What's the point of prison?

By Maria, HMP Styal

First published in HMP Styal’s magazine OFF THE CUFF – Winter 2018

Recently the Ministry of Justice released the "Female Offender Strategy" which explores the future role of the female prison estate and argues for an eventual large-scale reduction in the female prison population. In response to this, this article provides one view on that future.

In the first issue of a new magazine, it seems reasonable to spend some time thinking about what we are all doing here. What exactly is the purpose of prison? I have heard a lot of women say simply, ‘I did something wrong, so I deserve to be punished.’ Quite a large section of the general public are on board with that message.Which is why politicians get a cold shiver down their spine at the thought of being seen to be ‘soft on crime’.

Putting political need and individual guilt aside, any sane society needs to consider the value and purpose of its institutions. The weight of evidence suggests that prison is high on the list of institutions which need to be checked out! Did you know that prisons were first introduced in the nineteenth century as a ‘social experiment’? Did you know that the ‘prison experiment’ failed? You could probably have guessed that last bit. Yet, here we are, in the 21st century, vainly still hoping that prisons are going to be the antidote to the complex problem of crime.

In the nineteenth century, the purpose of prison was presented quite simply. Prisons were designed to contain an inconvenient and often unruly section of the population. To “keep them off the streets” and “out from
under the wheels of Gentlemen’s carriages”. In the 21st century, the party line on why we have prisons is more complex, but perhaps also less convincing. Prisons are supposed to achieve the following goals:

  • Punishment
  • Deterrence
  • Crime reduction
  • Rehabilitation (reform)
  • Public Protection
  • Reparation to Victim (Restorative Justice)

So, the obvious questions are: does putting people in prison achieve these goals? Are all of the goals in themselves worthwhile? More broadly, does prison ‘solve’ the problem of crime? A quick trawl through the vast

amount of evidence available (much of it commissioned by the Ministry of Justice itself) casts substantial doubt on the merits of prison. Few here will question the idea that prison is punishment. But the problem is that
much of the ‘punishment’ is both accidental and costly to society – poor healthcare, lack of employment, children taken into care. In terms of deterrence, prison is known to increase rather than decrease future offending. Rehabilitation, meanwhile, remains a lofty goal very rarely achieved. Estimates suggest that the number of people, in particular
women, who actually need to be kept behind bars to secure public protection is in fact very small. Restorative Justice has been shown to
be of benefit to both victims and the person who committed the crime, but there is no indication that it needs to take place in the prison setting.

So – do the GeoAmey vans need to keep rolling, or should we park them and find a better solution to crime? What do you think?