Prison reform

Prison reform

Prison reform is the attempt to improve conditions inside prisons, aiming at a more effective penal system.


A precise definition refers to an attempt to change the penal system, typically from one model to another. Changing back to an earlier model is frequently also characterized as reform. Criminal justice models are based on the goals of the penal system.


This is founded on the "eye for an eye, tooth for an incarceration" philosophy, which essentially states that if one person harms another, then an equivalent harm should be done to them. One goal here is to prevent vigilantism, gang or clan warfare, and other actions by those who have an unsatisfied need to "get even" for a crime against them, their family, or their group. It is, however, difficult to determine how to equate different types of "harm". A literal case is where a murderer is punished with the death penalty, the argument being "justice demands a life for a life". One criticism of long term prison sentences and other methods for achieving justice is that such "warehousing" of criminals is rather expensive, this argument notwithstanding the fact that the multiple incarceration appeals of a death penalty case often exceed the price of the "warehousing" of the criminal in question.Yet another facet of this debate disregards the financial cost for the most part. The argument regarding warehousing rests, in this case, upon the theory that any punishment considered respectful of human rights should not include caging humans for life without chance of release--that even death is morally and ethically a higher road than no-parole prison sentences.


Here the criminal is used as an "example to themself and others". By subjecting prisoners to harsh conditions, authorities hope to convince them to avoid future criminal behavior and to exemplify for others the rewards for avoiding such behavior; that is, the fear of punishment will win over whatever benefit or pleasure the illegal activity might bring. The deterrence model frequently goes far beyond "an eye for an eye", exacting a more severe punishment than would seem to be indicated by the crime. Torture has been used in the past as a deterrent, as has the public embarrassment and discomfort of stocks, and, in religious communities, excommunication. Executions, particularly gruesome ones (such as hanging or beheading), often for petty offenses, are further examples of attempts at deterrence. One criticism of the deterrence model is that criminals typically have a rather short-term orientation, and the possibility of long-term consequences is of little importance to them. Also, their quality of life may be so horrific that any treatment within the criminal justice system (which is compatible with human rights law) will only be seen as an improvement over their previous situation. However, if that's the case, this points to a far more severe social problem.


("Reform" here refers to reform of the individual, not to reform of the penal system.) The goal is to "repair" the deficiencies in the individual and return them as productive members of society. Education, work skills, deferred gratification, treating others with respect, and self-discipline are stressed. Younger criminals who have committed fewer and less severe crimes are most likely to be successfully reformed. "Reform schools" and "boot camps" are set up according to this model. One criticism of this model is that criminals are rewarded with training and other items which would not have been available to them had they not committed a crime. However, it must be noted that criminals or potential criminals who do not have access to such educational resources are only acting in their best interests by gaining access to these prisons; if a prison is successful at providing resources to individuals who were unable to get these resources through "acceptable" channels, then perhaps what would be next needed, in the implementation of this model, is "societal" reform.

=Removal from society=

The goal here is simply to keep criminals away from potential victims, thus reducing the number of crimes they can commit. The criticism of this model is that others increase the number and severity of crimes they commit to make up for the "vacuum" left by the removed criminal. For example, a drug dealer removed from a location will result in an unmet demand for drugs at that locale, and an existing or new drug dealer will then appear, to fill the void. This new drug dealer may have been innocent of any crimes before this opportunity, or may have been guilty of less serious crimes, such as being a look-out for the previous drug dealer.


Prisoners are forced to repay their "debt" to society . Unpaid or low pay work is common in many prisons, often to the benefit of the community. In some countries prisons operate as labour camps. Critics say that the repayment model gives government an economic incentive to send more people to prison. In corrupt or authoritarian regimes, such as the former Soviet Union under the control of Joseph Stalin, many citizens are sentenced to forced labour for minor breaches of the law, simply because the government requires the labour camps as a source of income. Community service is increasingly being used as an alternative to prison for petty criminals.

=Reduction in immediate costs=

Government and prison officials also have the goal of minimizing short-term costs.

:In wealthy societies: :This calls for keeping prisoners "happy" by providing them with things like television and conjugal visits. Inexpensive measures like these prevent prison assaults and riots which in turn allow the number of guards to be minimized. Providing the quickest possible parole and/or release also reduces immediate costs to the prison system (although these may very well increase long term costs to the prison system and society due to recidivism). The ultimate way to reduce immediate costs is to eliminate prisons entirely and use fines, community service, and other sanctions (like the loss of a driver's license or the right to vote) instead. Executions at first would appear to limit costs, but, in most wealthy societies, the long appeals process for death sentences (and associated legal costs) make them quite expensive. Note that this goal conflicts with most of the other goals for criminal justice systems. For example, if a criminal is treated well and released early, s/he is not likely to be deterred from future crimes.

:In poor societies:

:Poor societies, which lack the resources to imprison criminals for years, frequently use execution in place of imprisonment, for severe crimes. Less severe crimes, such as theft, might be dealt with by less severe physical means, such as amputation of the hands. When long term imprisonment is used in such societies, it may be a virtual death sentence, as the lack of food, sanitation, and medical care causes widespread disease and death, in such prisons. Some of the goals of criminal justice are compatible with one another, while others are in conflict. In the history of prison reform, the harsh treatment, torture, and executions used for deterrence first came under fire as a violation of human rights. The salvation goal, and methods, were later attacked as violations of the individual's Freedom of Religion. This led to further "reforms" aimed principally at reform/correction of the individual, removal from society, and reduction of immediate costs. The perception that such reforms sometimes denied victims justice then led to further changes. The hope, in the future, is that medical diagnosis and treatments might assist future generations of prisoner reformers. For example, if the "thrill-seeking gene" could be suppressed via RNAi technology, this could lead to less risk-taking behavior (some of it criminal).


John Howard is now widely regarded as the founding father of prison reform, having travelled extensively visiting prisons across Europe in the 1770s and 1780s. Also, the great social reformer Jonas Hanway promoted "solitude in imprisonment", with proper profitable labour and a spare diet." [Hanway, Jonas (1776) [ Solitude in Imprisonment: With Proper Profitable Labour and a Spare Diet, the Most Humane and...] J. Bew. Retrieved 2006-10-30] Indeed, this became the popular model in England for many decades.

Within Britain, prison reform was spearheaded by the Quakers, and in particular, Elizabeth Fry during the Victorian Age. Elizabeth Fry visited prisons and suggested basic human rights for prisoners, such as privacy and teaching prisoners a trade. Fry was particularly concerned with women's rights. Parliament, coming to realize that a significant portion of prisoners had come to commit crimes as a result of mental illness, passed the County Asylums Act (1808). This made it possible for Justice of the Peace in each county to build and run their own pauper asylums.

"Whereas the practice of confining such lunatics and other insane persons as are chargeable to their respective parishes in Gaols, Houses of Correction, Poor Houses and Houses of Industry, is highly dangerous and inconvenient" [cite web
last = Roberts, Andrew
first =
authorlink =
coauthors =
title = "Table of Statutes"
work =The asylums index
publisher = Middlesex University, London, England
date = 1981
url =
format =
doi =
accessdate = 2006-09-26

In the United States Dorothea Dix toured prisons in the U.S. and all over Europe looking at the conditions of the mentally handicapped. Her ideas led to a mushroom effect of asylums all over the United States.

In the early 1900s Samuel June Barrow was a leader in prison reform. President Cleveland appointed him International Prison Commissioner for the U.S. in 1895, and in 1900 Barrows became Secretary of the Prison Association of New York and held that position until his death on April 21, 1909. A Unitarian pastor, Barrows used his influence as editor of the Unitarian "Christian Register" to speak at meetings of the National Conference of Charities and Correction, the National International Prison Congresses, and the Society for International Law. As the International Prison Commissioner for the U.S., he wrote several of today’s most valuable documents of American penological literature, including “Children’s Courts in the United States” and “The Criminal Insane in the United States and in Foreign Countries.” As a House representative, Barrows was pivotal in the creation of the International Prison Congress and became its president in 1905. In his final role, as Secretary of the Prison Association of New York, he dissolved the association’s debt, began issuing annual reports, drafted and ensured passage of New York’s first probation law, assisted in the implementation of a federal Parole Law, and promoted civil service for prison employees. Moreover, Barrows advocated improved prison structures and methods, traveling in 1907 around the world to bring back detailed plans of 36 of the best prisons in 14 different countries. In 1910 the National League of Volunteer Workers, nicknamed the “Barrows League” in his memory, formed in New York as a group dedicated to helping released prisoners and petitioning for better prison conditions.

Academic resources

* International Journal of Prisoner Health, ISSN: [ 1744-9219] (electronic) 1744-9200 (paper)

Further reading

* Denborough, D. (Ed.) (1996). [ "Beyong the prison: Gathering dreams of freedom".] Adelaide, South Australia: Dulwich Centre Publications.

ee also

*Prison Activist Resource Center (PARC)
*Restorative Justice
*Auburn prison
*Elmira prison
* [ The Prison Honor Program]
* [ Australian Prison Foundation]

External links and references

* [ Ansar Burney Trust] - Prisoners Aid Society
* []
* [] - Penal Reform International
* [ Prison Reform Advocacy Center]
* [ Grassroots Leadership (USA)]
* [ November Coalition (USA)] - Working for prison reform and working to end drug war injustice.
* [ Royal Engineers Museum] Royal Engineers as 19th century Prison Reformers
* [ The Howard League for Penal Reform] - One of the earliest penal reform organizations dating back to 1866. Named in honour of John Howard.
* [ Penal Affairs Consortium (PAC)] is an alliance of 40 organisations working together for penal reform. Retrieved 2006-10-20
* [ Rethinking Crime and Punishment] A strategic initiative to raise the level of public debate about the use of prison and alternative forms of punishment in the UK. Retrieved 2006-10-20
* [ Smart Justice] question the effectiveness of prison for non violent offenders and to campaign for more investment in initiatives that tackle the causes of crime and for better resourced alternatives to custody. Retrieved 2006-10-20
* [ Correctional Association of New York] The Correctional Association is an independent, non-profit organization founded by concerned citizens in 1844 that works to create a fair, efficient and humane criminal justice system and a more safe and just society.
* [ Preventing Prisoner Rape Project] A national project in Australia, aiming to raise awareness about the issue of rape in prisons, and support survivors, their families, and workers in prisons dealing with sexual assault. Website contains free downloadable resources.
* [ The Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights] . "A collaboration of doctors, social workers and allied health staff from a variety of medical disciplines."
* [ Australian Prison Foundation] National organisation in Australia aimed at creating a network of reform and prisoner support organisations.

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