What’s the point of…prison?

OK, time for a new occasional series.  A couple of months ago I wrote about understanding the telos or core purpose of an action or process.  If you don’t know why you’re doing something, I suggested, it’s really hard to know whether or not you’re doing it right, or even in the best way possible.

The telos of many different societal processes and structures is hotly debated today – from taxation to teaching and the NHS to newspapers, very often discussions about what they’re doing get completely bogged down because of a lack of consensus over why they’re doing it.

I don’t expect to be able to resolve these disputes here, but I thought it would be worthwhile exploring some of them as and when they come to my attention, in order to better prepare you and me to recognise questions of telos when they come up, and hopefully steer conversations in a fruitful direction.

My catalyst for this was a discussion I heard the tail end of on Radio 4’s Today programme on Wednesday. Ken Clarke, the new Justice Secretary, wants to reform the prison system to focus on rehabilitation and lock up fewer people; ‘intelligent sentencing’ as he called it.

The very last section of the programme saw John Humphrys asking chief executive of St Giles Trust, Rob Owen, and director of right-leaning think-tank Civitas, David Green for their reactions.

Owen generally agreed.  Prisons are over-crowded, he acknowledged, and simply using them as ‘warehouses’ for the storage of people we want to keep of our streets doesn’t solve any problems in the long-term.  It is increasingly apparent that while in prison, small-time criminals learn more tricks of the trade and become more hardened and more likely to commit further and more serious crimes.

Green, however, was not convinced.   When Humphrys, picking up on Owen’s point that “the reoffending rate is ‘staggeringly high’” suggested that that means prison doesn’t work, Green responded:

It depends what you mean by ‘work’; what prison does is it punishes people and protects the public while they’re there.  It’s not mainly a system of therapy, and the big mistake is to confuse prison with therapy. […] Whether you commit crime or not is a personal choice and is not the Government’s responsibility.

Green’s and Owen’s understanding of the purpose of prison are fundamentally opposed, and are reflective of opposing views about the nature of persons and society.

Green thinks everyone should have the freedom to make his or her own personal choices.  If he chooses to do things which interfere with the freedom of others, he should be punished (by removing his freedom for a period) and kept away from other people to prevent him doing it again for a season.  Once he has served his time, he is free to go and to make his own personal choices again.

Owen’s stance recognises instead that people are relational beings.  We live in communities, and part of being human and living well is learning to function in the interests of the community and of other individuals, learning not to live purely selfish, self-serving lives.  While we do have the freedom to make personal choices, if we do not have the relevant mental or emotional tools, we aren’t fully able to make those choices in a reasoned way. The freedom to eat any cake in the shop isn’t really freedom if most of the cakes have been hidden from you.

Prison is often the last chance the state and other service providers have of catching those who have fallen through the net and equipping them with the tools they need to fully exercise their freedom.

So, what’s the point of prison – to restrict freedom or to promote it? What do you think?

3 Comments On This Topic
  1. Ann
    on Jun 24th at 11:15 pm

    going right back to first principles – why are they there in the first place? How many are there because they have been failed by society? Looking at the Biblical model, society was divided into much smaller groups originally (after coming out of Egypt) so people were much more immediately dependent on each other and responsible for each other. People with mental health issues would be cared for in the group not left on the street to commit crime. Members of disfunctional families would be dealt with more immediately by their community and given community sentences. We are paying the price for losing that over the years which we had when communities were much closer here too and so I think prison does have to play the duel role of punishment, it is important that this is seen to be a role for serious crime coupled with rehabilitation to allow those who are going back into society to be able to function as members of that society and have less chance to reoffend. That’s my view anyway. There must be an alternative to prison or a fine for someone who repeatedly drives without a licence. To say they are being fined and having their non existent licence endorsed is a joke but prison doesn’t seem the answer either.

    • Jennie Pollock
      on Jun 25th at 12:35 pm

      Yes, that’s a very good point. I wonder if there is less petty crime in smaller communities in part because there is more of an awareness of your actions affecting real people that you know. People are less likely to graffiti their friend’s Gran’s garden wall than that of a total stranger, I imagine, and it scales upward from there.

      And I don’t know what to do about the driving without a licence thing, either. I suppose it’s a question of what the actual crime is – if they weren’t driving dangerously, then in a way the fine is the appropriate thing – all they’re guilty of is failing to pay a fee that the rest of us have to pay. But if the reason they haven’t got a license is because it has been removed from them because they have committed too many driving offences, it presumably means they can receive a stiffer sentence the next time they commit an offence. Of course, we don’t want to allow dangerous drivers on the road…so how do we address the causes of dangerous driving – people drive dangerously because they don’t care about the damage they may cause, or care more about their own agendas, or think they are safe enough to get away with it, or are angry/rushed/upset and aren’t thinking clearly. Neither a fine nor a prison sentence are going to solve those, so what will? (Answers on a postcard…?!)

  2. Ann
    on Jul 6th at 8:21 pm

    Perhaps they should be forced to work full time in a hospice or hospital where road accident people with head and back injuries are treated for a year


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