What is Prison About?

Nordic Prisons less crowded, less punitive, better staffed

Prison itself is not a modern idea. Putting people under lock and key, throwing them into the Tower of London, the Bastille in Paris, the Peter and Paul Fortress in St Petersburg, into dungeons underneath big castles or into small lock-ups or bridewells in towns and cities is not new. Even the Bible tells the story of Joseph, who became the trusted servant of Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s chief ministers. He was thrown into prison after having been falsely accused of impropriety by his master’s wife. [1]

The use of imprisonment as the main way of punishing crime, however, is different. It is a fairly recent development. In the eighteenth century in England, hanging was the most severe penalty and it was applied widely. You could be hanged for many offences, including murder, violence, theft or property over a certain value, housebreaking, arson and removing parts of Westminster Bridge. As the century wore on, hanging became less acceptable. But even if the offenders found guilty of serious crimes were not to be executed they could not be set free. They had to be kept somewhere and punished somehow. Many were transported to the American colonies, which came to an end in 1776. In the Victorian period, England started to send convicts to the far side of the earth- Australia. This decision was condemned by a parliamentary committee set up in 1837 to look at transportation ‘as being unequal, without terrors to the criminal class, both corrupting to convicts and very expensive’. [2]

Eighteenth-century thinkers saw crime as doctors saw illness. It was contagious, so those suffering from it had to be separated one from another and it could be cured by treatment. Jeremy Bentham dreamt up his idea of a Panopticon, a circular prison where from one place, one guard could see every prisoner all the time, and an inspector would keep under surveillance both the guard and the prisoners. [3]

The main features of the nineteenth-century prisons are well known. Ingenious devices were employed so that prisoners were kept from having any contact with each other. When walking round the exercise yard, prisoners wore masks, which allowed them to look down at their feet but not sideways or upwards. When prisoners went to the chapel they sat in little boxes so that they could see the chaplain straight ahead but could not make contact with the prisoners on either side. In some prisons the activity for the prisoners was working the tread wheel, a machine that required prisoners to turn a huge cylinder with their feet. This system was not a success. Prisoners succumbed to madness. In 1850, 32 prisoners per 10,000 had to be removed from Pentonville on grounds of insanity. As a result of the high rate of madness some changes were brought in. However, prison continued to be an oppressive and cruel experience.

Penal philosophy moved on and in the early decades of the twentieth century the hopes that had earlier been pinned on religion were transferred to other forms of treatment, including psychology. The prison system moved into treatment era. Prisoners were seen somewhat as patients in need of cure. Prisons became places for a range of professionals to work at their craft. It was felt that if prisoners were classified correctly and the right medicine was applied then they would be cured of their criminal ways. [4]

These systems were going to work. Criminals were going to be cured. However,  many research studies established that treatment generally did not succeed and disillusionment with treatment set in. Sending people to prison did not cure crime. In fact, prisons seemed to make people worse.

The basis of the treatment idea was that there was something wrong with the personality of the individuals that could be altered by whatever was done to them in prison. But the new view was different. It saw prisoners in relation to their families, communities, socio-economic background and life chances.

Thus developed the view of prison that is current in most Western European countries today: prison is damaging to the individual, the family and the community; it has few positive results; its costs are high. Not only direct costs for maintaining prison buildings and its staff, there are also social security costs of a family when the breadwinner has been taken away. Further costs arise from the damage caused by imprisonment – the costs of the ex-prisoner who is homeless, who cannot find a job because of the stigma of a prison record, and the family break-up that can result.

In Crime Pays, [5] prisons are described as the ‘ultimate symbol of state and corporate control over individuals’ through the threats of power and violence. It criticised the state’s incarceration of individuals to deal with significant social issues, including systemic poverty and lack of education, which perpetuates crime. Rather than dealing with the lack of public infrastructure in certain communities and establishing effective rehabilitation programs, the government has employed prisons as a fear and control mechanism. Furthermore, it is believed contemporary prisons reinforce racial hierarchies and class systems, as prisoners are stigmatised as lifetime members of the ‘criminal class’. Accordingly, indigenous and migrant groups who are overrepresented in prisons, become often segregated and unable to reintegrate with society upon release. In this sense, the prison system has failed to rehabilitate prisoners and further marginalised those involved. Read full article here.

As prisons simultaneously punish and rehabilitate, careful reconsiderations of their purpose must be made. Recently, prisons have been associated with the abuse of human rights by their failure to provide adequate care and support [6]. Even though education and welfare programs are extremely beneficial in supporting the rehabilitation of prisoners, the loss of dignity and autonomy could neutralise all these efforts. The use of power and force fails to nurture a willingness to change within the affected individual, thus perpetuating struggle and resistance instead of positive change. [7]

There are four justifications used to support maintaining the current prison system in contemporary society:

Rehabilitation: proposes that offenders who enter the prison system will be released into society as productive and law-abiding citizens
Retribution: acts as a moral balance by punishing the offender for their crime(s) against society in exchange for the deprivation of freedom
Deterrence: provides motivation for the offender and others to keep within the boundaries of the law or face similar punishment
Incapacitation: protects the wider community from serious offenders by segregating them and disabling them from committing further crimes

Ideally, prisons would implement safeguards to protect both the incarcerated individual and society, the most famous being the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. [8] Firstly, it states prisons should be rehabilitative, providing incentives for the prisoner to change. Secondly, imprisonment is punishment in itself, not a place for punishment to be imposed. And finally, prisons should exist in a framework of justice and fairness by protecting human rights. However, contemporary prisons are incongruous with all three UN standards of imprisonment – read more about failure of imprisonment here.


[1] Vivien Stern, A Sin Against the Future: Imprisonment in the World.

[2] Vivien Stern, Deprived of their Liberty: A Report for Caribbean Rights

[3] Vivien Stern, A Sin Against the Future: Imprisonment in the World.

[4] Vivien Stern, A Sin Against the Future: Imprisonment in the World.

[5] Renee Lees, Crime Pays: https://justiceaction.org.au/crime-pays-why-capitalism-needs-gaols-and-why-the-two-must-fall-together/

[6] Vivien Stern, A Sin Against the Future: Imprisonment in the World.

[7] David Brown & Meredith Wilkie, Prisoners as Citizens: Human Rights in Australian Prisons.

[8] Vivien Stern, A Sin Against the Future: Imprisonment in the World.

Leave a Comment