Before I begin on this, I’d like to make it clear where I’m approaching this from, because it seems relevant to the debate.
Most people when you talk about the justice system cry “but what about the victims?!” constantly. Totally justifiable; after all, they are the ones whose lives have changed, often drastically, as a result of the crime. Victims should get a say. I too have been a victim of crime in my lifetime; interestingly not once have I been asked what I’d like to see in the justice system in light of that fact, though I have been berated for my opinions as a general hater of all victims of crime. So let me make this clear – as a victim of crime, the thing I would most like to see in our justice system is rehabilitation and a reduction in offending. I don’t want to go through those things again, or see others go through them. This is the standpoint from which I am writing this piece.
Now that’s out of the way, let’s address the prison system in the UK right now.
Currently, there are 85,338 in offender institutions in England and Wales (Howard League, 2014). Most of those are male – 81,426 compared to 3,912 – which is pretty striking in itself. This isn’t the highest prison population in the world, granted, but it’s still pretty large, especially when you consider that in 2013 had a population of approximately 4,500 (The Guardian, 2013).
For years, the rhetoric around prisons has been that they simply aren’t tough enough – that they’re like holiday institutions, and all these fun and games make people want to re-offend to go back to prison. Prison, they argue, is just not a strong enough deterrent from crime. That much, I agree with, but we’ll get back to that later. More pressing is how utterly ridiculous the idea that prisons can be a “soft” option actually is. Going to prison doesn’t simply involve a loss of freedom, as people think; there’s the loss of autonomy, human connection, safety, privacy, even the very essence of who you are. Think about it – they strip you of all your personal belongs, issue you a standard bland room, a standard uniform, and to them you are just another statistic. You cease to be you. It’s a well documented phenomenon called deindividuation, and has been linked to not only increases in your own aggressive tendencies, but increases the chances of people being violent to you (I’d recommend a casual Google search on it!).
Can you say ‘prison riot’?
So, you’re living in fear, you’ve lost your identity and your freedom. Well, maybe you kind of deserved it? If you don’t want to do the crime, maybe you shouldn’t do the crime?! Oh, how terribly cute this idea is. It entirely overlooks the frankly incredibly complicated causes of crime. For example, did you know that an amazingly high number of offenders suffer from personality disorders and other mental health problems? People think the mentally ill are housed separately from other offenders, but this only happens in extreme causes – prisons are required to have mental health professionals on staff to take care of these lower-risk offenders while they’re in the mainstream population. It’s questionable, therefore, if they can even be held responsible for their actions. They go to prison nonetheless. Then there are those homeless offenders that have a choice between starving and going to prison, where they at least get meals. These are trapped in the cycle of hunger, poverty and crime.
These are just a few reasons why crime might happen, I’d absolutely encourage you to seek out the literature and see what you make of it.
Let’s say, however, you just committed a crime and you end up in prison. Why is it that the punishment – going to prison and losing all of this important stuff – doesn’t reduce crime? After all, the re-offending rate for short-stay prison sentences is 56%, reducing to 26% for longer sentences, which is pretty high (The Independent, 2013). Well, the idea of punishing people for bad behaviour is linked to the popular (and widely misunderstood) theory of conditioning. This is where punishment (not to be confused with negative reinforcement) is thought to reduce socially unacceptable behaviours like crime, and reinforcement increases socially acceptable behaviours like obeying the law. A lot of research into the effects of conditioning has been done by B. F Skinner – who was also largely against the use of punishment as a singular method of changing socially unacceptable behaviours. Yup. Skinner argued that punishment was not sufficient to create a lasting change in behaviour, merely creating a temporary change that was limited to the context in which punishment occurs – so in this case the effects of prison would be limited to… er… prison. When the threat of punishment is removed, Skinner said that people would return to their previous behaviours, because at no point during punishment did anyone teach them alternative, positive behaviours. In fact, he went as far as to say that punishment is only maintained as a mainstream method of dealing with poor behaviour because it reinforces the behaviours of those doing the punishing – but that’s where this all gets a bit complicated.
Therein lies one of the many secret of the success in Sweden’s prisons; far from being ‘holiday camps’, they attempt to integrate prisoners into a community and teach them how to go about daily life without falling into the trap of crime. They focus on what our prisons have long since forgotten – rehabilitation.
This is a complex debate, so for now I am going to leave it there but I will return to it later!