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Prison: Impact And Effects

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Criminology
Wordcount: 3348 words Published: 15th Aug 2018

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Jump to: Theories of New Punitiveness | The Effect of Prison on the Family | The Effect of Prison on the Community | Conclusion

Currently, the impact and effects of imprisonment, which is a means of social control, are increasingly becoming various and noticeable. This essay will first focus on the concept and the different models of social control. Then social functions, official aims of imprisonment and an example of a prison population crisis will be respectively examined in relation to sociological theories, 'new punitiveness' and political economy, which are three main influences on imprisonment. Finally, the negative impact of imprisonment on both families and communities will be shown.

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Imprisonment as a concept of social control has a long history. In nineteenth century, social control paid more attention to both connecting sociology to political philosophy and settling the controversial discussions of macro-sociology (Janowitz, 1975, cited in Cohen and Scull, 1983). Social control, at that time, solved a great number of complicated issues, but the purely coercive controls were not widely used (Cohen and Scull, 1983). During the twentieth century, the social control, even sociology was to be "a point of view and method for investigating the processes by which individuals are inducted to and induced to co-operate in some sort of permanent corporate existence we call society" (Park and Burgess, 1924, cited in Cohen and Scull, 1983, p5). Indeed, the alteration of the process that inducted the individual into society had great benefits on social control. Additionally, at present, the concept of social control is basically defined as: "any structure, process, relationship, or act that contributes to the social order" (Liska, A.E, 1992, p3). Currently, there are three regulatory models of social control. The first model is 'custodial institution', which is established on the theories of social order and punishment and the police and prisons are the representative organizations of this model. In addition, 'community care', such as welfare agencies and halfway house, are also important methods of social control. In particularly, the 'custodial institution' and 'community care' create formal methods because of the rules, law and rehabilitation, they base on. The third model, which is informal, is called 'self and mutual help', such as social pressure and peer group. Less formal face to face controls are considered in this model (David and Stasz, 1990). Overall, social control uses the ways of punishment, prevention and rehabilitation in order to solve deviant, threatening and disorder behaviours.

In particular, imprisonment is one of the highly used means of social control in form of punishment. There are three factors that strongly influence the development of imprisonment. Firstly, some theories of 'punishment as control' have emerged. In Gramsci's theory, the most important things for capitalist society in the revolutionary struggle are the 'superstructure' of ideology, law and politics. Hegemony, which means that one class is convinced to accept other classes' moral, political and cultural values, is his central idea. Additionally, Althusser improved the work of Gramsi. He introduced a penal system in the Repressive State Apparatus (RSA), which includes the police, the courts and the prison. However, he claimed that the functions of RSA are not only to coerce, but there are also ideological functions, such as to reproduce personal values. Distinguished from RSA, Althusser established Ideological State Apparatuses (ISA). He put some overlooked parts of the state in this mechanism, such as educational system, the media and political parties (Cavadino and Dignan, 2007). What is more, Foucalt, who created the phrase 'carceral archipelago' to show western liberal democracies closely in touch with forms of oppression, argued in Discipline and Punish (1977) that: "the emergence of the prison does not make a more humanitarian form of punishment, instead it represents an attempt to punish more efficiently and extensively to create a disciplined society" (cited in Carrabine et al, 2009, p362). Furthermore, the English historian E.P.Thompson indicated that law, as well as penalty, can be found 'at every bloody level'. However, if the law is unjust, the class's hegemony will benefit nothing from that. (Cavadino and Dignan, 2007).

Those sociological theories, particularly Foucault's 'great confinement' that: "institution of various kinds came to be adopted as the solution to a wide range of social problems" (Cavadino and Dignan, 2007, p194), shows that imprisonment has its social functions. Mathiesen, a Norwegian penologist, suggests that there are five social functions which demonstrate that imprisonment is still the dominant way of punishment. He calls the first function 'the expurgatory function'. Many of people in prisons are homeless, abused and suffering from mental illness as Cavadino and Dignan (2007) researched and therefore regarded as unproductive and disruptive. They are routinely being put into prisons so as to prevent society from various damages. The second function is called 'the power-draining function'. Apart from preventing prisoners from being involved in the normal society, the prisoners are also: "denied the opportunity to exercise responsibility" (Cavadino and Dignan, 2007, p195). 'Minimal practical contributions' is the function that is considered when the prisons were designed. Thirdly, prisoners easily isolate themselves from society, because of the shame of having been imprisoned. This is called, by Mathiesen, 'symbolic function'. It shows the effect that those prisoners are a smaller risk to society after being released. The fourth function, related to the third one, is called 'the diverting function'. Mathiesen (cited in Cavadino and Dignan, 2007, p195) claims in his book that: "socially dangerous acts are increasingly being committed by individuals and classes with power in society". However, the fact is that the heavy-handed of prisons are highly used to the lower working class offenders. Hereby social attention is diverted from more serious social harm committed by the groups in power. For instance, acts of pollution and eco-systems destruction. Finally, Mathiesen identifies the fifth social function as 'the action function'. Because it is the most serious means of social control, prisons play a vital role in reducing the public's fear of crime. However, Cavadino and Dignan (2007, p196) argue that the imprisonment functions that Mathiesen suggests are not that efficient: "there is also a heavy price to be paid, not only in terms of resources and human suffering, but also in managing the increasing tensions that are associated with the steady enduring penal crisis".

Theories of New Punitiveness

Secondly, in recent decades, 'new punitiveness', which means a general rise in the severity of punishment, has become a notable penal trend around the world. Essentially, the aim of 'new punitiveness' is to make offenders suffer. At present, the 'imprisonment rate', which is a measure of harshness of punishment, has increased in nearly three fourths of countries all over the world. Undoubtedly, the United States has led this new trend, because "the prison population and imprisonment rates in this country are the highest in the world and where numbers of prisoners have quintupled since the early 1970s" (Cavadino and Dignan, 2007, P84). Meanwhile, this punitiveness is connected with 'populist punitiveness' whose policies and slogans, for instance, 'zero tolerance', 'three strikes' and 'prison works' are a far-reaching influence on policy-making, particularly penal policies. Definitely, it represents this penal trend: 'new punitiveness'. (Garland, 2007)

'New punitiveness' is connected with the official aims of using imprisonment that results in increasing use of prisons. Deterrence and retribution to offenders were the primary aims of imprisonment in the nineteenth century. However, during this period, the prisoners were still possible to return back to society and those ideas were treated as official policy. Additionally, although in the 1970s, the 'rehabilitation ideal' collapsed, rehabilitation was reintroduced and became an important aim in penal practices in the late 1990s, especially in the UK Criminal Justice System. The current aims of rehabilitation are not only reforming prisoners' characters, but more importantly to prevent them from reoffending (HCHAC, 2004). At present, the UK Prison Service states as its official aims: to reduce the risk of reoffending, hold prisoners securely and provide safety (Cavadino and Dignan, 2007). However, practically, all of the three aims are lamentable. Considering the first aim, Shepherd and Whiting's (2006) figures indicate that imprisonment is unsuccessful in preventing reoffending: "two-thirds of all prisoners are reconvicted within two years of being released, and for young men aged 18-20, the figure is 74.8%" (cited in Cavadino and Dignan, 2007, p193). Reoffending is worse than a decade ago, when according to the Home Office just 70% of offenders under 21 were reconvicted for a crime (Home Office, 1999). Secondly, to hold prisoners securely, does not only mean to prevent their safety, but also to keep them from escaping. Although, currently, the Prison Service and governments are paying more attention to lessen the rates of absconding, the escapes from prisons have become periodic (Cavadino and Dignan, 2007). Therefore, it is hard for the Prison Service to achieve the third aim that is to provide safety. Prisoners' escapes will increase anxiety and fear within general public. Cavadino and Dignan (2007, p193) claim that: " there is  a very long way to go before it can claim to be providing safe, well-ordered establishments in which prisoners are treated humanly, decently and lawfully".

Thirdly, the political economy, particularly the welfare system, plays a vital role in causing different imprisonment rates among various countries and it can revealingly explain the reason of the rise of 'new punishment'. There are three key categories. Firstly, at present, 'Neo-liberalism', which means free-market capitalism, exists in the US, Britain and Australia. The welfare state, under this ethos that individualism is more important than communitarianism, is minimalist. Cavadino and Dignan (2007, P86) argues that: "the economic system creates much material inequality, which results in the social exclusion of many people and communities". Secondly, the welfare benefits in 'conservative corporatist' countries whose collectivism is more important, such as Germany, are more generous than 'Neo-liberal' countries. The citizens in those countries get better protection against unusual market forces and products. However, it is still not equality and it is shown in Cavadino and Dignan's (2007, P86) book: "their welfare states enshrine and perpetuate traditional class, status and economic division between different groups of citizens who are entitled to different levels of welfare benefits". Thirdly, the more equal and generous welfare states are 'social democratic' countries, such as Sweden. Although they share conservative corporatism's communitarian approach, their systems are the most egalitarian ones among those three kinds of countries. Walnsley's (2005) research on imprisonment rates which shows that the rates in all neo-liberal countries are the highest, while the lowest rates are in social democratic countries, definitely confirms this theory.

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Undoubtedly, the United States is a typical example which shows the rise of the 'new punitiveness' as a neo-liberal country. The quote: "overcrowded conditions in our prisons have become a national crisis" (cited in Matthews and Francis, 1996, p22) informs that this crisis has extended to almost all federals states and locals communities. Maguire and Pastore (1994) suggested that during 1968 to 1978, the prisoners in federal state prisons increased by over 1000000, from 187914 to 294396. Although many concerns have been took to the crisis, "between 1980 to 1990, the number of state and federal inmates had more than doubled to over 7000000, and in 1994 this population surpassed the one million mark" (Office of Criminal Justice Service, 1995, p72). There are three factors that contribute to the dramatic increase in prisoner population. Firstly, the increase of inmate population reflects the high rates of crimes (Lynch, 1995). However, in return, the crime rates are not equal to the increment in prison population. According to FBI data the crime rates did not increase sharply in the last few decades. Blumstein (1995, cited in Matthews and Francis, 1996, p30) concluded that: "it is very unlikely that the growth in prison population was a consequence of a growing crime rate". Secondly, the US has a long-drawn campaign to 'get tough' with crime. Whatever the elected official is, "the politics, from mandatory minimum prison sentences, to restrictions on parole release, to 'three strikes and you are out' law, are aimed at putting more offenders in prison and for a lengthier stay" (Skolnick, 1994, cited in Matthews and Francis, 1996, p30). Thirdly, in the 1980s, the 'war on drugs', which aimed to punish drug offences by using criminal law, contributed to the increase of prison populations. Only 10% of the prison populations were occupied by drug offenders, while this figure had doubled in 1989. Blumstein (1995) conducted a study, which pointed out that: "44% of this increase in prison populations between 1986 and 1991 could be attributed to the boom in the number of offenders imprisoned for drug offences" (cited in Matthews and Francis, 1996, p31). Furthermore, there are some other solutions that the US has implemented. For instance, creating capacity, which means to build more prisons to house all prisoners; and intermediate punishment, which aims to 'get tough' in the community as a punishment. However, Matthews and Francis (1996) argued the barriers as follows:

theories of reducing the crowding crisis remain mainly academic exercises with little prospect of substantively affecting the extent of the crisis, ideas on reducing prison crowding are judged too dangerous because their endorsement would expose elected officials to charges of being soft on crime. (p31-32)

 The Effect of Prison on the Family

Obviously, imprisonment has lots of bad effects on families. Firstly, those families, whose member is in prison, will lose respect in the community. Clear (2009, p128) cites an experience of a participant in his book: "neighborhood residents not only look at the specific offender but also the entire family, and if one has offended, all of a sudden they are not the most respected, even from the church". Secondly, parental imprisonment results in financial problems, especially if the man of the family is in prison. Those families lose a productive member, thus they lose income, because the partner's imprisonment will probably influence the employment of the woman, and the ability of a male support the family is higher than the female's (Clear, 2009). Thirdly, the most significant influence is on children. Actually, the effects of imprisonment on children start at the arrest of their parent. They are shocked, fearful and confused when witnessing their parents being arrested. As Van Nijantten (1998) points out: "the way the father was removed in handcuffs or with a bag over his head, are sensations the child will never forget" (p82). Parental imprisonment has a psychological influence on children. A majority of researches have found that children, whose parents are in prison, are more likely to show the depression, hyperactivity, clinging behaviour, sleep problems, truancy and poor school grades. (Murray, 2005). While, other studies revealed that those children have a higher risk of showing bad behaviour or experience imprisonment (Johnston, 1995). Farrington et al (1996, cited in Codd, 2008. p73) also support this idea that: "children who are brought up by parents, who are offenders, particularly if they are imprisonment, have been argued to be more likely to go on to offend". However, parental imprisonment still has benefits for some children. Eddy and Reid (2003), suggest that the quality of positive parenting will rise, because their parents may take more time out on the street and send them to a caregiver or local care organisations, which will results in less significant problems for those children.

The Effect of Prison on the Community

Similarly, imprisonment has several effects on the communities. First of all, stigma sometimes will transfer from families to communities. Although some residents say that they do not mind and even celebrate it when the prisoners come back to the community, the stigma, especially if more serious crimes are committed in the community, will inevitably influence the whole community. For example, residents may be reluctant to be out on the street at night in their areas or to take part in activities (Clear, 2009). Secondly, the economic situation of the community is seriously affected by the imprisonment, because of the stigma. There is a fact that residents are concerned more about living surroundings. If there are a number of people with criminal records in the community it can lead to lower property values. Meanwhile, the businesses in such places noted that fewer customers enter their premises. Clear (2009) discusses those two ideas: "the area's bad reputation means that large corporations do not locate their business in these neighbourhood; and housing prices are diminished because, when residents flee, they sell their houses for whatever they can get, often at a reduced price. This reflects the value of the community" (p135). Thirdly, prisoners are always full of hope when returning back to their community. However, they soon feel low self-worth and self-esteem, because the communities stigmatise them. Consequently, they will do nothing to contribute to the communities and feel 'that's just the way I am', which may very likely lead them to reoffend. As a participant's responses in Clear's research show (2009, p138): "if you treat me more like a human being, I will act more like human being, if you treat me more like an animal, I'm going to act more like an animal". Last but not least, even if residents show a welcome to prisoners, those people from prisons actually increase the fear of crime in communities. Another participant in the same study says he is worried about his son when he is working, because of having a former prisoner as a next door neighbour. Other residents express the same fears. They are cited in Clear's (2009, p142) book: "one resident said that if someone with a criminal records moved in next door to her home, she might 'do a background check'. Another said he was 'going to watch him'". Overall, those accumulated impacts on the community can be fierce.


In conclusion, imprisonment plays a vital role as a means of social control. Although in some countries, such as the US, the overcrowded prisons have become a pressing problem that needs to be addressed urgently, because of its valuable social functions and coincidence with official aims, imprisonment is widely used around the world. However, the negative effects on families, especially on children who are economically and mentally greatly affected and suffer when their parents are imprisoned; and communities whose economies and social anxiousness are seriously influenced, should not be neglected. It may negate the development of imprisonment


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