The Considerations About Imprisonment Criminology Essay

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There is a common reluctance regarding imprisonment and its efficacy. It is perfectly true that prisons fulfil a key purpose, which is to draw the lines between what is right and what is wrong; and incapacitate current offenders by keeping them out of society (Petersilia, 1994; Shepherd, 2001). However, this is not nearly enough. Imprisonment is one of the main control strategies for crime all around the world; and there is where the problem arises, since both serious and minor offenders are given the same type of punishment (Raes & Snacken, 2004; Shepherd, 2001; Tonry, 2001). Subsequently, prisons become more crowded and jails retain prisoners for longer periods of time. Moreover, robbers, burglars, and above all drug offenders are affecting greatly the total number of convicts. This situation renders society with a non-functioning prison system; if there were not so many restrictions for alternative measures, prisons would not be so overpopulated (Kolstad, 1996; Osher, Steadman, & Barr, 2003; Tonry, 2001; Weinstein, 2010; Wooldredge & Gordon, 1997).

Furthermore, imprisonment has only a marginal deterrence and prevention effect (Cohen, 1991; Kolstad, 1996; Petersilia, 1994; Shepherd, 2001; Visher & Connell, 2012). Policymakers have tried to maximize sentences lead by the belief that tougher sanctions would be more deterrent (Petersilia, 1994; Shepherd, 2001). Likewise, priorities have shifted from rehabilitation to making new crime penalties, and even the public seems to demand harsher attitudes towards crime. Consequently, there are mandatory minimum prison sentences and longer convictions (Petersilia, 1994), above all for violent offenders or those who have a longer criminal record (Liem, 2012; Pardoe & Weidner, 2006); and sentences often do not involve any rehabilitation (Dowden & Andrews, 1999; Dowden & Andrews, 2000; Latessa, Cullen, & Gendreau, 2002; Lipsey & Cullen, 2007; Smith, Gendreau, & Swartz, 2009). This situation causes a great economic cost, an increase in prison population (Levitt, 1996; Marvell & Moody, 1995; Petersilia, 1994; Shepherd, 2001), and it does not help to reduce recidivism (Liem, 2012).

In addition, prisons are believed to maintain the problem among inmates, as they face there numerous risk factors, internalize criminal behaviours, and acquire better skills of crime (Baay, Liem & Nieuwbeerta,. 2012; Bayer, Hjalmarsson, & Pozen, 2009; Liem, 2012; Petersilia, 1994; Shepherd, 2001; Wermink, Blokland, Nieuwbeerta, Nagin, & Tollenaar, 2010).

For those reasons, many scholars consider that imprisonment is neither sufficient nor the best solution, and it is not worth all the money invested (Baay et al., 2012; Petersilia, 1994). Certainly, the cost of crime is high; but prisons could play an outstanding role in offering treatments and programmes to improve not only the mental and physical health of prisoners, but also to educate them. Many studies argue that including treatments would suppose a modest decrease in recidivism, as well as a reduction in crime expenses (Aos, Phipps, Barnoski, & Roxanne, 2001; Weinstein, 2010).

Overall, topics such as punishment, deterrence, recidivism, treatment programmes, alternative measures, and consequences of being imprisoned will be covered.

Imprisonment and recidivism: main concepts

It has been suggested that once individuals are engaged in criminal behaviour, there is a great likelihood that they will continue (Liem, 2012). Approximately, there is a 59% rate of recidivism (Gendreau et al., 1996; Nagin & Paternoster, 1991; Nagin, Cullen & Jonson, 2009), coupled with an estimated 50% of re-incarceration within three years (Burnett & Maruna, 2004; Liem, 2012; Weinstein, 2010).

The main predictors for recidivism are in first place, younger age at first offence, and criminal history; followed by type of crime committed, prior arrests and convictions (Baay et al., 2012; Cohen, 1991; Gendreau et al., 1996; Liem, 2012; Nagin & Paternoster, 1991; Nagin et al., 2009; Shepherd, 2001; Neuilly, Zgoba, Tita, & Lee, 2011). And secondly, longer and harsher sentences; for instance, removing the offender completely from society has been associated rather with an increase or only a marginal decrease in post-release criminal behaviour (Chen & Shapiro, 2007; Killias, Gilliéron, Villard, & Poglia, 2010; Kolstad, 1996; Liem, 2012; Petersilia, 1994; Shepherd, 2001). Yet, some studies find a positive, negative or no relationship at all between time spent in prison and recidivism (Liem, 2012).

Nevertheless, to considerate what prisoners undergo while incarcerated is important, given that their attitudes will affect their behaviours after release (Visher & Connell, 2012). Hence, if prisoners must be kept in prisons, they should have access to treatments and programmes; they should be allowed to keep some exterior contact, and have resources available to them; and they should not suffer too harsh conditions (Shepherd, 2001).

Implications of establishing programmes and treatments within prisons

Prison settings hold a great variety of psychological disorders, mental illnesses, risk factors and situational conditions that should be dealt with. Contrarily, it has been claimed that these days imprisonment does not have a rehabilitative function (Kolstad, 1996). Prisons started to establish rehabilitative ideas back in the late nineteenth century, but during the twentieth century they found little evidence about programmes reducing recidivism. As a result, prisons moved to abolish those measures and to harden custody conditions (Tonry, 2001); authorities accepted that nothing could work in matters of rehabilitation and reduction of reoffending (Kolstad, 1996); and they only focused on punishment (Duke, 2000), as if both could not be applied together.

Still, several rehabilitation programmes decrease recidivism rates up to 30% (Andrews, 1990; Andrews et al., 1990; Andrews & Bonta, 2010; Aos et al., 2001; Gendreau, Little, & Goggin, 1996; Rothbard, Wald, Zubritsky, Jaquette, & Chhatre, 2009). But prisoners are not normally able to access them (Phelps, 2012).

To begin with, drugs play an important role (Duke, 2000); nearly 50% of prisoners could be diagnosed with drug abuse or dependence. Also, there is an association between substance abuse and crime; and what is more, meta-analyses have shown a positive effect of drug treatments, reducing relapse and recidivism (Egg, Pearson, Cleland, & Upton, 2000). But conversely, only around 10% of inmates receive any kind of management (Phelps, 2012). Therefore, including substance abuse treatments could reduce recidivism and bring economic benefits (Zarkin et al., 2012).

As well, mental illness, psychopathology or co-occurring disorders are highly common among prisoners (Edens, Peters, & Hills, 1997; Godley et al., 2000; Osher et al., 2003; Sarlon et al., 2012; Steadman & Naples, 2005; Teplin, 1990), which supposes a more difficult reinsertion in society (Edens et al., 1997). This is why prisons could take more care of mental health. Besides, maintaining a better self-esteem and optimism are linked to a better post-release behaviour (Burnett & Maruna, 2004).

Similarly, rates of suicide are around 12 times higher within prisons (Dooley, 1990; Kullgren, Tengström, & Grann, 1998; Tonry, 2001). Long-term prisoners have an overall higher risk, but many inmates commit suicide after a short time, normally if they do not have a previous record (Arboleda-Flórez, Holley, & Crisanti, 1998; Frottier et al., 2002). Hence, suicide prevention programmes could be established, and prison staff may well be trained to recognise signs of suicide risk (Frottier et al., 2002).

Many authors agree that in order to have a successful treatment and reduce recidivism, there must be an early start and then a long-term focus coupled with a follow-up; programmes should address the needs of every particular case and its severity, above all with high-risk offenders; they ought to provide cognitive-behavioural treatments and psychological interventions; and finally, programmes should establish links with the community (Andrews et al., 1990; Andrews & Bonta, 2010; Brecht, Anglin, & Want, 1993; Edens et al., 1997; Kolstad, 1996; Zarkin et al., 2012). Indeed, re-entry programs try to help offenders throughout their process of coming back into society, for instance, teaching social and work skills (Shepherd, 2001; Visher & Connell, 2012); and they may reduce the negative impact of returning to the same neighbourhood and keeping contact with criminal peers (Nagin & Patermoster, 2000; Visher & Connell, 2012; Vries & Liem, 2011).

Another issue is that up to 60% of inmates have some degree of illiteracy and come from low social classes (Kolstad, 1996; Weinstein, 2010), so having educational and social skills programmes would be noteworthy.

Nonetheless, establishing treatments in prisons also faces drawbacks. First of all, engaging inmates in their programmes is paramount (Osher et al., 2003), and sometimes this is not an easy task. Some authors, however, maintain that it may not be important if inmates enter voluntarily or not. As long as involuntary prisoners are kept in treatment long enough, they become involved and stop being resistant, so they can end up showing similar outcomes to the voluntary ones. Nonetheless, coerced clients consume time and resources, and they might reduce the impact on other clients (Brecht et al., 1993). Secondly, most programmes have not been meticulously assessed or they are not expanded until its full profit (Aos et al., 2001). Thirdly, treatments should be differentiated and addressed to every offender or at least to a homogenous group of offenders (Kolstad, 1996); but there is a great negative relationship between number of inmates and number of staff. For instance, only a 25% of offenders participate in academic programmes, 15% are in psychological counselling, and even less access drug or alcohol treatments (Phelps, 2011; Weinstein, 2010). And finally, trying to rehabilitate and restore a normal life in prison settings might be truly complex (Kolstad, 1996).

Anyhow, some studies find that participating in programmes or therapy does not always correlate with some of the aforementioned problems, as well as longer sentences do not per se worsen physical or mental health (Dettbarn, 2012).

Alternative measures

There are several examples of alternatives to imprisonment, such as prevention programmes, community service, electronic monitoring (Raes & Snacken, 2004) or fines payment (Persson & Siven, 2006).

These alternatives, such as community service, reduce recidivism up to a half (Shepherd, 2001), although this difference tends to disappear in the long term (Killias, Aebi, & Ribeaud, 2000; Killias et al., 2010; Nirel, Landau, Sebba, & Sagiv, 1997; Wermink et al., 2010); they do not stigmatize offenders (Wermink et al., 2010); programmes are carried out in a better scenario (Petersilia, 1994); prison overcrowding is reduced (Wooldredge & Gordon, 1997); it is less costly to conduct them (Kolstad, 1996; Shepherd, 2001; Wermink et al., 2010; Wooldredge & Gordon, 1997); and offenders are offered work, education, and other reference groups that help them not to reoffend (Harris & Wing Lo, 2002; Kolstad, 1996).

As well, risk-focused and evidence-based prevention programmes are a worthwhile measure (Nagin et al., 2009; Welsh & Farrington, 2011). This strategy can deter future criminals, saves resources (Welsh & Farrington, 2011), and even society agrees to invest in them instead of, for instance, building more prisons (Cohen, Rust, & Steen, 2006).

Nevertheless, several studies also remark that these alternatives present disadvantages. They are normally given for less serious crimes or to first offenders (Killias et al., 2010; Wermink et al., 2010), so certain criminals are not considered (Raes & Snacken, 2004); offenders are not prevented physically to commit others crimes (Raes & Snacken, 2004; Wermink et al., 2010); there is not a bigger deterrent effect (Wermink et al., 2010); they do not improve social integration or reduce the likelihood of reoffending (Jones, 1991; Killias et al., 2010); and they may not satisfy victims of crime (Wermink et al., 2010). Also, particularly older male offenders with prior prison experience, would prefer incarceration to alternatives such as boot camp; in order to avoid substantial investment of time, potentially abusive treatment, strict supervision, risk of being fined or revocation (Flory, May, Minor, & Wood, 2006; Killias et al., 2010; May, Minor, Wood, & Mooney, 2004; May, Wood, Mooney, & Minor, 2005; Moore, May, & Wood, 2008; Williams, May, & Wood, 2008; Wood & Grasmick, 1995; Wood & Grasmick, 1999; Wood & May, 2003).

In any case, a balance between prevention, alternative measures, treatment and punishment is seriously needed (Welsh & Farrington, 2011).

Other negative effects of imprisonment

Apart from the negative effects already mentioned, prisons have other impacts on inmates' attitudes once they are released. The isolation suffered in prison, and the subsequent criminal record jeopardizes a well future social re-integration (Killias et al., 2010; Petersilia, 1994; Tonry, 2001). As well, offenders loose completely their autonomy and after a long time, their capacity of acting independently (Dettbarn, 2012; Shepherd, 2001; Weinstein, 2010). Life in prison is habitually inactive (Kolstad, 1996); concentration, memory and sociability deteriorate; while anxiety, emotional instability, introversion, aggressiveness, antisocial traits, depression and apathy increase (Dettbarn, 2012; Lapornik et al., 1996; Tonry, 2001; Weinstein, 2010).

In brief, inmates have to adapt to the challenging prison lifestyle (Yang, Kadouri, Révah-Lévy, Mulvey, & Falissard, 2009). This is why providing work, education, social training, and maintaining contact with the community could counteract some of these outcomes (Lapornik et al., 1996).


Having unclear findings and opposing opinions in psychology is very common. This is why most statements and ideas have their own pros and cons. In spite of this, punishment should not be incompatible with rehabilitation or alternatives measures. Leaving offenders in prisons and do nothing about it is not enough, as there is a great likelihood that they will re-offend after release; and this is also a punishment for society, because it implies an ever increasing crime rate, further costs, and wasted time and resources. Imprisonment should not be always the first sentence; and if it was the case, it would be much better to address programmes to different typologies of offenders, and treatments or psychological assistance to those with any kind of disorder. This is why having improved connections between the criminal justice system and treatment system would be beneficial for everyone (Godley et al., 2000). Later, alternative measures should be thoroughly assessed in order to know the best cases in which they could be applied, and do so. Plus, follow-up and aftercare should be compulsory when releasing any offender back into society, in order to improve and assure a better re-socialization, and to extend the period with no recidivism.