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Essay: Is it more effective to punish prisoners or rehabilitate them?

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Introduction – a brief overview of both methods

This is a question whose answer has been disputed since correctional rehabilitation first came into use. Some view it as, “allowing the state to act coercively against offenders,” while others see it as, “allowing the state to act leniently toward offenders,” (F Cullen and P Gendreau, 2012), while other people view it as the only humane and effective method of reducing recidivism. In this essay, I will display both sides of this argument and the benefits and drawbacks to both methods, in order to produce a balanced and unbiased solution by examining and comparing Swedish prisons (which opt for a more rehabilitative approach) to the UK system (which has a more punitive approach). I will also be referencing several different independent studies which explore the effectiveness of correctional rehabilitation.

Correctional rehabilitation is defined as, ““a planned correctional intervention that targets for change internal and/or social criminogenic factors with the goal of reducing recidivism and, where possible, of improving other aspects of an offender’s life,” (F Cullen, n.d.) and is founded upon the idea that, by tackling the root of their problem, people can change for the better. Nowadays, this is done through therapy that helps to tackle drug or alcohol issues, and attempts to get to the root of why they offended, as well as teaching inmates valuable life skills which they can use when they are released back into society. However, this tactic is relatively recent and was only founded and researched between 1930 and 1950; one of the first examples of a more rehabilitative approach was in 1787 when Dr Benjamin Rush lead the “Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons […] The Quakers thought solitary confinement could reform criminals. In such cells, the offenders could think over their wrongful ways, repent, and reform.” (Encyclopedia.com, 2005). Soon after this, penitentiaries were developed, which introduced work during the day and confinement during the night, and gave inmates more structure to their daily lives and something constructive to do with their time. Rehabilitation grew in popularity during the early 20th century and became widely used until the 70s and 80s, where it became much less favourable (B Huebner, 2009), possibly due to a pessimistic ‘Nothing Works essay written by Robert Martinson in 1974, which exposed the inefficiency of most treatment programs. Since then there have been many different methods of reforming prisoners, the most significant change is the most recent model.

The idea of punishment, however, is “the infliction or imposition of a penalty as retribution for an offence.” (Oxford Dictionaries | English, n.d.), and in basic terms, uses discipline to teach offenders that negative actions have negative consequences. This has dated back since society developed (before this, it was the job of the family to discipline the perpetrator). Early texts such as the Bible defined what was an offence and its appropriate punishment, which often involved being forced into slavery for many years as empires developed. For worse crimes, the penalty was death or banishment, which then evolved into short-term imprisonment followed by torture which became increasingly used in the Medieval period. To accompany this, new torture equipment, the ‘Iron Maiden’ for instance, was invented. Being hung, drawn and quartered, stretched on a rack, branded, having body parts chopped off and being shut in a box lined with sharp spikes (known as the ‘Iron Maiden’) became commonplace, as well as public executions. Around 1166, the idea of long-term incarceration was introduced and the first prisons were built, although “the prison-keeper charged for blankets, mattresses, food, and even the manacles. The prisoner had to pay for the privilege of being both booked (charged) and released” (Encyclopedia.com, 2005) and was often unsanitary and unsafe. In the 1500s, those who had committed minor crimes were sentenced to hard labour, whilst those who had committed major offences were ‘transported’, meaning they were sent on a treacherous journey to Australia. Since these times, the prison system has developed and improved, and even includes more rehabilitative measures such as indeterminate sentencing (being released early for good behaviour) and parole in an effort to reduce recidivism.

What are the benefits of correctional rehabilitation?

Types of therapy

There are many different types of rehabilitation used today, but it hasn’t always been as refined as it is now. I outlined in the introduction of the Quaker solitary confinement ‘repent and reflect’ method, but since then there have been several developments which target distinct problems that offenders have to face. One tactic used that attempts to get criminals to alter their behaviour is a type of talking therapy called Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (R Blakey, 2017), which addresses—”self-justificatory thinking, misinterpretation of social cues, deficient moral reasoning, schemas of dominance and entitlement, and the like. […] They may hold conceptualizations of themselves, others, and the world that justify antisocial behaviour, for example, “nobody can be trusted”, “everyone is against me,” or “society doesn’t give me a chance”. […] And they may have deficient cognitive skills for long-term planning, problem-solving, and decision making […]. Cognitive-behavioural treatments (CBTs) for offenders are designed to correct these dysfunctional and criminogenic thinking patterns.” (Lipsey, 2001). Although this has been introduced into UK prisons, programmes such as these only have a 7% attendance rating compared to 40% of prisoners who reported needing this kind of help (R Blakey, 2017), so more does need to be done to provide care to those who require it.

Other types of therapy include education, which has been proven to reduce recidivism in the House of Lords report that stated,“19 percent of prisoners who received a grant to complete an educational programme in prison re-offended within a year, compared to 26 percent of prisoners who did not receive such a grant,” and furthermore, “57% of new prisoners have the literary skills of an 11-year-old.” Out of a prison population of 84,710 (Ministry of Justice, 2018), this is a considerably large proportion of people who lack the basic skills needed to get a job on their release. This seemingly small 7% difference demonstrates that by simply teaching inmates strategies and skills, they can lead a better life once they are returned to society. It could contribute to saving the government money, reduce prison populations and therefore make society a safer and better place to be in, as well as giving previously-convicted offenders an opportunity to use their new qualifications to get a job and change their lives for the better. By educating inmates, they are given a chance to escape the circumstances that lead them to offend in the first place.

Psychodrama can also be used to place an offender in a situation where they are the victim of a crime, which therefore helps them to develop empathy and a new perspective to stop them from offending again. Virtual reality therapy works in a similar way to this, but instead attempts to resolve substance abuse by placing them in a position where they would normally have access to drugs or alcohol, such as a (virtual) crack den, and a therapist would be present to help them through any cravings they have in a safe and controlled environment. This treatment has been successfully used in the past to treat alcoholism, so has the potential to be especially useful in prisons. An example of a different treatment which is often used with sex offenders is assisting them to develop emotional intimacy, something which some studies have suggested sex offenders lack, by giving them access to a cognitive behavioural therapist. The therapist then helps the offender to come to terms with the reason why they offended (i.e. loneliness and an inability to form emotional connections with others), and helps them to develop these connections which stops them from committing the same crime in the future. (R Blakey, 2017)

Art therapy has also been proven to nonverbally communicate with therapists a different side to a person that they are uncomfortable talking about or are unable to put into words. It works by allowing an inmate to create a piece of drama, music, painting or any other art form to express their emotions through, and lets the therapist focus on the specific area that they are struggling with the most. Rehabilitation through faith can also provide a positive role model to those who are struggling with poor life circumstances, such as loss (both bereavement and the loss of their freedom and family), as well as developing empathy and mental health issues. “In respect to rehabilitation, researchers have found that the religious involvement of prisoners is linked to their compliance with the prison regime,” (R Blakey, 2017). Faith and religion can be very comforting and provide a supportive environment in which a prisoner can fully repent of their actions and therefore reduces recidivism.

If all of these types of therapy were made available to all prisoners, there would be less untreated prisoners with mental health issues, less prisoners released with no way to get a job and less substance abuse both within and outside prisons in the UK. By reducing these factors, re-offending rates could reduce significantly.

The Swedish approach

People commit crimes for different and complex reasons- it is believed that offending is heavily influenced by certain risk factors, such as low household income, peer pressure, low self-control or mental illness, and for this reason, deserve to receive support and care to prevent them from offending in the future – it is not a one-size-fits-all solution (F Cullen, n.d.). By adopting and adapting this method, prisons can provide specialist care tailored to the individual and tackle the root of the problem. For example, in Swedish prisons (where they choose a rehabilitative approach) they provide inmates with a range of services, such as “cognitive programmes, social services, employment agencies, and all the treatments including twelve-step for drug and alcohol-related issues,” (Pizzichini, 2014). As a result, total Swedish prison populations have dwindled from 7,196 in 2006 to 5,762 in 2016 (Prisonstudies.org, 2016) which is a significant decrease of around 20%; the reoffending rates are at 26.0% within one year, 35.0% within two and 40.0% within three (bra, 2011). This shows how, when implemented correctly, providing inmates with a more supportive environment can prevent them from reoffending when they are released back into society.

“In prison, it is compulsory to partake in occupational activities for six hours daily, Monday through Friday […] Prisoners can also study part-time or full-time […] Activities also include attending rehabilitation programs that target drug- and alcohol abuse, violent behaviour, aggression and criminal behaviour. There are group sessions as well as individual sessions […] other activities that also count as occupational, such as yoga classes, health programs, drama and writing classes, painting and ceramics.” (Kriminalvården, n.d.). All of these services promote a healthy lifestyle, both physically and mentally, which offenders can take into their lives out of prison and improve it.

Evidence that correctional rehabilitation works

How can we know that this is a direct effect of using a rehabilitative approach? Many scholars have done independent studies to research and review the effectiveness of rehabilitation on reducing recidivism, in a variety of different prisons and using different test subjects, usually tested against a control group.

One study was conducted by Anne H Berman of Stockholm University, who taught 372 male Swedish prisoners, “problem solving, social skills including negotiation, managing emotions, creative thinking, value analysis and critical thinking, all according to a detailed manual,” in 36 2-hour sessions, over a period of 3 months. This study was researching the short-term and long-term effects of the program. “Short-term changes were measured by the Sense of Coherence scale, Eysenck’s Impulsiveness, Venturesomeness and Empathy Questionnaire and the Criminal Sentiments Scale. Long-term changes were measured by reconviction outcomes compared to matched controls,” (A Berman, 2004). The program was based on the Reasoning and Rehabilitation program developed in Canada, specifically to treat offenders, and is based on the idea that they do not have basic social skills or cognitive skills that are necessary to solve problems that arise in life. As a result in participation in this study, it was found that there was a “25% lower risk of reconviction up to 36 months following prison release, compared to matched controls,” (A Berman, 2004).

Another study conducted by James Gilligan, a clinical professor of psychiatry and a professor of law at New York University and his colleague Bandy Lee conducted, “an intensive re-educational program with violent male offenders in the San Francisco jails reduced the level of violence in the jail to zero for a year at a time. […] participation in this program for as little as four months reduced the frequency of violent reoffending after leaving the jail by 83 per cent, compared with a matched control group in a conventional jail.” (J Gilligan, 2012)

In a meta-analysis of 7,728 inmates where 4,284 were put into differing treatment programmes and 3,444 into matching control groups and 57 independent studies, it was found that 87% of the treatment programmes were effective compared to no treatment at all. Many factors were taken into account – age, programme duration, programme intensity (how many hours of participation a week), gender, size of the sample, attrition and any follow-up treatment. In terms of age, the younger the participant, the more effective the programme, which is due to the fact that youth are more susceptible to intervention than adults. The programme that was proven to have the greatest positive impact was cognitive behavioural and other behavioural programmes, followed by non-behavioural, educational and diversion projects, with the least effective being the classic penal method and retribution (S Redondo, V Garrido, and Sanchez-Meca, J, 1997). To remove all bias, this meta-analysis was compared to another non-published study, which got the same results, thus proving the effectiveness of rehabilitation.

What are the drawbacks of correctional rehabilitation?

If using individualised treatment was completely effective, why aren’t the re-offending rates at 0% in Sweden? In fact, “the Justice Data Lab found limited evidence that prison mentoring schemes are associated with rehabilitative outcomes, specifically: “Tentative” evidence that mentoring was linked to improvements in employment post-release and engagement with other interventions. “More tentative” evidence that mentoring was linked to improvements in the suitability of accommodation after release. “Very limited evidence” that mentoring was linked to improvements in substance misuse, coping abilities, family and peer relationships, and pro-criminal attitudes.” (R Blakey, 2017). Clearly, new, more effective methods must be developed to lower the reoffending rates, particularly to do with addiction and substance misuse. The rehabilitation method has also been proven in a meta-analysis to be the least effective with sex offenders and older prisoners (S Redondo, V Garrido, and Sanchez-Meca, J, 1997)

During the 1960s and 70s, rehabilitation was widely, “criticised for permitting inequality in sentencing, coercion inside prisons, and treatment programs that did not work to reduce recidivism.” Indeterminate sentencing can lead to inconsistency and unfairness within prisons, and although its aim is to motivate prisoners to behave for an earlier release, it does not account for the fact that these prisoners may not be ready to be released and could, therefore, lead to them reoffending within a year of their freedom. Ultimately, this costs the government more money and leads to prisons being overcrowded and understaffed. It is also entirely dependent on the idea that therapists or other health workers are able to identify and diagnose a criminal’s reason to offend immediately as they arrive, which is difficult to do (especially in densely populated countries where the crime rates and prison populations are higher). Providing such care on a case-by-case basis also requires many care and prison workers, which is also an unattainable number of people who are qualified enough and willing to work in this type of environment, and so a lack of resources can also factor into why rehabilitation does not work. “Rehabilitation occurs within a correctional system in which staff decisions can be influenced not only by legitimate treatment priorities but also by political and custodial considerations,” (F Cullen, n.d.) meaning that treatment quality and quantity can become less effective if they are not working with the prisoner for a sufficient amount of time, that allows their problems to be addressed and treated.

Government officials must also be trusted to make the right decision about the treatment of an individual – and, being untrained and unqualified, they may be unable to prescribe the correct method. Placing this power in the hands of these people could lead to inequality in sentencing and discrimination, “for example, judges were indicted for using their discretion not to individualize treatment but to discriminate against the poor and racial minorities,” (F Cullen, n.d.). Due to all of these factors, rehabilitation and individualised treatment may not be the most appropriate or easily implemented ways to deal with criminals, especially within densely populated and corrupt criminal justice systems.

What are the benefits of punishment?

Types of punishment

Despite the previous attempts at rehabilitation, by World War II the prison system was being replaced with one of harsh discipline. A lack of staff meant that prisoners were not monitored and left locked up in their cells for long periods of time. This time period saw a rise in prisons being used as labour camps or free work – prisoners were often leased to local farmers to do hard labour and farm work as a way of teaching them the meaning of work and self-discipline. However, by the time of the Great Depression, at a time of vast unemployment, many people complained about this use of free labour ss they viewed this method as taking their jobs and livelihoods. Consequently, by the 1970s the number of prisons which used hard labour had decreased substantially, although this decrease was also influenced by the fact that this type of work did not give prisoners the skills needed to get a job after their release. An increase in crime in the 1980s brought along yet another type of punishment- “putting criminals behind bars for a determinate amount of time […] As a result, the federal government and a growing number of states introduced mandatory sentencing and life terms for habitual criminals […] They also limited the use of probation, parole, and time off for good behaviour,” (Encyclopedia.com, 2005). With more people in prison, crimes rates fell, thus proving to many that harsher punishment worked.

The UK approach

The current system in the UK rewards good behaviour with longer and more frequent visiting hours from the prisoners’ friends and family, and allows them to spend more money each week, called the “Incentives and Earned Privileges Scheme,” although the privileges can differ from prison to prison. Bad behaviour is punished with up to 42 days longer prison sentences and up to 21 days being left in the cell, and all prisoners are entitled to between 30 minutes and an hour in the open air each day. Upon arrival, the prisoner is assessed and put in to a facility that is more or less secure based upon two factors: how likely they are to escape and how likely they are to harm other prisoners and staff. All prisoners receive the same medical treatment as anyone else outside of prison, although certain types of care may not be available within the prison and must be transferred to a hospital. Prisoners should have access to educational programmes which teach basic reading, writing and maths skills, and also work for money. Upon leaving prison, an individual should have access to some kind of financial support, although this is quite rare (GOV.UK. n.d.).

The system of incapacitation used does incorporate some aspects of a rehabilitative technique, although it is not readily available and most inmates do not take advantage of these opportunities. More often than not, the offenders are left in their cells (sometimes for hours at a time) and are only let out to eat or for their daily mandatory time outside. Therefore, it is mostly punitive and the statistics from the UK government can be used as an example of the effectiveness of punishment.

As a result of this treatment, the proven reoffending statistics in 2016 were at 29.4% within a year (Ministry of Justice, 2018), which is 3.4% higher than it is in Sweden. However, if that 3.4% did not re-offend, there would be a fairly significant decrease in the prison population by 2,880 inmates. The effectiveness of this system would become more apparent, however, if there was any data for the reoffending rates 2 and 3 years after a prisoner is released, which would allow for a more fair comparison.

Evidence that punishment works

The media and literature present prison as a hellish, unsafe and unsanitary place. Books such as The Green Mile by Stephen King (1996), Papillon by Henri Charrière (1969) and films such as The Shawshank Redemption (1994, F. Darabont) show it to be corrupt and present an unfair system. However, this is not the case in most UK prisons. Although there is not a lot of evidence that proves that punishment works, by analysing the reoffending rates of UK prisons, you can see that it does work to a certain extent- only 29.4% (Ministry of Justice, 2018) of prisoners re-offend within a year of being released. A study of the evidence done by the Scottish government stated that, “prison prevents reoffending in the short term through incapacitation effects […] There is evidence that prison can deter some individuals from committing further offences” ( M Sapouna, C Bisset, and A Conlong 2011), which illustrates that imprisonment can work and prevent some criminals from committing further crimes, which is further evidence that this method works.

Another study conducted by Dr Esther F.J.C. van Ginneken aimed to investigate the successfulness of the current penal system. To do this, she interviewed 30 prison inmates (15 male and 15 female) to find out about prison life, what caused them to offend and whether they believe the current system is effective. She found that, “social deprivation during imprisonment can have a deterrent effect; greater reported pains of separation from friends and family during imprisonment was associated with lower recidivism rate […] whether imprisonment has a deterrent effect may depend on the quality of life pre- and post-imprisonment, such that a greater quality of life outside prison increases the deterrent effect of imprisonment” (E van Ginneken, 2016). Therefore, it depends on the person and their background on how much of an impact this programme has.

What are the drawbacks of punishment?

Despite the fact that the punitive method is the most widely used in the world, there is little to no evidence to prove that it is effective at reducing recidivism. In fact, there are some studies that prove that it has a negative impact on reoffending and actually increases the rate. For example, in a meta-analysis conducted by S Redondo, V Garrido, and Sanchez-Meca, J in 1997, they found that in a study of 1,000 test subjects where they used the ‘classic penal theory,’ a negative outcome of -0.0006 was produced, the lowest result of all the independent studies. Similar to this, a study led by Anne Berman compared 667 offenders in a rehabilitation programme to 1801 controls in the normal punitive programme and, “showed that 18% and 43% of program participants in medium-low and medium-high risk groups, respectively, had been re-convicted after two years, compared to 32% and 54% among controls.”

Furthermore, 59 out of every 100,000 people are in prison (as of 2017) in Sweden, compared to 139 out of 100,000 in the UK in 2018 (Prisonstudies.org. n.d.), and Sweden’s prison population has been decreasing steadily since its peak of 7,196 in 2006. The UK, on the other hand, has increased from 2006, when it was 78,150, to a record high in 2012 when the population was at 86,634 and has since wavered around the 85,000 mark. This evidence proves the ineffectiveness of the current prison system in the UK. Psychologists that have been studying punishment for over 100 years on both animals and humans concluded that “for punishment to work it has to be predictable. Punishment also has to be applied at maximum intensity to work, or else tolerance and temporary effects result. Yet applying very intense levels of punishment for many offences goes against our sense of justice and fairness,” (A Day, 2015), a further demonstration of the penal system’s inability to alter criminal behaviour and reduce recidivism.

Furthermore, it can be concluded from interviews with prisoners that conditions on the inside of prisons can be worse than the conditions on the outside. In fact, in a BBC analysis of HM Inspectorate of Prisons data showed that since 2004, at least 24% of inmates (peaking at 40% in 2007) have reported that illegal drugs are easily accessible within prison, and at least 29% (in 2005) reported feeling unsafe, a percentage that has increased to around 44% in 2014. However, these statistics only go on until 2014, so the percentage of prison inmates that agree with these two statements may have increased or decreased. There is also a growing rate of violence within UK prisons, as, “there were 33,803 assaults by prisoners in the year to September 2018 […] Attacks on staff rose by 29% and prisoner-on-prisoner violence by 18%.” (H Warrell, 2019). There is a clear contrast between what the prison system aims to do, which is reduce this kind of violent and antisocial behaviour, and how it actually affects the prisoners.

A recent study published by the National Audit Office for Her Majesty’s Prison & Probation Service on mental health in prisons also undermines the argument that the prison system is effective in any way. The lack of support from the prison system for those having reported suffering from a mental illness, a figure of 31,328 in 2017, compared to the number of people who have been treated, 7,917 provides a dangerous environment for the individual, those close to them and the general prison population. Additionally, the number of reported self-harm incidents was the highest on record in 2016, with a number of 40,161 reported, together with the highest number of suicides in the same year, where there was a total of 120 self-inflicted deaths. This was a direct result of 40% of prisons failing to provide mental health awareness training in the three years leading up to these statistics, a fact which is worsened by the fact that, “being in prison can exacerbate poor mental health and well-being. Prisoners are less able to manage their mental health because most aspects of their day-to-day life are controlled by the prison.” Further research also provides evidence that poor mental health can lead to reoffending, which indicates that the punishment method is failing to address the key issues which cause people to offend, and fails to deter others from committing the same mistakes again.

Conclusion – an assessment of both methods

It is easy to compare the UK’s penal system and Sweden’s rehabilitative schemes and reach the conclusion that rehabilitation is much more effective than punishment, but we must factor in the differing circumstances that exist within both countries to reach a valid answer to this question. One difference is that “Swedish politicians have no jurisdiction over the running of prison and probation services. Furthermore, prisons are entirely state-funded,” (L Pizzichini, 2014). This allows more money to be put into providing these care services available to prisoners, and the low prison population makes it possible to give each prison inmate a carer. Meanwhile, in the UK, there is not enough staff to supervise and escort every prisoner to each activity that is available in Sweden. Additionally, the fact that prisons are government-run makes it difficult for a change to be funded and enforced. There are also very different cultures – the UK is much more ethnically diverse than Sweden, which allows for more discrimination within the system. Furthermore, Sweden has much more lenient sentencing against drug charges (L Pizzichini, 2014), which also contributes to lowering the number of those serving long-term sentences.

However, in a direct comparison between independent studies conducted on the effectiveness of rehabilitation and punishment, you can clearly see which one is better at reducing recidivism and crime. Even studies implemented in the UK showed positive results, thus proving the effectiveness of cognitive behavioural therapy, as well as other forms of therapy. Moreover, the UK currently has the most expensive prison system in the EU and the highest prison population.


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