The purpose of prisons

Article written by
Emma Thorpe
October 10, 2022

Ask yourself, what is the purpose of sending someone to prison? You might think of punishment or rehabilitation, perhaps the most common answers and you wouldn’t be wrong. However, the purposes of sending someone to prison are more complex and encompass many different objectives within criminal justice systems around the world. When broken down, there are four main, basic purposes of prisons:

1. Retribution
To punish individuals for committing a crime.
The criminal justice system enacting punishment.

2. Incapacitation
Removing the harm posed to the public.
Incapacitating individuals deemed criminals

3. Deterrence
Deterring those who commit crimes.
Essentially trying to prevent future crimes.

4. Rehabilitation
Actions to rehabilitate the mindset and behaviour of a prisoner.
The concept that a law abiding citizen will be the result.

It is considered vital for there to be prison systems around the world and any criminal justice system needs a form of retribution, seeking to punish those who break a law of the land.  Keeping certain people incapacitated in prison definitely serves a purpose for public protection, their removal from society can reduce the harm that is posed by them to the public. It is also important to have a system which acts as a deterrence for committing crime and for those who are repeat offenders. However, a significant proportion of prisoners are eventually released back in to society, so for a prison to really serve its purpose it must rehabilitate prisoners, or at least try to.

Historically, prisons weren’t seen as institutions for rehabilitation, their original purpose was to confine a prisoner until the real punishment was inflicted, often capital or physical punishment. The formation of ‘legitimate’, state prisons came to fruition in the nineteenth century, with the first national penitentiary being built in London in 1816. London is often credited as being the home of modern imprisonment, largely due to the philosopher Jeremy Bentham who disagreed with the death penalty so decided to create his own concept. His concept was underpinned by the intention to induce conforming behaviour amongst prisoners, while they had the knowledge that they were being constantly observed. The potential of prisons to create reform, present opportunities and change the attitudes and behaviours of prisoners was an increasingly popular issue for penal reformers. The shift in the purpose of prisons being used as the punishment and as a deterrence became well established and is still seen around the world today in different adaptations.

In a more modern world, many prison systems are focusing on rehabilitation and achieving this by treating prisoners more humanely. Dehumanisation of prisoners is not a direct purpose of prison but it is often a consequence which is catastrophic for the mindset of a prisoner. The importance of changing the mindset of a prisoner is key to stop them reoffending and achieving this rehabilitation of an offenders mindset can endorse the purpose of prisons. The United Nations acknowledge that increasingly, rehabilitation is becoming more popular throughout the world and are guardians of the Nelson Mandela Rules. These rules universally stipulate that prisons should not be confined to the deprivation of liberty, but should be a time to re-educate prisoners, with the right to decency, respect and safety.

The purpose of prisons is not singular, there are many purposes which have changed and evolved over time. The drive for rehabilitation is positive and is becoming more popular in global penal systems. The future of the purpose of prisons will no doubt change again, hopefully working harder to create conditions which allow rehabilitated people in prison to be reintegrate back in to society and build safer societies, a key aim of the RRF. 

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