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An exploration into the modern prison system: Does incarceration work?

About The Author

Georgia Mitchell (Writer)

Georgia is in her second year of Law at Newcastle University. She is currently pursuing a career as a commercial solicitor, and hopes to work abroad within the EU at some point in her future career. Outside of her studies, Georgia is an avid tennis fan.

The matter of imprisonment has always evoked controversy within society with many thinking the entire system is proving to be ineffective, with too many criminals reoffending upon release. Many alternatives have been considered and proposed in the hope to deter potential offenders and decrease the number of prisoners within the United Kingdom.

Arguably, prisons are largely ineffective in terms of individual prevention. Professor Ian O’Donnell states, in his article Prison matters that prisons neither deter nor rehabilitate. Rather, whilst in prison, prisoners further develop criminal values and techniques.

The UK Government famously described prisons as “an expensive way of making bad people worse” in a 1990 white paper. Prisons do not deliver good value when compared to the substitute methods, such as community service or probation. It costs over £900 per week to retain one prisoner in custody, whereas it costs less than £40 for a week’s community service and less than £100 per week for probationary services.

There has always been the inevitable issue of overcrowding within prisons with a staggering 85,382 people being contained in the prisons of England and Wales in November 2013. It is said that 69 of the 124 prisons in England and Wales are overcrowded. As Professor Andrew Ashworth remarked, due to overcrowded cells, prisoners suffer from a loss of privacy and are exposed to potential humiliation and even physical violence, notwithstanding the pains of imprisonment. Furthermore, these conditions also adversely affect unconvicted remand prisoners who are mostly confined in local prisons. Some argue that the act of imprisonment condones the view that society satisfies its punitive instinct by means of degradation to prisoners. It is quite ironic that society responds to its least civilised members with such inhumanity.

Perhaps the clearest form of evidence of the limited value of imprisonment is illustrated in the high rate of recidivism amongst ex-offenders, which is increasing as the years progress. More than one in four criminals reoffended within a year according to the most recent Ministry of Justice figures, committing a staggering 500,000 offences between them. This equates to a reoffending rate of 26.8 per cent, up from 26.3 per cent in the previous set of figures. 11,000 of the criminals who had reoffended had previously been jailed at least 11 times.

Astonishingly, nearly three-quarters of young offenders reoffend within a year of being released. There has been a recent announcement of introducing a ‘secure college’ for youth offenders in England and Wales in an attempt to begin to decrease the rate of recidivism. Labour Ministers have commented that one facility will do little to decrease the reoffending rates; the idea of ‘secure colleges, however, does show a step in the right direction. Currently, youth offenders receive twelve hours of education per week at a secure institution. Secure colleges aim to double that time in an attempt to ‘turn their lives around’, and deter them from committing crimes in the future, with the belief that the prevention of reoffending lies in education and awarding young people the invaluable opportunity to change. A further benefit arising from this facility, set to open in 2017, is the reduced cost. "Ministers hope that secure colleges will be vastly cheaper than the current four secure training centres (STC), which it wants to close. It costs almost £250m to detain young offenders, with each place in an STC costing an average of £178,000 a year". The Ministry of Justice claims the secure college will provide a much greater standard of education and possesses the added benefit of costing £100,000 less to operate.

An additional reason for high reoffending rates has been day release. Accordingly, there are plans to heavily restrict day release from prison due to myriad serious crimes being committed by offenders who are temporarily released from prison. Although day release is said to be an “important tool in helping offenders reintegrate”, tighter rules will be implemented as to who is eligible. Electronic tagging will also be introduced to put further restrictions and more extensive surveillance upon day release prisoners. These reforms are being initiated due to “three serious failures” in 2013. The murderer Ian Mcloughlin killed his third victim while on day release in July last year. It should be questioned why a criminal with very serious offences on his record was even awarded a day free from jail. However, day release will no longer be considered an automatic right and inmates will undergo stringent assessments by probation beforehand.

The key question to be explored is: why do criminals reoffend? Prison is meant to be a severe punishment for individuals who have done wrong; so why therefore does it not act as a deterrent? Could it be that prisons within the UK are too luxurious? On the contrary, it is fair to say that prison can be a difficult time, with some offenders spending many years in prison. Support should be given to help offenders readjust and reintegrate into society upon release, but it is important to stress that prison itself is a place of punishment. Instead the majority are awarded with education, entertainment, and good quality food. For many offenders, the facilities they can access while imprisoned exceed that of what they had before. Therefore, prison is appealing to many who do not have fortunate lives on the outside. With such luxuries within prison, what motivation is there to get out of jail and improve their lives?

Life Imprisonment – Does it work?

It is generally assumed that the extreme sentence of life imprisonment ends the violence of a criminal. In fact, it tends to make matters worse. Whatever the offender deserves, giving no hope of freedom means there is no incentive to control oneself. Offenders who are given the life sentence tend to possess little concern for others within their life, including fellow inmates.

This is portrayed within the case of R v Vinter, where the offender (Douglas Vinter) had committed his second murder and was thus sentenced to life imprisonment. However, in 2011 he stabbed an inmate and wrote to The Guardian believing he had been granted, “an invisible licence that said I can breach any laws I want … I said to the governor, don't waste any money on investigations, just give me another life sentence for my collection. They don't mean anything anymore.” Soon after this letter, he stabbed another. This questions the overall effectiveness of the mandatory life sentence.

Possible Solutions

Is the reintroduction of capital punishmenttheonly other way to deter some criminals? Some are under the impression that capital punishment acts as a deterrent to potential offenders of serious crimes. However, actual statistics reveal that crime rates are much lower in U.S states where capital punishment has been abolished. States retaining the death penalty have an 18% higher murder rate than those without it according to data compiled in 2011.

Capital punishment is clearly not a viable alternative to prison. It not only proves to be an ineffective deterrent but it would also necessitate very serious amendments to primary legislation. Article 2(1) of the European Convention on Human Rights states that: “Everyone's right to life shall be protected by law. No one shall be deprived of his life...following his conviction of a crime for which his penalty is provided by law”. The UK would be required to repeal the HRA and withdraw from the ECHR as its position would be directly in conflict with protocol 13 ECHR as well as EU law, leaving the UK in a vulnerable position.

Additionally, capital punishment is usually not a straightforward process; the victim’s wait for an absolute knowledge of his fate often amounts to ten years or more. Critics aver that this is tantamount to mental torture. In these circumstances, the criminal is effectively serving both a life and death sentence. Article 3 of the ECHR prohibits torture and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and is considered to be one of the most important provisions in the Human Rights Act (HRA). The death penalty is seen as a breach of this article. Life imprisonment should be seen as the better alternative; Article 2 ECHR states that everyone has the right to life. Conversely, offenders awarded the certainty of a life sentence in prison are offered the opportunity to repent, reform and remodel themselves as citizens which is a much more positive and compromising approach.

Another alternative to prison could be increasing the use of probationary and community services to reduce the flow of people being sentenced to prison. As previously mentioned, the cost of community and probationary services are drastically less than that of prison notwithstanding the positive effects the two schemes can have for certain criminals. The traditional answer to decreasing crime rates has been to propose that the aim should be the rehabilitation of the offenders, requiring them to take part in whatever counselling, training or therapy they may need to help them to live without resorting to crime. However these types of alternatives imply that the issues lie in individuals, whereas their social circumstances may have contributed to their behaviour. Another difficulty with rehabilitation is that it is related to the offender’s needs, rather than the seriousness of the offence, and therefore does not perform the function of denunciation, whereas prison does. In addition the inclusion of amnesties, waiting lists (for non-violent offenders) and electronic monitoring could also prove to be successful punitive procedures.

Overall, it is indisputable that prison proves to be an effective form of punishment for some offenders. However, the aforementioned statistics of re-offending undermines the validity of this belief and makes us question whether there should be a greater form of punishment to deter potential criminals. A restoration of capital punishment would condone the view that society is entitled to satisfy its retributive instinct by means of coercion, degradation and violence, all of which go against that of the HRA and ECHR. This considered, it would not prove to be a suitable alternative to prison. Despite improvements needed to be made to the penal system, life imprisonment where ‘life means life’ is a potent enough response to those who kill. For lesser offences, the improved use of probationary and community orders should be exercised to decrease the overall numbers of prisoners within the UK, solving the earlier mentioned issue of overcrowding.

Further reading

Ian O’Donnell, ‘Prison matters’ 2001, 36, 153-173

Andrew Ashworth, ‘Prisons and austerity’, Criminal Law Review 2014

Justice of the Peace & Local Government Law, ‘Alternatives to prison’ 1998, 162(38)

Lord Windlesham, ‘Punishment and prevention: the inappropriate prisoners’, Criminal Law Review 1988, Mar, 140-151

Dominic Casciani, BBC News, Secure College plans for young offenders revealed

The Guardian, ‘Day release for prisoners to be scaled back

R v Vinter [2009] EWCA Crim 1399

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Tagged: Criminal Law, Human Rights

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