Eloise Quetglas-Peach asks if prisons are a suitable punishment?

Incarceration: Are prisons a suitable punishment?

Incarceration: a subject I have always questioned and wondered about but never truly got any informative answers for; until I came across an online two-week course provided by the University of Leeds on the FutureLearn website. I would thoroughly recommend this course to anyone who wishes to expand their knowledge of the conditions of prisons in the UK and abroad, the alternatives to prisons and the impact prison has on offenders. The overarching question was whether imprisonment is a suitable punishment; however, in this blog I will focus on the condition of prisons, experiences of prisoners, the alternatives to prison and the effectiveness of rehabilitation.

Firstly, the condition of prisons is a pressing issue that needs to be addressed to fully appreciate whether prisons actually ‘teach offenders a lesson’ or whether they simply make it more likely for offenders to re-offend. Imprisonment is mainly used as a form of punishment which takes away the freedom of liberty; however in many cases around the world this is not the only form of punishment that offenders experience.  For example, the Bangkong Hilton prison in Thailand is well-known for its extreme brutality that prisoners face when imprisoned. Overcrowding causes prisoners to share a cell with 10 to 65 other occupants, often having to share one toilet. In addition, there are punishment boxes which act as form of solitary confinement where an offender could be shackled in a small steel box and only let out once a day to shower. In my opinion, this raises many ethical concerns and I believe that this only encourages the prisoner to re-offend rather than it acting as a deterrent to crime.

This can be contrasted with the Halden prison in Norway; their approach to imprisonment is extremely different to many other prison systems around the world. Prisons in Norway aim to use rehabilitation to change the prisoners’ mind-set in order to learn the wrongs of crime. In Norway and other Scandinavian countries, prison life offers a more comfortable and humane treatment of offenders. Constructed in 2010, the Halden prison allows prisoners feel that they are still part of society as the ‘cells’ represent a normal living space; prisoners have a good standard of facilities with small kitchens and comfortable shared living space, families may visit regularly and a small grocery shop is open to buy food.

A way in which we can justify the success of rehabilitation is by looking at reconviction rates. So, these prisons in Norway often see a reconviction rate of around 10-20% whereas most prisons in England see a reconviction rate of 50-70%. However, it must also be taken into consideration, the prison population of Norway and other Scandinavian countries compared to those in England and Wales.

Over the last 40 years, the prison population of England and Wales has been growing steadily. From 1980 to 2018, the number of people in prison increased from 42,000 to 84,000 (with around 4,000 being women). This increase isn’t due to a higher level of crime but due to the introduction of more and tougher laws, and the implementation of longer sentences. As a result, overcrowded prisons are becoming much more prevalent. On average a prisoner will spend around 12 to 23 hours at one time in this confined space, often with two or more people. Overcrowding has got so severe that some prisons regularly house 160-180% over their certified capacity, often in cramped and sometimes unsanitary conditions. Health conditions are deteriorating, especially with the use of a shared unscreened toilet and restricted hand washing and showering facilities. In recent years, judges and magistrates have been directed to consider non-custodial sentences were possible because in many prisons there is no space left for any new prisoners.

During the course, we hear from a former prisoner, David Honeywell, and he explains how overcrowding had serious consequences on his mental health as he had to share his cell with two other men. During his interview, he explained that conditions inside the cell became even more unbearable because, often, he didn’t get on at all with the other prisoners. He explained that he never had any time for himself which deteriorated his mental health severely. In addition, he mentioned that his cell window looked on to a distant pub and so he heard people enjoying themselves on a Friday or Saturday night which made his situation even direr.

There is a common perception that alternatives to custody are soft options, despite the fact that community punishments can be tough and restrictive, and that evidence shows they are generally more effective than prison. Over the years the names of community punishments have changed in order to challenge the misconception that they are ineffective or that they simply aren’t tough enough. Originally, it was called Community Service, then Community Order (CO), community punishment, community penalties and finally community payback schemes. Ever since these terms were introduced there has been a great attempt to make community sanctions appear tougher and to justify an offender not to go to prison. The proliferation of different types of non-custodial penalties will draw more people into the criminal justice system, albeit at a lower level. This is because, although they will be viewed as not as serious as custody, in fact most will still result in a criminal record.

I believe that non-custodial sentences are more ethical then sending an offender to prison, as they can still have contact with their family freely, they can continue with their job if they have one, and they can live in their own home as well. In general, I feel that these non-custodial sentences benefit the offender as it promotes desistance more than a prison sentence as there are more options for rehabilitation and a greater access to education, courses and important training that could aid offenders in getting a (better) job. Imprisonment has a huge physical, mental and psychological effect on the offender as it completely removes their freedom of doing whatever they want to do. Due to the severely damaging effects, incarceration is the last option for an offender.

Another area of this course that really interested me was the topic of education. Education is essential for reform because it gives prisoners, who are willing to try and learn, a sense of hope that their lives can change once they enter society after their release. This also brings a new confidence and self-esteem to individuals where they believe that they can achieve more and that they deserve better. David Honeywell describes his experience of education that was offered to him during his sentence as it changed his life, completing a Master’s Degree and a PhD at York University.

However, he says that education is only successful if the person securely resettles into society; finds a home and a job because otherwise it is almost inevitable that they will return to prison as they have no means of survival. Honeywell expresses the need for society to allow ex-prisoners to have a second chance at life because in many cases the prisoners have changed. The average literacy age of adult prisoners in England and Wales is 11 years old and many can’t read or write. Therefore, I believe that prisons should offer the basic means of education so that prisoners feel increased self-worth which could then motivate them to become better people once they return to society.

In conclusion, I have learnt that prison systems vary worldwide and the conditions inside the prison walls also change from country to country. It is evident that custody sentences create a greater level of recidivism rates than community punishments. Therefore, in order to help and improve the conditions of prisons in general, we need, as members of the general public, a better understanding of what prison means to the offender and how other options are more efficient with regards to breaking the cycle of offending. After completing this course, I have also learnt that education has such great value for many prisoners and it is seen as a key for rehabilitation; making society a safer place for everyone. So please go and have a look at the FutureLearn website, and find a course which interests you because “education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world” (Nelson Mandela).