Prisons are spiralling ‘out of control’

Jail time: Each extra year spent in prison raises the risk of re-offending by 6%.

Do prisons actually work? Rather than deterring crime, prisons are used by inmates to make a fortune selling drugs. And some argue that US prisons create more crime than they prevent.

Takeaway pizzas. Hoards of booze. Karaoke nights. It sounds like the average student union bar. In fact, this is the scene unfolding in England’s prisons. Now there is such a lucrative market for smuggled goods that criminals are desperately trying to get into jail, rather than get out.

Yesterday it was reported that recently released criminals deliberately break the law, and smuggle drugs into prison when sent back. Once inside they can make massive profits. One study claimed that a single person could smuggle £28,000 worth of drugs in one trip. Detective Constable Jamie Thompson warned policemen to “look out for offenders who are desperate to get locked up.”

The warning comes as prisons in England are near breaking point. They are overcrowded, understaffed, and violent. In the last four years, the number of serious assaults per year has more than doubled. And in 2016 more inmates committed suicide than in any other year since records began. Peter Clarke, England’s chief inspector of prisons, says that some jails are “virtually unmanageable”.

Prisons are also in crisis in the USA. Americans account for 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of its prisoners. Some think many people are unnecessarily imprisoned. A study claimed that a quarter of all inmates could be released without risk to the public.

Mass incarceration could also cause more crime. Research by economist Michael Mueller-Smith suggested that locking people up increases the “severity” of re-offending — prison essentially transforms minor offenders into career criminals.

There are alternatives. Bastoy is an island prison in Norway. It focuses on rehabilitation, not punishment. There are no walls and no armed guards. And some of Norway’s most violent criminals spend their time learning skills through raising livestock and growing vegetables. Norway also allows convicts to begin employment 18 months before release. The country’s re-offending rate is nearly half of America’s.

So does prison actually work?

Throw away the key

“Jails are fundamental to a peaceful society,” argue some. People are capable of doing dark and terrible things. We must have the power to lock these individuals away. Prisons give us this power. Also having sturdy punishments for less serious crimes gives strong messages about the behaviour society expects.

“They clearly do more harm than good,” counter others. Prisons fail to rehabilitate and drive petty criminals to commit dangerous crime. Technology may have the answer. For example, non-violent criminals could be spared jail and allowed to work; their movements recorded by trackers. According to journalist Graeme Wood, this “prison without walls” is already a possibility.

You Decide

  1. Should prisons be abolished?
  2. Is it better to punish or rehabilitate?


  1. List as many alternatives to prison as you can think of. Which ones do you think would work the best? Which alternatives might be less effective and why?
  2. Do some research into the rates of incarceration in the United States. What laws have particularly raised rates of imprisonment? Do you think these laws are fair?

Some People Say...

“No one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails.”

Nelson Mandela

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
We know that the current prison population in England and Wales is 80,002, compared to 41,800 in 1993. In America over two million are currently imprisoned, compared to around 300,000 in 1980.
What do we not know?
It is impossible to map a precise relationship between incarceration rates and crime rates. Some studies have suggested that crime rates fall as the incarceration rate increases. However, others suggest that putting more people in prison does not significantly reduce crime rates.

Word Watch

Report based on an investigation by the Independent Monitoring Board of Portland Prison, Dorset.
Criminals are often released on “license”. This means that there are rules they must follow to avoid being sent back to prison. It has been reported that being late for an appointment with a probation officer can be enough for a released criminal to get sent back to prison.
Led by Robert Ralphs, Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Manchester Metropolitan University.
Prisoners are increasingly turning to synthetic drugs like “spice” and “mamba”. These substances can cause extremely violent psychotic episodes.
Overcrowded, understaffed
In England and Wales 68% of prisons are overcrowded. The number of prison officers available has fallen by over 25% since 2010.
There were 1,303 serious assaults in English and Welsh prisons in 2013. This rose to 3,606 in 2017.
Led by Lauren Brooke-Eisen at the Brennan Centre for Justice.
From Mueller-Smith’s paper The Criminal and Labour Market Impacts of Incarceration.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.