Disclaimer: This essay has been written by a law student and not by our expert law writers. View examples of our professional work here.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not reflect the views of LawTeacher.net. You should not treat any information in this essay as being authoritative.

Does Prison Work? Arguments For and Against Prisons

Info: 3743 words (15 pages) Essay
Published: 11th Jun 2021

Reference this

Jurisdiction / Tag(s): International Law


Prisons, most commonly known as correctional institutions, have been an integral part of Criminal Justice System along with Police and the Courts (Griffiths, 2007: 3). Even though prisons and sentencing varies from country to country, they all operate in same manner i.e. to sentence criminals and prevent further damage to the society. Offenders are usually sent to a prison when a legal penalty is imposed on them. Prison is considered to be as the last resort. In past few decades, prisons have been a controversial topic. Recent trends have shown disapproval of prison system by public (Griffiths, 2007: 64). There has been lots of debate on whether prisons are effective or whether they are ineffective in making criminals law-abiding citizens. This essay opens with a discourse of what prisons are in general, looks at analysis and evaluation made by scholars, criminologists, and sociologists on potency of prisons in Canada as well as provides insights into possible reforms to enhance prisons effectiveness.


According to Christianson (2002: 1168), “A prison is any institution or device that holds a captive in custody”. Prisons have been in existence since ancient times. They didn’t serve as a form of punishment back then but rather were just used to hold individuals until they receive their punishment which included beheading, death penalty and public shaming. Crime and punishment are both public acts. Ancient punishments were cruel and harsh but today punishment is used as a form to make all offenders or criminals’ law-abiding citizens including prisoners. In modern prisons, criminals are deprived of their freedom and they must follow all the protocols, rules and regulations set by the correctional institutions. Jails and closed structures are also considered as part of prison but they just hold individuals for a day or two while they await their trail (ibid: 1168). Slavery was another form of imprisonment where a slave must abide by his/her master (ibid: 1168).International Prisoner Trade and Convict Transportation during seventeenth century which was selling criminals to America, Australia as slaves marked criticism, which leads to enlightenment along with American Revolution and finally put a stop on International Prisoner Trade in eighteenth century (ibid: 1169). Jails, what we call prison today, were first modern structure ever built in Colonial America (ibid: 1169) and early eighteenth century marked modern foundation of prisons. Contemporary institutions came into existence in nineteenth century. They first originated in United States of America (Goff, 2004: 278).

Prisons hold convicted offenders who have been sanctioned to be there by the judges. In Canada, there are two levels of prisons – Federal Level and Provincial/Territorial Level. People serving two years or less go to provincial or territorial prisons whereas inmates serving more then two years go to federal prisons (Griffiths, 2007: 294-297). Correctional System in various countries operates in same manner but the incarceration rate between all countries is very dissimilar. According to Statistics Canada (Internet), about 158,000 people were serving some sort of sentence in 2008 in Canada compared to other countries which is comparatively low. Canada holds 116 per 100,000 populations compared 702 of United States of America (Griffiths, 2007: 289). Compared to size of country and rate of incarceration, why is the prison population going up despite the best effort made to rehabilitate offenders? Does prison work? Is correctional system effective?

Prisons have gone fundamental changes since they first came into existence. Punishment has become very essential for law that’s broken. People are always given some sort of punishment if they break any law. There have been lots of issues with prison recently. Criminologists, Sociologists and various scholars have debated both on success and failures of prison. Lots of scholars argue that prisons doesn’t rehabilitate offenders, it rather makes them bad. Other scholars argue that prisons are really effective and they are an essential component of criminal justice system along with society and helps in improving all those who have committed crimes. This paper is going to discuss which opinion is more valid and true.

Canadian Correctional System

Canada’s prison system first originated in early 1800s. Kingston Penitentiary was first prison ever to open in Canada. Canada’s prison has vastly grown since then. Today Canada has about 215 facilities all over Canada ranging from federal prisons to provincial/territorial prison (Goff, 2004: 259). Correctional System plays a significant role in keeping the community safe. There are three general models laid out the foundations of Canadian Correctional System: The Custodial Model, The Rehabilitation Model, and The Reintegration/Risk Reduction Model (ibid: 265-266). All the models emphasize on prisoner’s incarceration for purpose of deterrence, ideal treatment of all offenders and reintegration into the society. According to Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics Profile Series, there are few very common and general themes among the population in custody. Most of the prisoners are either black or aboriginal and are substance addict. Most of them are men and many of them suffer some sort of psychological disablement (Griffiths, 2007: 292-293). People who have committed property offences, addicted to drug/alcohol, failed to pay a fine go to provincial/territorial prison whereas people convicted of serious offences such as murder go to federal prisons. There are various security levels of prison in Canada including maximum security, medium security and minimum security (Goff, 2004: 267). Factors such as severeness of offence, level of danger to society, prior criminal record, substance abuse, and psychological impairdness determines level of security and type of prison an offender is going to (Mathews, 2003). Regardless of best efforts made by Correctional institutions to reform the prisoners, there has been constant debate both in favour and effectiveness of prison. Next part of this paper will discuss arguments and counter-arguments regarding success of prisons.

Prison Does Work

Based on research done by many authors, scholars, criminologists, sociologists, various survey agencies, some evidence has been presented on success of prisons. They argue that prisons are effective. According to Goodman (2006), who was former diocesan director of education as well as former chair of Independent Monitoring Board, prisons are effective and help prisoners changing from criminals to law-abiding citizens. Public can play a big role in make their life better. Prisons offer very special courses such as anger management courses to rehabilitate them. Intensive courses are also offered to help prisoners overcoming their drug problems. According to the Economic Theory of Crime, developed by Becker, offenders are different and each of them offends due to different reasons. Theory has been tested in various countries and has indeed provided positive results. Punishment does exercise substantial influence on conduct. (Saunders et al, 2002-03: 4). Prison well wishers also argue that the courses that are being provided to the inmates have changed their thinking from criminal side to a law-abiding citizen. These courses include educational and treatment programs, adult basic education, skills development program which helps in shaping their behaviour. Rehabilitation programs have been really effective as they focus on targeting specific problem areas. Rehabilitation programs include pro-criminal attitudes, problem solving deficit, creating educational and employment opportunities (Ore et al, 2003: 62).

Prisons are effective as they rehabilitate prisoners along with deterrence. Also it has been suggested that police arrest rather than reported crime to police should be used in minimizing bias in comparative studies across countries regarding success of prisons (ibid: 62). In addition, what varies from country to country is which crimes are considered for incarceration. Saunders and Billante further defended this point by arguing that prisons deterrence effect does reduce crime. Co-relation between crimes rates and incarceration doesn’t prelude success of prisons (Saunders et al, 2002-03: 8).

For example, in Canada, criminal law is same throughout the country but dispensed differently on provincial levels. Charles Murray mentioned in his work that prisons do work and are effective. He used USA as an example and described how high incarceration rates in USA led to low crimes between 1980’s and 1990’s (ibid: 5). He further added that even if crime is low, incarceration must be kept high and prison can definitely put halt on crime, that’s the main reason why crime rates in United Kingdom were up the roof. Dulilio further expanded Murray’s point by saying that prison is an answer to question of how to deter crime (ibid: 5). Crimes in Australia and New Zealand have escalated because of an ease on imprisonment.

The New Generation correctional facilities have been praiseworthy. They have dramatically reduced the escapes and violent acts in prison. The direct supervision model has also been considered really valuable. There are six different objectives attached to it along with seven behavioural dimensions that supervise the inmates in pods (Goff, 2004: 268-269). Other custody options or alternatives to imprisonment have had mixed reviews. No accurate numbers have been released whether they have been considered to be far more successful than incarceration, especially treatment approaches and community-based programs (Griffiths, 2007: 278-279). Restorative justices have high review rates. According to Goff (2004: 345), “Restorative Justice refers to activities within the criminal justice system that are directed at repairing the injury to the victim and the community”. It’s one of the central features in Canadian criminal justice (Griffiths, 2007: 272).

Believers of our system hold the fact that sanction must be proportionate to the crime. It’s different from Utilitarian Goals and Retributive Goals (ibid: 237). Offender must realize what he/she has done and how he/she has disturbed society as whole and should apologize to the victim for his/her actions. One of the main goals of this type of sanction is to avoid the offender from going thorough the criminal justice process and then be sent to prison. Circumstances, intentions and motives of offender are always taken into consideration. This type is totally based on restitution. According to Zehr (1990) this process rebuilds relationships and restores peace.

Prisons Don’t Work

Counter-argument for potency of prisons is failure of prisons, that is, prisons don’t work. Criminologists have argued that a prison doesn’t alter criminal behaviour and there’s a very high likelihood that inmates will re-offend once they finish their term and leave prison. People have encountered brutality and unfairness in prisons. According to Frank, Beirie and Mackenzie (2010: 93) prisons don’t alter criminal behaviour, but they rather often promote criminality. They are generally delegitimizing. Prisons are considered schools of crime. Emotions play crucial role in phase of incarceration. Some researchers have indicated that criminals don’t cope well in prisons whereas critics have argued prisons do cope criminals (Frank et al, 2010: 93). According to research conducted by Hurd (2005: 26-27), prisons don’t work at all. Increase in imprisonment doesn’t reduce crime. He used England and Wales as an example. Number of prisoners increased from 44,000 to 60,000 from 1986 to 1997, but no reduction in crime was recorded. Offenders were being numbered up into jails but crime was still going up. Other scholars have argued the same thing. Sinead Hanks have argued the same point. The author used England and Wales as an example. In February 2008, there were about 82,000 people in prison, highest ever in the country. But crimes were still up as more than half of offenders were reoffending within two years after being released from prison (Hurd, 2005: 26-27). Many prisoners have indicated that they have learned more on how to commit crimes during their imprisonment. Hanks (2008: 95-96) argued that prison has been considered as dumping ground, that is, people who have mental health issues, drug addiction problems, are homeless and illiterate are offenders. The author also argued that since imprisonment rates have gone up, overcrowding is a big concern in prisons. This problem further leads to problem of less rehabilitation and higher reconviction rates. The cycle perpetuates itself. It was also discussed that it’s really expensive to keep the offenders in prison and more than half of the offenders are back within two years or so, thus putting extra burden on the budget (Hanks, 2008: 95-96). Penal Policy is an important weapon in fighting crime. Article written by Mathews (2003), former inmate, suggests that maximum security prison doesn’t rehabilitate prisoners, it rather makes them worse. He further added that inmates spend twenty hours a day in their cell in total isolation and it’s hard for them to function properly in society after spending that amount of time in total isolation, without any human contact. Most prisoners have developed some sort of psychological illness and those who had it before, their situation is even worse. Prisoners are abused most of the time. Criminologists argue that this type of incarceration is inflicting punishment rather then rehabilitating those individuals. Individuals also face administrative separatism (Mathews, 2003: 41). This article has received a lot of attention from various scholars, researchers, criminologists, sociologists and more research is being done on maximum security aspect of prison. Some of them even say it that it’s totally inhumane and degrading. Roger Matthews, Professor at London South Bank University, mentioned that looking at recidivism figures, it certainly looks like that prison isn’t totally effective. Instead of rehabilitating prisoners, it adds up to government’s budget (Matthews, 2005). People learn more about crime in prisons. Studies have revealed that prison time can help offenders in enhancing their criminal skills, described as prisonization effect (Tremblay, 2009).

Other research studies have revealed that incarceration is not meeting up the expectations. According Griffiths (2007: 279-280), incarceration is not an effectual restraint but being caught and punished is a deterrent. It has also been argued that people who have spent more time in prison feel more comfortable in prison rather then being out in community. Longer prisons are totally ineffective because sometimes low- risk offenders are exposed to high-risk offenders, and likelihood of learning other ways to commit crimes is very high. Further studies have revealed that even most offenders prefer probation over incarceration. Studies further revealed that prisons don’t always carry out through its provisions and some of them have even failed to meet their performance targets (The Economist, 2003).

There are bunch of other challenges faced by prisons. Prison Violence is still prevalent. It can be between inmates or between inmates and staff members (Goff, 2004: 275). No body knows what happens inside the walls but official data disclosed that prison violence has gone up since 1989-90. Prison suicide is another challenge faced by correction facilities. No particular details are available why prisoners commit suicide but it has been said that mostly white males commit suicide in prison (ibid: 275-276). Rising cost of prisons is viewed as another trend in institutional corrections (Griffiths, 2007: 323). As per the statistics, in 2003-04, average cost of inmate housing was approximately $ 87,000 in federal prisons, and approximately $ 51,000 for provincial/territorial prisons. This further raises question on effectiveness and rehabilitation of prisoners (ibid: 324). Overcrowding is another issue and has been considered as a leading cause of violence. In federal prisons, about 25 percent of inmates share their room with another inmate (ibid: 324). Over-representation of black and aboriginal people has definitely raised concerns. It has been said that criminal justice system is biased against them and systematic discrimination against aboriginals prevails (ibid: 292-293).


Effectiveness of prisons is a hot debate topic but it’s not easy to say whether prisons are effective or not. Studies have definitely revealed that high incarceration have lead to low crimes in countries like Australia, England, New Zealand and United states but at the same time critics have argued that high incarceration rate have inflicted upon high crime rates in England and United States. It has also been argued that abuse of power by prison staff is degrading and inhumane and makes them even less collectible, that is, they don’t use their authority legitimately but at the same point it has been argued that their legitimate authority have promoted people to follow the rules and be of good behavior. Media has also affected our thinking as prisons are predominantly represented as bad places. Charter of Rights and Freedoms provides limited rights to prisoners but their rights are being violated (Goff, 2004: 276-277). Overcrowding of prisons and high costs have forced government to implement reforms. Provincial/territorial governments have debated earlier about privatization of prisons as private companies can provide better and cost effective service. This can definitely take off some burden from the budget but at the same time private companies try to maximize their profits by using less staff and paying them low wages (Klassen, 2009). Restorative justice has proven to be successful in recidivism and restitution (Klassen, 2009). Restorative system saves an offender from further damage and helps him/her in reintegration into society. Incarceration rate and its success is a topic that will never have a proper ending. Every time arguments have been presented regarding success of prison, they have been criticized using counter-arguments and more evidence is presented focusing on failure of correctional systems. Appropriate reforms should be implemented to make prisons more effective. Social programs should be provided, both inside and outside of prison, to strengthen public safety. Penal Crisis and Justice System reforms should be addressed and modified as per the needs. There’s no need of new prisons, or to rise up incarceration rates. Democratic values of any given country are reflected through prisons and therefore, prisons continue to be an integral part of our justice system and society. Careful analysis needs to be done to evaluate the effectiveness of prisons as presentation of incorrect information can be misleading to the society and public.


1. Christianson, Scott. (2002). Prisons: History. Encyclopedia Of Crime And Justice, Vol.3 (2), pp. 1168-1175. Retrived from Gale Cengage Learning; New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2002

2. Franke, Derrick, Bierie, David, & Mackenzie, Doris Layton. (2010). Legitimacy in corrections. Criminology and Public Policy, Vol. 9(1), pp. 89-117.

3. Griffiths, Curt T. (2007). Canadian Criminal Justice – A Primer, Third Edition. Toronto, Ontario: Nelson Education Ltd. pp. 3; 64; 235-331

4. Goff, Colin. (2004). Criminal Justice In Canada, Third edition. Scarborough, Ontario: Thomson Nelson Canada Limited. pp. 259-279; 345.

5. Goodman, Canon Derek. (2006). “With help from outside, prison does work.” Europe Intelligence Wire. Retrived from Gale Cengage Learning.

6. Hanks, Sinead. (2008). Does Prison work? International Review of Law Computers and Technology, Vol. 22(1-2), pp. 95-99.

7. Hurd, Douglas. (2005, May 14). Does Prison really work? The Spectator, pp. 26-27. http://www.spectator.co.uk/search/search.thtml?search=does%20prison%20really%20work&s=1&a=&t=&y=2005

8. Klassen, Jeff. (2009). Prison reform: an overview. Canadian Points of View
9. Mathews, Bernie. (2003). How Maximum Security Jails Make The Baddest Of Men Even Worse. Crime And Punishment: Essential Primary Resources. pp.37-42. Retrived from Gale Cengage Learning

10. Matthews, Roger (2005). “Does prison work? Sociology Review Vol.14 (3). Retrived from Gale Cengage Learning http://find.galegroup.com.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/gtx/infomark.do?&contentSet=IAC-Documents&type=retrieve&tabID=T002&prodId=ITOF&docId=A128973374&source=gale&srcprod=ITOF&userGroupName=utoronto_main&version=1.0

11. Ore, Timothy, & Birgden, Astrid. (2003). Debate: Does prison work. Policy, Vol.19 (2), pp. 62-64.

12. “Prisongate; Prisons (2003, October 11).” The Economist. Economist Newspaper Limited
Retrived from Gale Cengage Group

13. Saunders, Peter, & Billante, Nicole. (2002-03). Does Prison work. Policy, Vol.18 (4), pp. 3-8

14. Statistics Canada. Adult correctional services, average counts of offenders in provincial, territorial and federal programs. (2009, December 21). Retrieved from http://www40.statcan.gc.ca/l01/cst01/legal31a-eng.htm

15. Tremblay, Solange. (2009). Counterpoint: prison reform laws do not reduce crime. Canadian Points of View: Prison Reform, pp. 3.

16. Zehr, Howard. (1990). Changing Lenses: A New Focus for Criminal Justice. Scottsdale, Pennsylvania. Herald Press

Cite This Work

To export a reference to this article please select a referencing stye below:

Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.

Related Services

View all

Related Content

Jurisdictions / Tags

Content relating to: "International Law"

International law, also known as public international law and the law of nations, is the set of rules, norms, and standards generally accepted in relations between nations. International law is studied as a distinctive part of the general structure of international relations.

Related Articles

DMCA / Removal Request

If you are the original writer of this essay and no longer wish to have your work published on LawTeacher.net then please: