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Prisons - Do They Work?
Publication date: 2004-10-07

The politicians are posing as being "tough on Crime" and some are proposing to build more prisons.

But do prisons work? And, if they do, then in what cases?

Prisons are used by governments for the following purposes:

  1. to prevent a person accused of a crime escaping before trial,


  2. to prevent a violent person from causing harm,


  3. to prevent people from committing crime because of fear of prison,


  4. to punish a person who was convicted of a crime,


  5. to re-educate convicted criminals.


Prison is an effective means of preventing an accused person from escaping trial.

Prison works as a means of restraint of violent people from causing harm.

As a means of prevention of crime it works for those people who are afraid of prison, but does not work for those people who are not afraid of prison.

Yes, there are many people who do not commit crimes because they are afraid of going to jail, and would have committed crimes, if the threat of jail would not exist. This is an unseen and unmeasured positive effect of prison. But what would have happened if theft, rape and violence would have been decriminalized? One can only see the effect of such measures when a government is "removed", as it happened in Iraq, or at the time of the Russian revolution, when a government was overthrown, but the new government has not yet established control. In either case the result was anarchy. But, even that anarchy was limited, because many people still continued to behave lawfully, in spite of the anarchy. And this was at least partially due to the residual fear of prison.

As a means of crime prevention prison works for people who do not commit crimes. But what works in such cases is not "prison" itself (that is the prison building), but the fear of going to prison. And in such case fear of any punishment, which is seen as harsh enough to be afraid of, will have the same or even greater effect.

Examples of such "harsh" punishments which can be as effective, or more effective, than prisons range from financial fines of sufficient magnitude to the once popular and very effective hanging-drawing-and-quartering. Financial fines are cheaper than prisons and can contribute towards the cost of the crime prevention system. Hanging-drawing-and-quartering although an extremely effective crime deterrent has the disadvantage that, in case the person subjected to such treatment is subsequently found innocent (miscarriage of justice) the process cannot be reversed. And for that reason alone revival of this means of crime prevention is not recommended.

But not all people are afraid of prison.

Some crimes are committed by people who, although normally are afraid of prison, at the time of the commission of the crime lose that fear. This could be due to alcoholic intoxication, excessive emotions, or a belief that they will not be "caught".

It is a known fact that many crimes are committed under the influence of alcohol, because a drunken person loses rational control over his behaviour and the sense of reality.

Crimes of passion are crimes when strong emotions, like anger, make a person lose his self-control and commit acts which he would not have committed in a normal state.

An arrogant dishonest person, who is afraid of jail and motivated by a desire to make his life better, rather than worse, might commit a crime, hoping that he will not be "caught".

There are also people whose behaviour is abnormal in the sense of having abnormal desires, which they seek to satisfy at any cost. Examples of such "pathological criminals" are serial rapists, sadistic serial killers, sexually motivated cannibals, paedophiles, etc. The behaviour of such people is difficult to explain in rational terms. It is determined by the peculiarities of their warped personalities.

Another set of people who are not deterred by the fear of prison, are "habitual criminals". Such people see prison as a normal part of their life style. Their whole life is a series of "in" and "out" periods. They commit crimes, go to jail, get out, commit more crimes, go to jail, and then the same again and again. It is just like politicians being in and out of government - they are either in power or in the opposition, but either way they are "in politics". Such habitual criminals are part of the "criminal world" (or "underworld"), which has its own culture and moral values. To be in jail is not seen by such people as something to be "ashamed" of, but as something to be "proud" of. The more years such people spend in jail, the higher status they have in their "society". Often youngsters who are drawn to "the criminal world" look forward to "going in", knowing that, once they are "out", they will have a higher status and greater respect among their "mates".

In all of these cases the fear of prison either does not exist at all, or is absent at the time of the commission of the crime. And for such people prison as a crime deterrent does not work.

Prison as a means of "punishment" from the point of view of government does not exist. It is the fear of punishment that is important, because it prevents crimes.

It might give satisfaction to the victim of a crime, or to his relatives, that the criminal will spend the rest of his life in jail, but this has no usefulness for the purpose of crime prevention in itself. Once a crime is committed, the usefulness of prison as a deterrent has failed. The only usefulness of prison that remains in such cases is that, if a prisoner is dangerous, he is prevented from causing further harm.

As a means of re-education (or "correction") of criminals prison has very limited success. Usually this happens to people who are afraid of prison, but commit crimes through thoughtlessness, carelessness, or belief that they would not be caught. Having come out of jail, they become more careful in their behaviour so as not to go back to jail. Occasionally some criminals, having spent years in prison, undergo a "spiritual transformation" into "righteous" people. But these are individual cases.

Re-education of "pathological criminals" is extremely rare. Once released, such people often commit the same crimes.

The same is true of "habitual criminals" who see themselves as part of the "criminal world" and are proud of it. In stead of being re-educated or "corrected" in prison, they come out as hardened (or toughened) criminals. For such people prison is not a "corrective institution", but a "school of crime".

Thus, we see that prison has different effects for different people. It works in some cases, and is a total failure or even counter-productive in others.

It is also clear that prison fails precisely for those crimes which the politicians hope to prevent by building more prisons. The number of prisons has no effect on crime prevention. The number of prisons becomes relevant only when crime prevention has failed.

So, prison is effective only as a means of physical detention to ensure that a person is available for court proceedings or to prevent a dangerous person from causing harm. As a means of crime prevention or "re-education of criminals" it is very expensive, ineffective and even counter-productive.

So, why are politicians talking about building more prisons?

Partly, because this what the public wants to hear, partly, because they have not made enough effort to understand how prison works, and where it succeeds and where it fails.

But are there any alternatives to building more prisons?

Some people say that we should discover the causes of crime, and deal with these causes. And then they proceed to ask the question, "Why people commit crimes?".

But the reasons for why people commit crimes are countless. They vary from person to person. So, to make our task manageable we shall ask a different question.

We shall ask, "Why some people (the majority?) do not commit crimes?"

People do not commit crimes because:

  1. they do not want to commit crimes,


  2. they are afraid of being punished for committing crimes,


  3. they are physically prevented from committing crimes.


The third case (physical prevention) belongs to the realm of "security", like locks, security grills, and various other devices which make commission of a particular crime impossible. This case will not be considered by us, and we shall limit ourselves to the first two above cases.

People do not want to commit crimes:

  1. because they do not have desire to do so (for example, not everybody has desire to smash a public coin box, or to rape a 70 year old woman in an ally-way, even if such activities were decriminalized),


  2. because they understand that it is not in their interest to do so,


  3. because they have aversion to crime.


Again we shall not consider the first case, because it is beyond government control.

Thus, we are left with the following three reasons why people do not commit crimes:

  1. understanding that it is not in their interest to do so,


  2. aversion to crime,


  3. fear of being punished for committing crime.


These three reason for abstaining from committing crimes in practice are not distinct, but work together within the same person. Although within different people they can be present in different degrees.

Thus, in some people it is the understanding, that crime is not worth it, that is the pre-dominant factor, while aversion to crime and fear of punishment could be almost unnoticeable, or even lacking at all. In others, fear could be the predominant factor. But in the majority of people all the three factors work together to prevent them from committing crimes.

And it is when these three crime prevention factors are absent that crime becomes widespread, the People start looking towards the Government for protection, and Politicians begin to talk of building more prisons.

On the other hand, when these three crime prevention factors are present, crime becomes a rare phenomenon, and the number of prisons can be reduced to a bare minimum.

So, in order to protect its citizens from crime within its area of governance the government needs to create conditions so that the people would (a) understand that crime is not in their interests, (b) feel aversion to crime, and (c) whenever these two factors are not sufficient to deter them from committing crimes, be afraid to commit crimes because of fear of punishment.

Although some people are capable of developing understanding that "crime does not pay" and some have a natural aversion to crime, for the majority of people this can only be achieved through education.

This education must begin from a very early age.

An example of such education were "Copybook Headings", to which Rudyard Kipling referred in one of his poems. The "copybooks" were the books of blank lined sheets of paper, which children used at schools to learn writing. At the top the pages of such copybooks were headings, like "Honesty is the best policy", "If you don't work you die", "The wages of sin is death", and similar moral maxims. These copybook headings were copied by the children again and again until their handwriting became sufficiently good. And as they copied these copybook headings again and again, they memorized these copybook headings. And these copybook headings were becoming part of their vocabulary, part of their thinking and part of their morality.

These copybook headings were supplemented by moral religious sermons, which promoted the idea that even, if people succeed in hiding their criminal or immoral acts from other people, they still will be punished by God both in this world and even after death.

And, in those cases where such moral education failed to deter people from crimes, there was a gallows in the city square, where criminals were publicly hanged to instill fear of punishment among the people.

It was not the "suffering" of the hanged criminal that was important. Tightening of the noose round one's neck results in an instant loss of consciousness, which is followed by a painless death. It was the spectacle of a dead body hanging from the gallows, that made a person who was tempted to steal a golden bracelet from a jeweller's shop, stop and think, "But, if I am caught, it will be my dead body dangling from that rope in the square next week". And it was this thought that prevented potential criminals from committing crimes.

Such crime prevention policies were very efficient and did not require large number of prisons.

As we noted earlier, we do not recommend hanging or any other form of killing or mutilation, because, if it is discovered later, that the person subjected to such treatment in innocent, the process cannot be reversed. And there are many miscarriages of justice.

As, we showed above, prison, as a means of crime prevention, is very expensive and has only a limited success. Also, prison often contributes to spread of crime, especially among young people. It is not uncommon for youngsters, having committed a criminal act through lack of discipline and thoughtlessness and been sent to prison, to come out of prison as hardened habitual criminals.

So, we need to find a more effective means of crime prevention then prison, and which, unlike capital punishment and mutilations, can be reversed, if the convicted person is subsequently proved to be innocent.

The suggested alternative to prison in wealthy countries is Punitive Financial Compensation.

Let us suppose that a hooligan has broken a window, and that the cost of replacing that window is £100. And let us suppose that the Punitive Compensation Factor is 10.

The punishment for that crime will be £1,000 punitive compensation paid to the victim of the crime, and another £1,000 fine, which will be paid towards the costs of the crime prevention system. Thus, the total paid by the criminal will be £2,000. Hardly worth causing £100 damage. And even, if the motivation for the crime was to cause damage to the victim of the crime, the act, from the point of view of the criminal, becomes counter-productive - his victim becomes £900 better off and ... at the criminal's own expense. It's like giving an expensive present to an intended victim of crime.

If the criminal can pay that amount, this is the end of the story. It is unlikely that he will want to commit the same crime again - crime does not pay in the literal sense.

If, he cannot pay the total amount, he will pay it by installments, until the full amount is repaid.

Only, if the criminal refuses to pay or tries to disappear, will he be put in prison, where he will still work and pay his Punitive Financial Compensation. But, at any time, if he undertakes to pay outside of prison, he will be released.

Causing grievous bodily harm or death will often mean that the criminal will support the victim or his family to the rest of his (criminal's) life. Hardly an exciting prospect!

In case of crimes by children, the payment of the compensation will be deferred until they reach maturity. Although their parents would be able to pay it for them, if they choose to do so.

Criminals who have no income, like the "unemployed" will be jailed, and will work in prison to pay for their crime. But, if they find means of honest earnings outside of prison, they will be released and will continue to pay their compensation.

Such Punitive Financial Compensation will become the standard means of punishment and of crime prevention. Prisons will be used only for the purpose, where they are really effective - as a means of detention and isolation. And the need for building more prisons will disappear.

Punitive Financial Compensation has the following advantages over punishment by imprisonment:

  1. It acts as a deterrent for greater number of people. There are some people who are not afraid of prison, saying to their intended victim, "I'll put you in a wheel chair for life, and then spend a few years playing snooker and watching TV at her Majesty's pleasure". But with Punitive Financial Compensation, the intended victim will answer, "And work for me, my family, and the penal system for the rest of your life". Not a very romantic prospect.


  2. It compensates the victim of crime for the damage caused.


  3. It pays for the cost of crime prevention.


  4. It leaves the criminal in charge of his own life.


  5. It does not place the criminal into an environment which will turn him into a habitual criminal, as prison often does.


As far as crime prevention through education, it is a more difficult issue. It involves fundamental changes in the present day "values".

Glamorization in the media of dishonesty, violence, drugs, alcohol, "sex" outside of normal family, nakedness, indecency, profligacy, reliance of healthy able-bodied people on the state for their needs and comforts must stop. These phenomena need to be presented not as "romantic exciting adventures", or as "modern normal behaviour", but, as what they happen to be, human weaknesses and depravities - diseases of the soul. The public should develop a strong and healthy disgust to these forms of human behaviour. It should become socially unacceptable and abnormal.

On the other hand "boring" virtues, like honesty, respect for property, sobriety, chastity before marriage, faithfulness in marriage, thrift, self-reliance should be presented in a positive light, as the only acceptable forms of human behaviour.

This promotion of virtues and suppression of vices needs to be the backbone of education of children from the earliest age. Skills and sciences can be learnt at any age. Values are acquired in early childhood and maintained throughout the whole life.

In the end, it is the values that determine human behaviour, and it is the values that determine whether people commit or do not commit crimes. Prevention of crimes through fear of punishment becomes necessary only when the values have failed to prevent crime.

The reason why politicians today compete by promising more prisons than their rivals is because they themselves and their 20th century predecessors have worked hard to corrupt the society by promoting vices and dependence on themselves.

If they really want to make Britain crime-free, they need to return to the Traditional Human (Victorian?) Values which made Britain Great. Building more prisons, while continuing to corrupt the society (often by setting bad examples by their own behaviour), will not achieve that purpose.


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