be made to socialize prisons before releasing them into the community to engage 'normal' socialization. With this, the government must also readdress much of their tougher sentencing and drug-policy laws to separate and lock-up the king-pins rather than the many 'small fishes' who take the fall for these crimes.