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Is Prison Good for the Society? Essay Sample

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Is Prison Good for the Society? Essay Sample

  1. Introduction

            Punishment is a term that we are all familiar of.  When we violate rules in our homes, we get punished.  When we violate rules in the library, we get punished.  When we violate rules in school, we also get punished.  Punishment implies something that is undesirable and unpleasant and it immediately sends negative signals to our minds.  Indeed, punishment is a word that is very emotionally charged.  (Stuart Henry p.1)  It is however something that we have come to accept as part of our life.

            The society also has its own method of punishment in case some of its members violate rules.  These rules are called social norms which exist in every society.  Norms are actually the rule or standards of behavior shared by members of a social group.  They serve as a guide for every individual in determining which acts are socially acceptable and which are not.  These norms could be part of an unwritten culture or part of a written law or statute.

            The competing interest of individuals, however, causes man to deviate from the socially-accepted norms.   Deviations may be in terms of nonpayment of debt, violation of traffic laws or, in some cases, the commission of a crime.  Deviations are social problems which must be addressed because they disrupt the harmony and peace of the society.

The philosopher Thomas Hobbes explained why people engage in deviant behavior. According to him, man by nature is nasty, brutish and short.  “We are needy and vulnerable. We are easily led astray in our attempts to know the world around us. Our capacity to reason is as fragile as our capacity to know; it relies upon language and is prone to error and undue influence. When we act, we may do so selfishly or impulsively or in ignorance, on the basis of faulty reasoning or bad theology or others’ emotive speech.”(“Thomas Hobbes Sec 5a”)

            The system of punishment is the society’s response to the brutish nature of man.  The punishment system in the society may involve the payment of a fine or the imposition of imprisonment, or in some extreme cases, the imposition of capital punishment otherwise known as death penalty.  (“Punishment, p.2”)

            This essay is concerned with the imposition of imprisonment as a mode of punishment.  Throughout history man has been engaged in an endless debate on whether imprisonment as a mode of punishment and social control is effective.  History is a witness to this as the policies on imprisonment actually shift from rehabilitation of the convict prisoner, by means of short-term imprisonment and grant of probation and parole,   to the imposition of strict punishment by means of long term imprisonment and capital punishment.  This essay aims to discuss both sides of the argument citing various respected articles.

From the side of the Anti-prison group, imprisonment is not effective and there is no empirical evidence that will prove that there is a connection between crime rate and imprisonment rate.  From the side of the Pro-prison group, imprisonment is effective since it helps in the reduction of crime rate and the rehabilitation of the convict prisoner.  In the concluding part, I aim to take a stand and determine whether the purpose of prison in our society is being attained.

  1. Concept of Prison

A prison is defined as place “in which individuals are physically confined or interred and usually deprived of a range of personal freedoms” (Prison p.1).  Penitentiary institution is the place where persons convicted of various crimes serve their penalty.  It is also the place where individuals though not yet convicted are placed in solitary confinement because they are deemed dangers to the society.

Based on a research conducted by James Lynch and William Sabol, they concluded that since the establishment of penal institutions there was a massive increase in imprisonment in the United States, below is the table:

             Number  of           Number of Prisoner
         Sentenced Prisoners        per 100,000 residents
  1980 1996 % Change 1980 1996 % Change
Male 303,643 1069257 252 275 810 195
Female 12,331 69727 465 11 51 364
White 132,600 378000 185 73 193 164
Black 145,300 524800 261 554 1574 184
Hispanic 30,700 200800 554 206 690 235
Total 315,974 1138984 260 139 423 204

This increasing trend in imprisonment in United States has made the United States a country that has a largest prison population and the highest rate of incarceration in the world.  (James Vicini, p.1) This is affirmed by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), in 2003, the BJS declared that the total population of prisons and jails in the United States neared 2.1 Million.  (Quinn Bowman p.2)

III. The Advantages of Prison

Society is a complex structure does not simply function harmoniously by accident.  There must be a conscious effort on the part of the state to regulate the behavior of its members.   It is because of this reason that punishment was institutionalized and legitimized in our society.  The Prison system serves as an institution which the state has designed to regulate and control the behavior of the members of the society.

  1. Retributivism Theory

In the contemporary society, the system of institutionalized punishment derives its legitimacy under two main theories: a) the Retributivism and b) the Utilitarianism. (“Sociology of Punishment p 1”) Both these theories explain and justify state-mandated imprisonment as a means of controlling human behavior.  According to Retributivism Theory, imprisonment is allowed as a form of punishment because the convicted prisoner deserves it, this is otherwise known as the ‘just desert’.

This is founded on the ‘eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” philosophy.  When an injury is done to another, an unfair situation is created and the imposition of punishment against the wrongdoer removes the unfair advantage and restores the balance.  (Anthony Duff, Sec 5) In essence, this theory states that certain actions in the society that are injurious to other people will merit the imposition of imprisonment.  When these acts are done willfully and voluntarily by any individual then it is but proper that he be punished for his acts to restore balance and harmony in the society.

            God himself in the Old Testament was characterized as a God who judges and punishes.  There are so many instances when God punished the people for violation of his rules.  Consider the story of Adam and Eve and how they were both banished from the Garden of Eden after they were found to have violated God’s rule.  Consider the story of Noah when God filled the earth with water for so many days as punishment to the people.

  Consider also this biblical passage in the Book of Exodus which confirms that punishment is not immoral: “If men who are fighting hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows. But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.”  (Exodus 21:22-25.)  All these confirm that there is a biblical foundation for the imposition of punishment.

            The theory here is that there is no violation of human rights involved nor is there abuse of authority on the part of the state because right from the beginning the offender was well aware of the possible consequences for his crime.  It would follow that the imprisonment is not the punishment chosen by the state but the punishment which the individual has freely chosen for himself after he voluntarily committed his offense.  By punishing him with imprisonment, it is not that the state has deprived him of his right to liberty but because of his voluntary and willful commission of the crime he has forfeited himself from invoking his own right to liberty.

Imprisonment also serves the noble purpose of protecting the perpetrator of the crime from the acts of vigilantism and revenge that the relatives or friends of the victim may commit.  The theory is that if harm is done to another member of the family, the other members might feel a compulsive need to get even with the perpetrator of the crime.  It is necessary therefore that he be placed in confinement under the protection and custody of the state.

  1. Utilitarianism Theory

On the other hand, under the Utilitarian Theory, state- sanctioned punishment is justified because of its utility.  Based on the principle of utility, we must first determine the consequences of carrying out the punishment.  If punishment will most likely produce the greatest balance of happiness over unhappiness then the punishment is unjustified.

But if there are other options that would produce a greater balance of happiness over unhappiness, then that option should be chosen and punishment is unjustified. (Kevin Murtagh, Sec 1a) In simpler terms, the idea is if we are to weigh the positive effects of punishment as against its negative effects and the positive effects outweighs the negative ones then it has to be imposed.  This theory somewhat looks forward and considers the consequences of imprisonment to the society.   Unlike the Retributivist theory which focuses on the restoration of balance, in Utilitarian Theory the other members of the society is considered to benefit from the imprisonment of the convicted prisoner.

Imprisonment is considered beneficial for the society because it deters the commission of more crimes by other persons.  By adopting the policy of imprisonment, the state sends a strong message that its criminal justice system is tough on crime.  Once a convicted prisoner is imprisoned it is as if we are saying to the rest of the society that this will happen to those who will violate our laws.  It is also an open declaration that there is a war against crime and that any violation of its laws will be seriously dealt with by the state.  Once society sees that the violation of a law will have serious consequences to the wrong-doers then this will have a positive effect of deterring criminality.

Society is also benefited from the imprisonment of the convicted prisoner because it incapacitates him from further committing crimes and reduces recidivism rate.  (Lynch and Sabol) When a person commits crime, he is regarded as a danger to the society.  Thus he needs to be separated from the society in order to prevent the possibility of him committing another crime.  The purpose of this is the protection of the other members of the society.   Thus when wrong-doers are incarcerated the society is benefited by the removal of criminal elements from the society.

            The benefits of imprisonment is concretely proven in the cases of a Richmond Police Detective who was killed by Wayne DeLong after a routine traffic violation and the case of Leo Webb who was shot and killed by James Steele.  (George Allen p.1) Both killers in these cases were parolees.  Had the society been tougher on crime and carefully evaluated these prisoners before they were released on parole, these crimes would not have happened.  Indeed, society will be much safer if we will only strictly adopt the policy of imprisonment

Imprisonment also helps in the improvement and reformation of the convicted prisoner.  The presumption is that a person who commits a crime is deemed to be socially ill.  As such he needs to be cured and his behaviors need to be corrected.  It is therefore important for these prisoners to be able to undergo rehabilitation while inside prison so that upon their release there will be changes in their behavior.  It is because of this reason that there are various programs given to convicted prisoners while serving time in jail to restore discipline in them.  This rehabilitation process may involve the giving of education and vocational training, or treatment for drug addiction.  Consider the case of Oregon which has started to train the convicts in the use of computers to prepare the convicts for jobs like telemarketing.  (Fox Butterfield p.4)

Several non-government organizations likewise visit prisons in order to help them reform.  Livelihood projects are likewise available to inmates to help them earn money and provide support for their family while inside prison.  This is affirmed by Dave Thayer in his article “The Advantages of Prison-Based Development.”  He declared that “the increasing costs of overseas labor, the expense of relocation, and the shipping expenses involved have caused some manufacturers to recognize that American prisons, with their abundant supply of labor, are an attractive alternative to foreign-based production.”(Dave Thayer p3)

  1. The Destructive Effect of Prison

Despite the need for strong mechanism that will effectively control deviant social behavior and provide solution to the rising criminality, there are individuals who doubt the effectiveness of the prison system.  They argue that there is no empirical evidence that would prove that the threat of imprisonment reduces crime rates. (David Mericle p.3) They argue that the prison system has degraded into a repressing infrastructure that gives emphasis on hardships and cruel punishment instead of the reformation and rehabilitation of convicted prisoner.

One of the criticisms lodged against imprisonment is that its very nature emphasizes the separation of the individual from the external word.   This has serious psychological effects on the inmates.  Studies show that imprisonment leads to stress, delusion and dissatisfaction of being separated from his family, friends and peers, claustrophobia and feelings of fear and panic.  (Jenny Krestev, Pathena Prokipidis, & Evan Sycamnias p. 2 )  The thick walls, barbed wires, constant monitoring and surveillance make the situation even worse.  This system does not fit well with the ‘reformation’ that the institution proudly advocates.  In fact, it actually does more harm than good for the individual.  Prison according to them does not correct, reform or educate but is a means for violating human rights and human dignity.  (Robert F. Drinan p.3)

Employability of those who have past criminal record is also considered an issue.  Past history of incarceration puts a stigma on the individual making prospective employers hesitant in accepting them.  This affects their capacity to be hired and employed (Lynch and Sabol)

            Imprisonment also results in the destruction of the family and it cannot be ignored. (Ed Griffin p.2)  When a parent is imprisoned, only one parent is left to attend to family needs.  This makes it more difficult to the other to support the family.  It bears stressing that two parents are hardly enough to provide for the needs of the family.  Losing one will definitely be destructive for the family.

Imprisonment of the father has adverse effects on the children.  When one of the parents is imprisoned this has an overwhelming effect on the development of the child.  In some cases, the child loses a role model which is very important during that crucial age.  Research has proven the imprisonment’s negative effect on the child.  It is stated that “The Child Welfare League of America identified common reactions of children separated from their parents, which included rejection, loss of identity, anger and guilt. In addition many children develop increased fear of emotional closeness and trusting that may lead to impaired interpersonal relationships as adults” (Margaret Mead)

            Prison system is also perceived by the society as a haven for violation of human rights.  There have been reports by various non governmental organizations about the substandard facilities of our prison system, specifically, the lack of proper ventilation, the unsanitary prison cells, overflowing toilets and pipes, the prisoners being forced to sleep on unclean floors.  (Kate Randall, p.2)

There have also been reports of violence and sexual abuse happening inside our prison cells which seem to happen on a regular basis.  A study conducted by Amnesty International revealed that there were incidents of prison officials staging gladiator fights between inmates in Corcoran State Prison in California; in Grahan Unit of the Arizona State Prison reports say that 600 prisoners were forced by guards to remain outdoors, handcuffed, for 96 hours and were required to urinate and defecate in their clothes; in Brazonia County Detention Center in Texas, a video tape showed guards kicking and beating inmates, coaxing dogs to bite prisoners and using stun guns.  (Kate Randall, p.2)

  1. Conclusion

            It is clear that, after hearing both sides of the issue, imprisonment is an effective punishment that assists in reducing the crime rate.  The prison system not only restores the balance between the victim and the offender but it is also good for the society because it deters and incapacitates the offender from committing another offense to the victim.  It also has the effect of deterring would-be offenders from committing crimes.  It also helps in the reformation and rehabilitation of the offender.

            The arguments presented above about the psychological effects of prison on the convicted prisoner, the destruction of marriage and family of the prisoner and his employability are precisely some of the deterrent purposes of punishment.  The imposition of punishment encourages people to do good and conform to the law by making the non-compliance with the law less desirable and less beneficial to the person committing it.  This way the people will have no reason for violating the law.  It is precisely the destruction of the family, lack of employment and the adverse psychological effects of prison that are sufficient reason why people should not commit crime.  If the people who want to commit crime really love their family then they must obey the law.

            It is true that violence and the sexual abuse do happen in prison.  But this does not mean that the whole prison system as an institution should be abolished.  The prison system is relatively young and it still not perfect.  The system itself, admittedly, needs a lot of reform.  But with the limited resources of the government it is barely able to make the necessary improvements.  However, the violence and sexual abuse are also reasons why people should not commit crime.

Imprisonment is not merely an act of violence but it is one which is imposed by a legitimate authority based on a law passed by the Legislative Branch of our government.  It is therefore entitled to the presumption of validity and constitutionality.  Placing a person in prison is not cruel and inhuman nor does it violate any human right.  In fact it is the ultimate punishment for those who have disregarded and violated the value of human life.  It is not only constitutional it is also moral and derives its support from religion and the bible.  Christian teachings support the idea of punishment and imprisonment.  By the imposition of imprisonment for those who commit crime, we do not violate life but in fact we affirm the highest value of human life.


Allen, George.  The Courage of our Convictions.  Policy Review.  2007 January  27, 2007 <http://www.hoover.org/publications/policyreview/3566617.html>

Bowman, Quinn. Climate of Punishment.  October 18, 2006.  January 31, 2007   <http://news.research.ohiou.edu/perspectives/index.php?page=122&item=320>

Butterfield, Fox. Inmate Rehabilitation Returns as Prison Goal.  May 20, 2001.  January 31, 2007   <http://www.tgorski.com/criminal_justice/inmate_rehabilitation_returns_010530.htm>

“Dave M. Thayer.  The Advantages of Prison-Based Development.” February 23,2006 <http://www.skidmore.edu/~Bturnedr/ed%20student%20web%20 Files/dthayer2.htm.>

Drinan, Robert F. Prison System Unjust, Unworkable.  National Catholic Reporter.  February 18, 2000 <http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1141/is_16_36/ai_60026742>

Duff, Anthony.  Legal Punishment.  Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  Jan 3, 2004.  January 31, 2007 < http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/legal-punishment/>

Griffin, Ed.  Prison is a Sin.  Catholic New Times.  October 9, 2005. <http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0MKY/is_15_29/ai_n15689545>

Henry, Stuart.  On the Effectiveness of Prison as Punishment.  Wayne State University January 31, 2007 <www.is.wayne.edu/stuarthenry/Effectiveness_of_Punishment.htm>

Hobbes, Thomas.  Moral and Political Philosophy.”  The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  January 31, 2007 <http://www.iep.utm.edu/h/hobmoral.htm>

Krestev Jenny, Prokipidis Pathena & Sycamnias Evan. Psychological Effects of Imprisonment.  February 23, 2006.  <http://www.uplink.com.au/lawlibrary/Documents/Docs/Doc82.html>

Lynch, James and Sabol, William J..  Prison Use and Social Control.   http://www.ncjrs.org/criminal_justice2000/vol_3/03b.pdf#search=’social%20control’

“Mitchel Duneier & Richard Appelbaum”. Introduction to Sociology.  February 23, 2006.  <http://www.wwnorton.com/giddens5/ch/07/welcome.asp>

“Margaret Mead”.   Effects on Children.  February 23, 2006 http://www.prisontalk.com/forums/showthread.php?t=455

Murtagh, Kevin.  Punishment.  The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  John Jay College of Criminal Justice. 2006.  January 31, 2007 < http://www.iep.utm.edu/p/punishme.htm>

“Prison”.  Wikipedia. February 22, 2006 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Penitentiary

“Punishment.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia.  January 31, 2007

            <  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Punishment>

Randall, Kate.  Violence and Brutality in the Prison System.  November 6, 1998.  January 31, 2007 <http://www.wsws.org/news/1998/nov1998/amn-n06.shtml>

“Social Control”.  Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia.  February 22, 2006. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_control>

“Sociology of Punishment.” Wikipedia:The Free Encyclopedia. January 31, 2007


Vicini, James.  US Has the Most Prisoners in the World.  December 9, 2006.  January 31, 2007 <http://www.thirdworldtraveler.com/Prison_System/US_MostPrisonersWorld.html

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