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Prisons and imprisonment reduce reoffending.
There is a great deal of debate surrounding the success of Imprisonment. ‘In those countries which have abolished the death penalty and corporal punishment, it is the most severe sanction which courts can impose on convicted offenders. By definition, depriving people of their liberty is a negative act and for that reason imprisonment is often described as a punishment of last resort’ (Coyle, 2006:1). Across England and Wales prisons are currently running beyond their capacity and there are currently 82,661 people inside. Large budget cuts cause many issues within prison, for example lack of staffing or access to treatment programmes. Prison has a particularly huge impact on people with mental health issues. In this essay I will examine the different penology perspectives, which include retributivist and consequentialist approaches. I will also analyse the reoffending rate as well as the impact prisons can have on a person with a mental health issue.
Retribution in Latin means giving back what is due. The retributivist theory ’just deserts’ is based on the idea that ‘punishment should be proportionate to the seriousness of the offence’ (Andrew Von Hirsch, 1976). An offender must pay for their crime by serving a punishment, which is comparable to the harm that they have caused. The perspective can be seen as fair and deserved, however will not prevent the offender from committing future crimes. Furthermore, the theory ‘just deserts’ is problematic ‘when measuring of seriousness of a ‘crime’ and whether we should focus on the offender’s ‘intentions’ or the ‘consequences’ of his or her wrongdoing’ (Scott and Flynn, 2014: 50). The theory concentrates on the amount of harm caused but does not consider the individual or the circumstances which led them to committing the crime. Finding a proportionate punishment for crimes like theft and other misdemeanours are far less complex, compared to violent crimes such as sexual assault or murder, which have a degree of intent involved as well as serious consequences. Von Hirsch also believed that persistent offenders shouldn’t be given continually increasing punishment as it is unjust. However, theorist John Halliday argued ‘the ‘just deserts’ philosophy should be modified by incorporating a new presumption that severity of sentence should increase when an offender has sufficiently recent and relevant previous convictions.’
In contrast, consequentialist theories test whether an action is good or bad dependent on the consequences of committing the act. Firstly, they believe prison is about deterrence, which works by ‘discouraging an action or event through instilling doubt or fear of the consequences’ (Oxford English Dictionary, 2018). Jeremy Bentham looks at two different types of deterrence. Specific deterrence looks at discouraging an offender from committing crime repeatedly. This could be in the form of a fine for example. On the other hand, general deterrence focus’ on deterring potential offenders from carrying out criminal acts. Bentham believed that seeing others being punished will discourage others from offending, demonstrated through the quote ’The punishment suffered by the offender presents to everyone an example of what he himself will have to suffer, if he is guilty of the same offence’ (Bentham, Bentham and Dumont, 1830). The issue with deterrence is not all people will be discouraged by the punishment of a crime. Some will be fully aware and continue to take part in criminal acts just being careful not to be caught. This could be because they believe that what they gain outweighs the sanctions they are exposed to, even if this means going to prison.
Rehabilitation is another benefit to prison, which is defined as ‘a treatment-based process, intervention or programme to enable individuals to overcome previous difﬁculties linked to their offending’ (Newburn, 2017: 1057). The aim of changing the offender’s behaviour is to address the root cause and this helps to prevent them from offending again. Probation programmes are adapted to each offender; Some may require drug or alcohol treatment, whereas others may have to attend regular meetings or complete unpaid work. There is also considerable debate concerning whether rehabilitation can work, especially for offenders who have committed sexual offences; ‘In June 2017 the Ministry of Justice published its own research, finding that the Sex Offenders Treatment Programme fails to rehabilitate sex offenders’ (House of Lords, 2017). The idea of rehabilitation is to restore and guide the offender to a life without crime however if they have committed a crime they also deserve to be punished.
Imprisonment means offenders are taken off of the streets, making the community a safer place and incapacitates them by preventing them from committing further crime. Imprisonment punishes the offender through removing them from society and restraining their liberty. Thomas Mathiesen (1998:455) questions whether we should ‘‘select,’ with the aid of prediction instruments, those particularly prone to such violence, dangerousness, and risk and incapacitate them.’ However, one questions whether it is fair to lock people up who have not yet committed an offence. Moreover, branding someone may actually cause them to internalise the label and become deviant. Deciding who poses a threat to society would be complex. It would be wrong to stereotype a younger person because of their parent’s criminal background as well as presuming someone is likely to reoffend. Although this strategy could prevent much crime and reoffending from happening, it would not be fair to judge people who have a chance to go and live normal, crime-free lives. Neither would it be affordable; One of the biggest issues is how expensive prison is, costing £40843 per person, per annum (Ministry of Justice, 2018).
Although expensive, a disadvantage of prisons is that short custodial sentences are marginally effective. ‘Adults released from custodial sentences of less than 12 months had a proven reoffending rate of 64.5%’ (Ministry of Justice, 2018). Whereas those who were given sentences of over 12 months, reoffended at a rate of 29.1%’(ibid.). Tim Newburn (2017: 357) supported this through stating ‘Imprisonment in such a system is increasingly focused on the incapacitation of particular types of offender – in particular those defined as ‘persistent’ or ‘high-rate.’ For example, offenders who have previously committed a larger number of illegal acts have an increased probability of reoffending; ‘Adult offenders with 11 or more previous offences made up 39% of all adult offenders in the cohort but committed 80% of all adult proven reoffences’ Ministry of Justice (2018). This demonstrates that prison is not as effective as we would hope and is inadequate when it comes to preventing all offenders from committing further crime. Furthermore, studies on reconviction do not include the dark figure of crime. Crime is extremely underreported. For example, 26% of sexual offences are unrecorded (ONS.gov.uk, 2018). This could be because the victim feels they will not be believed or even because they feel overcome by shame. Even though someone is not put back into prison this does not mean they have not committed further crime, it may be the case that they haven’t been caught.
Overcrowding in prisons negatively effects prisoners and lowers the chance of them rehabilitating. This is demonstrated by Roy D. King (2007) who stated, ‘although overcrowding may not be the central problem in fomenting disorder within prisons, it is undeniably an important indirect influence.’ Higher numbers in prison mean education and treatment programmes are in higher demand and people who desperately need help could face a longer wait. Offenders who are serving less than a year in prison will not be not be seen as a priority, which could explain why offending rates are higher for this category. Strain on staff also means that not all misconduct within the prisons are dealt with, leading to prisons becoming ‘universities of crime.’ Some offenders are likely to carry on committing crimes within prison, for example drug dealing/smuggling. Imprisoning people may protect society from criminal acts now, however prison could teach them to become better criminals and they could then go on to commit further crime when released, possibly worse than what they were originally convicted for. The home office (1990:6) reflected this through stating ‘incarceration is an expensive way of making bad people worse.’ Although imprisonment on its own ensures that offenders are punished, it does not necessarily change their behaviour and without rehabilitation would not be as successful in reducing reoffending.
There are however advantages to prison. For example, prisoner’s education trust helps to ensure offenders access better employment opportunities which could help reduce reoffending; Offenders who learn in prison are ’26% more likely to be in employment a year after release and spend fewer days receiving out-of-work benefits’ (Ministry of Justice, 2018). Much offending is opportunistic. If a person is committing crime due to their financial situation, rehabilitative programmes or imprisonment alone may not be beneficial as these would not be able to change the offenders living circumstances, when they are released from prison. However, education would mean a change in employment opportunities and this could affect their income; Hence, they would not have to turn to crime in order to provide for themselves or their families. Moreover, there are rehabilitation programmes in prisons such as the women’s offender reduction programme and offender behaviour programmes as well as charities, which offer alcohol or drug support. For example, Throughcare addictions service is used to provide services to all prisoners both during and after their sentences. This service can be voluntary or statutory.
The specific area I have chosen to analyse the impact of imprisonment on is mental health. Mental health is often a topic which is not openly discussed because of the social stigma attached to it. However, it is important that this changes; ‘1 in 4 adults experience mental illness’ (Kantaria, 2018) and although it is not recognised enough, is clearly a prevailing concern. A person’s mental health is ‘a person’s condition with regard to their psychological and emotional well-being’ (Oxford English Dictionary, 2018). People are often put in prison because they have committed crime due to the inability to work because of a mental health issue or even leave prison with a new mental health problem due to the severe conditions. Although prison is not meant to be a pleasant experience, offenders still have human rights. ‘High levels of mental health problems amongst prison populations are a global issue, with research showing that prisoners have substantially higher rates of mental disorder than the general population’ (Bennett, Crewe and Jewkes, 2016). Over the years, prisoner’s mental health has declined, this could be because we are more aware of mental health problems in modern day as well as the fact that prison conditions have deteriorated.
Conditions in prison can contribute to making mental health problems worse. Sykes (1958) explored the five deprivations of imprisonment; The first being a loss of liberty. Prisoners are confined to their cells. ‘Mental wellbeing of the vast majority of prisoners deteriorates. Prolonged passivity leads to isolation and the prison place presents a serious danger to the mental health of those confined’ (Scott and Codd, 2010). All prisoners require thirty minutes to an hour outside of their cell (depending on the category of the prison they are in). Symptoms that are evoked by social isolation include anxiety, depression as well as paranoia. Furthermore, prisoners also suffer ‘a deprivation of goods and services’ (ibid.) in addition to a deprivation of heterosexual relationships. ‘Involuntary celibacy can create emotional, psychological, and physical problems which may lead to tension, anxiety and worsened self-image’ (Sykes, 1958, 2007). Prisoners are likely to feel fearful and deprived of security due to the amount of violence they are exposed to. They may also feel helpless or a loss of control due to the deprivation of their autonomy.
Deaths within prison are rising; ‘There were 87 apparent self-inflicted deaths, up 12% from 78 in the previous year. On a rate basis this is 1.0 instances per 1,000 prisoners in the 12 months to September 2018. Within the female estate, there were 4 self-inflicted deaths at a rate of 1.0 per 1,000 prisoners during this period, down from 5 self-inflicted deaths in the previous 12 months’ (Ministry of Justice, 2018:2). In 2016, the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman found that 70% of prisoners who had taken their own life between 2012 and 2014 had been identified as having mental health needs (National Audit office, 2017:5). Prisoners may also self-harm due to fear or the inability to cope with prison life. ’The number of prisoners who self-harmed in the 12 months to June 2018 was 12,142, up 10% from the previous year. Those that self-harmed did so, on average, 4.1 times’ (Ministry of Justice, 2018:3). From these statistics, it is clear that prison worsens a person’s mental health to the point where multiple people take their own life. If better care for mental health was provided, this would surely be reflected through a significantly lower suicide rate. ‘The increase in self-inflicted deaths and self-harm incidents in prisons is also attributable in part to the use of drugs in prison. Drug use in prison is a serious issue and can severely compromise prisoners’ mental health.’ (House of Commons, 2017). One could also question whether the pain of imprisonment is too severe, which is why so many turn to drugs. Nonetheless other forms of sentencing such as community orders would be unsuitable if someone has committed murder for example. The listeners scheme, formed by Samaritans enables prisoners to help support others in prison, who may be struggling or feel like they have no one to talk to. Although listeners cannot give advice, simply having someone to take notice and challenge negative thoughts can help reduce self-harm and possible suicide.
‘23% of prisoners report that they have had some prior contact with mental health services. But this does not provide a full picture as the data may be incomplete and people may develop mental health problems after they arrive in prison’ (National Audit office, 2017:13). Furthermore, when given a questionnaire in custody, which includes questions on risk of suicide or self-harm, 35% of the questions are optional (National Audit office, 2017:32). This demonstrates that mental health issues can fall under the radar. Moreover, if someone does develop an issue with their mental health, it is down to the staff at the prison to detect this and raise concern. However, because of how overcrowded prisons are and how overstretched each member of staff is, this is challenging. Furthermore, staff are not given up to date training. ‘40% of prisons did not provide refresher mental health awareness training to prison staff in the three years leading up to October 2016 (National Audit office, 2017:4). This essentially means that even if a member of staff did notice a change in a prisoner’s behaviour, they might not even think to associate this with their mental health. When being released from prison, neither NOMS or the NHS monitor whether a prisoner is receiving the correct care (Ministry of Justice, 2018). This is when the offender is likely to find life extremely challenging. Particularly when going back into the community after being labelled. This may be difficult due to there being a shortage of services within the area the offender lives in or possibly the offender is no longer registered with a GP. Ensuring an offender receives support through continuity of care could prevent them from reoffending and is therefore crucial.
In conclusion, prisons have both advantages and disadvantages. Shorter custodial sentences have a significantly high reoffending rate however giving people longer prison sentences for small crimes would prove expensive and possibly unnecessary. Even whilst in prison, offenders are able to commit crime. More staff would be able to prevent this from happening. In contrast, imprisonment can ensure offenders access rehabilitative programmes and better education to secure employment opportunities, meaning they would not have to revert back to committing crime in order to survive. Sentences in the community have a lower reoffending rate of 56% and therefore could be seen as more effective than imprisonment however victims and communities may require social justice and offenders may pose a danger to the community. Therefore, majority would argue that this is not always a suitable punishment. Furthermore, conditions in prison and overcrowding needs to be improved as it causes prisoners mental health to deteriorate, which can often lead to self-harm or possible suicide. If better care for mental health was provided, this would surely be reflected through a significantly lower suicide rate. Staff require up to date training in order to be able to recognise and support prisoners, this could improve their lives drastically. Assessing whether prison works depends on whether your measure of success is based on the punishment of offenders being fair, whether you base it on the number of people who reoffend after being in prison or whether you base it on how successful the rehabilitation is that prisoners receive in prison. Imprisonment does help reduce reoffending in the community yet only temporarily. Rehabilitation that prisoners receive in prison can supply people with the skills they need to live crime free lives outside of prison and therefore avoiding recidivism. Though the success of these purely comes down to the individual offender and their circumstances.
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