Philosopher Michel Foucault, as a critic of the Western prison system, asserted in his book Discipline and Punish the repressive nature of Western incarceration, going so far to say that it is reminiscent of corporal punishment from the Middle Ages (Gibson, 1042–1043). Initially set up as a progressive form of punishment during the Enlightenment (Gibson, 1044), the notion of prison has increasingly come under frequent and intense scrutiny both for the burgeoning prison population and notably poor facilities (Fassin, 2017). This series will explore the nature of prisons, why they have been subject to growing debate, and how best to fulfil prison’s aims; these will be taken as the aims of rehabilitation, crime prevention, punishment, and retribution. The efficacy of these aims will be determined using incarceration and recidivism rates — low levels of incarceration and recidivism together will characterise a state’s prison system as “successful”.
PART I. THE BIG DEAL
Prison is defined as “a building in which people are legally held as punishment for committing a crime or while awaiting trial”. As former British Justice Secretary David Gauke points out, it is a fairly serious sanction (Gauke, 2018): in accordance to the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), Article 5 — the right to the liberty of person — and Article 8 — the right to private and family life — are consequently forsaken to prevent the incarcerated individual from infringing on the “rights and freedoms of others” (European Court of Human Rights, p7), which may involve the victim of crime, the victim’s community, and wider society.
The notion of prison also applies exclusively to criminal cases, rather than civil ones, which further indicates the relative severity of its application. As civil matters are private, the state only becomes involved if an individual decides to bring a dispute before the court. Conversely, the imposition of a prison sentence as a sanction holds substantial moral weight as well: the state bringing the case against a defendant suggests the crime or crimes committed are severe enough to warrant a person’s near-total removal from society. This may be couched within the idea of a social contract as well, where the state provides support to further its residents’ rights, so long as they do not curtail others’ rights. The consequent moral undertones of breaking the law thereby alters the right of the state to remove individual liberties.
The question at the heart of this series that I am trying to answer is “Does prison work?” This is an important question to pursue as the myriad of social, economic, and political issues thrown up by the practice of incarceration constitutes an obvious failure of its aims and clearly calls for some level of reform (Wakefield, 2016), though these range from mild changes to radical alterations, including the abolition of incarceration altogether. It may therefore be more prudent to identify the root of the issue by investigating prison systems in various countries and what may make them “work”, or fail.
Stay tuned for the next instalment in this series!
GIBSON, MARY. “Global Perspectives on the Birth of the Prison.” The American Historical Review, vol. 116, no. 4, 2011, pp. 1040–63, http://www.jstor.org/stable/23307878. Accessed 29 Apr. 2022.
Gauke, David. “The Justice Secretary Delivers His First Major Speech On Prison Reform At The Royal Society Of Arts In London.”. 2018.
Wakefield, Sara et al. “Tough On Crime, Tough On Families? Criminal Justice And Family Life In America”. The ANNALS Of The American Academy Of Political And Social Science, vol 665, no. 1, 2016, pp. 8–21. SAGE Publications, https://doi.org/10.1177/0002716216637048. Accessed 2 May 2022.
European Court of Human Rights. Guide On The Case-Law Of The European Convention On Human Rights: Prisoners’ Rights. European Court Of Human Rights, 2021, https://www.echr.coe.int/Documents/Guide_Prisoners_rights_ENG.pdf. Accessed 2 May 2022.
Fassin, Didier. “A World Of Prisons”. Institute For Advanced Study, 2017, https://www.ias.edu/ideas/2017/fassin-world-prisons.