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Does the Punitive Prison System Work?



By Salika Rashid


In the November 1947 issue of Harijan, Gandhi wrote, “All criminals should be treated as patients and the jails should be hospitals admitting this class of patients for treatment and cure. No one commits a crime for the fun of it. It is a sign of a diseased mind.” This view of Gandhi has attracted many supporters while at the same time countless critiques as well. People view prisons differently. To some, they are institutional structures to punish convicts of crime, while for others they are institutions for the elimination of crimes from society by way of treating the criminals that are locked behind those structures. Both views to a certain extent are logical and fruitful, but its the combination of both incarceration and rehabilitation that can serve the purpose of establishing a comparatively peaceful society. But the larger question is does rehabilitation benefit the society at large? Well yes! Various studies show a direct correlation between rehabilitation and reformation.


Consider the example,

On January 22, 1991, in Kurla, Mumbai, Laxman Gole slashed at the face and stomach of a goon who had harassed and assaulted a woman. During the months-long incarceration in Mumbai’s Arthur Road Jail that followed, he became friendly with criminal gangs and kept up the friendships even after he was released on bail. Between 1992 and 2005, Gole had 19 offences registered against him, including an attempt to murder, extortion, criminal intimidation, physical assault. He spent seven out of the following 13 years behind bars. Today, Gole is a social worker in Karjat, near Mumbai, and gives lectures on Gandhian thought in prisons across Maharashtra.


Prisons are the most unsuccessful institution to carry out their actual purpose of ultimately rehabilitating convicts to eventually become law-abiding citizens and productive members of society. 68 per cent of prisoners released to return to prison for committing a new crime within three years of leaving (US Department of Justice).

This is why prisons should act as restraints from normal society as punishment for crime but should also function more so as a form of rehabilitation to help them reflect on their crime and change for the better of society. Recognizing the purpose of imprisonment and understanding how we should handle prisoners is vital for preventing crimes and benefitting society as a whole.


Fenner Brockway once observed, the modern prison system was developed through the combined efforts of ‘penal reformers’ working in partnership with ‘penal inflictors’. The consequence of this joint endeavour has been the creation of an institution which delivers a very different experience and performs a very different role from the Jails visited in the eighteenth century by John Howard. The jails still permitted its prisoners to enjoy significant elements of normal life, and while it contained them it did not seek to punish or reform them. Reformative and punitive agendas were, however, to shape the emergence of a very different penal institution in the nineteenth century.


The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for Non-custodial Measures (known as Tokyo Rules) have been adopted by most of the Indian prisons. Its implementation depends on the jail officials. A kind-hearted official ensures that the lower level staff follows the prescribed rules. It is reformative as imprisonment itself is a punishment for the criminal. The environment and ambience in jails must be reformatory, inculcating spirituality, education and teaching to the inmates. Vocational courses for jail inmates should be chosen based on whether the place in which the prison is located is in the hub of that trade. There is also an urgent need to have welfare personnel trained to handle the issues of prison and prisoners. This will go a long way.


A sentence of imprisonment constitutes only a deprivation of the basic right to liberty. It does not entail the restriction of other human rights, except for those which are naturally restricted by the very fact of being in prison. Prison reform is necessary to ensure that this principle is respected, the human rights of prisoners protected and their prospects for social reintegration increased, in compliance with relevant international standards and norms.


Most people may think of prisons as nothing more than facilities where criminals are incarcerated and deprived of their freedoms while serving a sentence for a crime. While this is true, the concept of imprisonment is also intended to rehabilitate the prisoners. The basic idea of rehabilitation through imprisonment is that a person who has been incarcerated will never want to be sent back to prison after they have been set free. It is hoped that an inmate’s experiences while locked up will leave such a lasting impression that a former prisoner will do whatever it takes to avoid a second term.

Unfortunately, research has consistently shown that time spent in prison does not successfully rehabilitate most inmates, and the majority of criminals return to a life of crime almost immediately. Many argue that most prisoners will learn new and better ways to commit crimes while they are locked up with their fellow convicts. They can also make connections and become more deeply involved in the criminal world. To offer better rehabilitative services to the inmates, many prisons have begun providing psychiatrists to help deal with prisoners’ mental disorders and psychological issues. Prisons also offer classroom settings in which inmates can learn to read and educate themselves. These methods are proven to have a positive effect on the prisoners and have helped many to overcome a background with little or no education. Upon their release, prisoners who have stuck with these programs are given a better opportunity to succeed and to become law-abiding citizens.

Rehabilitation of prisoners is an extremely difficult process. Inmates are segregated from the general public and forced to live in a society with people for whom crime is a way of life. For many, time spent behind bars will push them farther into a life of crime, but for others, the horrors of prison life and the lessons they learn there are enough to deter them from committing crimes again in the future. The only rational purpose for a prison is to restrain those who are violent, while we help them to change their behaviour and return to the community.” ~ James Gilligan


Why prisoners should even receive fair treatment? Why should the criminal justice system aid criminals rather than punishing them when there’s been no justice for the innocent victims?


When people become dangerous to others, we restrain them regardless of who they are. Some of their freedoms are taken away from them as punishment by the result of their restraint. Ideally, this would force them to reflect on their crime which would ultimately deter them from repeating the offence once they’ve been released, but it’s quite obvious that this is not the case. Although this system fails to work, as 68 per cent of prisoners returns to prison after, the problem does not lie in the lack of punishment, but rather a lack of rehabilitation.

When people are punished, they often learn nothing. Increasing punishments would only expose the criminal to the revengeful, “You get what you deserve” mindset, which would not psychologically improve their behaviour and may even do the opposite. People learn from example, and this would only reinforce their violent behaviour by mimicking the “teach them a lesson” logic used on them in prison (New York Times, James Gilligan).


By using a nonviolent form of rehabilitation, they’ll be able to return to society as normal citizens. This idea of people learning from example can be simply seen with children and their parents. When kids experience and see their parents do certain things, they will uphold those values in their own life. “Children learn about the strong character from parents and other adults in their daily lives” (U.S Department of Education). Similarly, when prisoners are treated with kindliness and respect, it increases the chance that they’ll reflect those principles in the community once they’ve been released. James Gilligan and Bandy Lee’s Resolve to Stop Violence Project found that the extensive re-educational program for violent male criminals reduced the amount of violence in the San Francisco jail to 0 per cent within a year.

The longer the men stayed in the program, the more effective it was. Of those who took the full-length rehabilitation course, 83 per cent fewer returned to jail within a year in contrast to a control group of men who did not partake in the program (books, Helen Epstein). In the end, it’s more effective that we use prisons as a tool of rehabilitation so prisoners won’t commit even more crime and can even be positive influences in society.


After all, treating the root of the problem being the psychological behaviour of the subject is always more effective than trying to punish for the end actions. The most ideal relief for society is for all prisons to include all different forms of therapy, like treatment for substance abuse and psychotherapy. This way, only positivity can come from prisons rather than almost nothing coming from incarceration alone. Putting people in jail will not stop crime but will only stop criminals for their sentence time. By fixing the root of the problem being their psychological behaviour, then crime would significantly decrease as well.

But how about being punished for the crimes they committed? Don’t they deserve to be punished for their actions?


Essentially, yes, they should, but their incarceration should act more so as a deterrence for other people not to commit a crime, as well as for ensuring the safety of the general public. Yes, they do deserve incarceration as punishment, but psychological treatment should not be viewed as a luxury as it is ultimately better for society. The deprivation of their freedoms for extended periods is enough. Depending on the severity of the crime, the offender’s sentence should match. The higher the severity, the more time and measures should be taken to ensure reform. As after all, only reform will leave a positive impact on the overall community unlike the punishment alone. To conclude, I would quote Martin Luther King, jr. who once remarked:

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

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