The Unintended Consequences of Prison
The Unintended Consequences of Prison
In an ideal world, where all institutions worked properly and nothing went awry, penitentiaries would serve as a deterrent to crime, incapacitate delinquents by removing them from society, protect the public, and ultimately rehabilitate criminal elements. Lest criticism should appear too harsh to the system of criminal justice, it should be said that penitentiaries often succeed in achieving some of these objectives, even though the world is far from being ideal. Even if correctional facilities fail to correct certain criminals, they at least isolate these criminals from society, make them pay a debt to society for their offenses, and temporarily cushion society against further dangers emanating from these criminals. Even so, however, it is true that prisons can contribute to recidivism instead of breaking the recidivist cycle. The idea that prisons produce repeat offenders or at least aggravate the risks of recidivism has been cited and repeated so often that it has assumed the aura of conventional wisdom already. Empirical studies show that reoffending rates vary between 33% and 55% of the released convicts within five years of their release (Durose, Cooper ; Snyder, 2014; Rhodes, Gaes ; Luallen, 2016). Importantly, however, recidivism is only one potential deleterious consequence of incarceration. Indeed, in addition to its impact on the criminal behaviors of ex-offenders, detention often entails collateral consequences on prisoners’ health, employment, social relationships and well-being of their families.
Given the problem as it is described above, this essay seeks to explore the more specific correlations between imprisonment and recidivism as its most negative unanticipated consequence – the consequence that vitiates the very essence of the system of correctional justice. In the same vein, the essay explores correlations between imprisonment and its other unintended consequences. By extension, focusing on the arguments of both sides, the essay seeks to understand if the unintended consequences of imprisonment outweigh its intended consequences. With the caveat that reintegration of released convicts into society depends on their individual genetic predispositions and the individual circumstances of their lives as much as it depends on such experiences during incarceration as prison climate witnessed and intervention programs completed, this essay argues ultimately that penitentiaries are more penal than correctional in their nature. Indeed, because prions often have hardening and baneful rather than mellowing and salubrious impact on inmates, the unintended consequences of detention manifest themselves frequently and in various aspects of ex-prisoners’ life. Even so, as negative as the unintended consequences of detention are for prisoners, they do not outweigh its positive effects for society, as prisons nonetheless serve to protect the general public.
Results and Analysis
Counterarguments Negating the Unintended Consequences of Prison
There is little gainsaying in academic quarters that prison sentences always succeed in achieving some of their basic objectives, including retribution and deterrence. Indeed, as long as convicts serve legally defined prison sentences for the crimes they committed, they can be duly considered to have received condign punishment and paid their debt to society for these crimes. Regardless of whether individual commentators agree or disagree concerning the severity of the punishment meted out on convicts and the harshness level of the detention, penitentiaries serve their function of incapacitating convicts by isolating them from the general public for a legally defined period of time. By the same token, penitentiaries seem to fare well in terms of deterring crime, as confined convicts are no longer able to commit crimes against the general public. Yet, it is at this point that opinions about the consequences of imprisonment begin to diverge. Indeed, whereas some commentators believe that imprisonment is an effective way to deter a deviant behavior for at least the period of detention, others retort that it aggravates the risks of recidivism and, therefore, leads to more crime in the long term. The capacity of imprisonment to correct deviant behaviors and mold criminals into law-abiding citizens causes even more bickering. The failure of penitentiaries to correct deviant behaviors and minimize the risks of recidivism is, in its turn, detrimental to the safety of the general public, as unreformed repeat offenders can step on the path of crime again.
Counterarguments to the idea that imprisonment has unintended consequences mainly come from the individuals who defend the current state of affairs regarding the enterprise of criminal punishment and the system of criminal justice in general. These commentators are adamant in their belief that the current system of criminal sanctioning performs rather well across all or most domains of imprisonment (Rhodes, Gaes ; Luallen, 2016; Pollock, 2017; Nieuwbeerta ; Ramakers, 2018). Of course, few commentators assert that imprisonment has no unintended consequences at all. Instead, they tend to either belittle the magnitude of the problem or focus on the positive effects on imprisonment for both convicts themselves and society at large. Overall, these commentators build their defense of the enterprise of criminal punishment on the ideas that penitentiaries reduce recidivism and do not affect convicts’ health and career prospects (Nieuwbeerta & Ramakers, 2018). Some go as far as to surmise that imprisonment, in fact, can improve health, social relations and career prospects of convicts (Wilper et al., 2009). Each of these points merits separate attention to get a full understanding of the counterarguments.
Thus, those who believe in the effectiveness of prisons often argue that imprisonment minimizes recidivism by correcting and reforming offenders. But even the very fact that prisons exist serves to discourage criminal behaviors. The possibility of losing freedom is daunting for the majority of individuals. In essence, the enterprise of criminal punishment is based on the premise that people will abstain from crime to avoid detention. Those who have already served a longer sentence possess first-hand knowledge of how dispiriting incarceration can be. Hence, it is only logical to expect that they will not recidivate. Nieuwbeerta and Ramakers (2018) of the University of Leiden concur with this judgment, further elucidating:
A proven intended consequence of a longer prison sentence is that deters those offenders who made the rational decision to commit a crime from committing such a crime again. In addition, a longer prison sentence also proves to have a positive effect on the unintended consequences… increasing their prisoners’ chances of better social conditions after detention (p. 1).
While Nieuwbeerta and Ramakers (2018) and other like-minded analysts acknowledge that recidivism risks are particularly acute for those serving short terms, their bottom line is nonetheless straightforward: Imprisonment reduces recidivism. A recent study by Rhodes, Gaes and Luallen (2016) offers similar conclusions, assessing that “two of every three offenders who enter and exit prison will never return to prison” (p. 450).
Yet, as mentioned at the outset of the previous paragraph, imprisonment can reduce recidivism not only through its intrinsic capacity to discourage crime but also by correcting and reforming offenders. More specifically, the proponents of this idea explain, most penitentiaries are equipped not only with prison cells but also with some rudimentary chapels, gyms, infirmaries, libraries, classrooms and other facilities where inmates can receive medical aid, psychological treatment, knowledge, vocational skills and some other basic services (Pollock, 2017). In this sense, penitentiaries work to correct deviant behaviors in inmates.
By extension, penitentiaries can use intervention programs outlined above to prepare inmates for their seamless or least problematic reintegration into their communities upon release. As far as social relationships are concerned, for example, the counterargument to the idea that imprisonment has unintended consequences suggests that communication with other inmates and psychological counseling available to inmates can preclude the possibility that inmates will struggle to establish and/or reestablish rapport with other individuals beyond prison. As far as economic opportunities are concerned, the supporters of the system of criminal justice in its present form insist that imprisonment does not necessarily diminish ex-convicts’ career prospects. Nieuwbeerta and Ramakers (2018), for example, recapitulate the prospects of inmates before and after their detention:
A substantial number of prisoners proved to have no work experience before their sentence. Those with work experience generally had an instable job history with various short-term jobs, dismissal and cash-in-hand jobs… After their release people do not fare significantly worse on the job market than they did before (p. 1).
Yet other researchers suggest that vocational skills conveyed to inmates during their detention can, in fact, facilitate their employment opportunities after release from prison (Sifakis, 2014). The chief precept underlying this reasoning is that inmates receive some education and practical skills in prison.
With the same vigor, the supporters of the system of criminal justice in its present form aver that imprisonment is not inimical to the health – and, in some cases, dignity – of inmates. On the contrary, they argue that healthcare services offered in penitentiaries are adequate to keep inmates healthy. Wilper et al. (2009), for their part, note that penitentiaries have an interest in minimizing physical and mental disabilities in inmates to prepare them for successful reintegration into family and the job market. Furthermore, in stark contrast to free individuals, prisoners do not have to pay for their healthcare. In addition, most prisons in the US have banned both cigarettes and alcoholic beverages (Sifakis, 2014). Hence, because the majority of inmates smoked and/or abused alcohol before arrest (Sifakis, 2014), the environment of abstinence from toxic substances appears to be salubrious to prisoners. That is how the situation looks like on the face of things, at least.
An alternative way preferred by the staunch advocates of the current system of criminal justice to invalidate the arguments that prisons produce unintended consequences is to say that not all inmates can be reformed. To this end, they usually invoke genetics, suggesting that some individuals are more genetically predisposed to commit crime than others (Wilson, 2011). In fact, a quick scan of the Internet shows that there is an entire tribe of researchers exploring how genes heighten the risks of perpetrating a crime (Lowenstein, 2008; Wilson, 2011). Overall, the commentators referring to genetics use this line of argument to say that prisons should not always be blamed for the failure of some inmates to reintegrate into society and for their relapse into crime.
Evidence Attesting to the Unintended Consequences of Prison
Despite the modest and impressive successes of penal facilities outlined above, a growing body of evidence suggests that penitentiaries nonetheless produce unintended consequences that offset many of their correctional benefits. Because smaller unintended consequences of detention can – either collectively or in isolation – contribute to recidivism, which is the most negative unintended consequence of imprisonment, they need to be considered in the first turn.
Beginning with health aspects, imprisonment is duly associated with a whole spectrum of debilitating health conditions. Thus, because prison population is high in the US, inmates often encounter such problems as overcrowding, stress and poor ventilation (Smith, 2013). All these conditions have the potential to cause and/or exacerbate chronic health conditions in inmates. Suffering from poor ventilation, overcrowding, inadequate sanitary conditions, exposure to blood and other bodily fluids, and other concomitant problems, prison facilities are commonly rife with disease, especially viral infections (Wilper et al., 2009). Indeed, because of the congregate living conditions, inmates have an increased prevalence of hepatitis, influenza, HIV/AIDS, gonorrhea, syphilis, chlamydia, tuberculosis and other sexually transmitted, blood-borne and air-borne disease (Bick, 2007). The quality of food served in prisons is also questionable in many cases. Smith (2013) argues that inmates commonly receive high-fat foods with insufficient nutritional value. Worse still, misbehaving prisoners are often fed on the so-called nutraloaf – that is, a bland block of mashed-up food.
Furthermore, despite the tendency towards smoke-free penitentiaries, smoking still persists in prisons. Again, because of the congregate living conditions, the effects of second-hand smoking are most pronounced in prisons. In the same vein, the ban on alcohol does not necessarily mean that prisoners have no access to it. While some correctional facilities are vehement in their enforcement of such bans, others have more permissive environments. Due to this laxity, inmates either procure contraband alcohol or produce their own adulterated moonshine. Known as pruno in prison parlance, this beverage not only induces violence but has also caused outbreaks of botulism in several American prisons (Hensley, 2012). Far from dissuading inmates from smoking and drinking, prison environment often introduces them to drugs. Indeed, self-reports by prisoners and ex-prisoners reveal that about 20% of drug users tried heroin for the first time while in custody (Bean, 2014). Prisons normally introduce intervention programs to address drug addiction, but such programs fail to yield any tangible results in most cases (Bean, 2014). In fact, there is consensus among the consulted authors that the overall quality of healthcare provided in penitentiaries is often deficient (Bick, 2007; Wilper et al., 2009; Smith, 2013). Mentally ill inmates often receive less medical attention than others, which is problematic. Indeed, while poor health is correlated with recidivism, Ermolaeva and Ross (2012) explain, recidivism is “more prevalent in mentally ill offenders” (p. 39). But even younger inmates suffering from drug addiction acquired in prison are likely to relapse.
Imprisonment aggravates the risks of recidivism in other ways. Thus, it often so happens that released prisoners cannot realize themselves in life. While convicts serve prison terms, they lose homes, families, social connections and other prerequisites of normal life. Part of the problem is associated with stigmatization of prisoners by the general public (Shelden, Brown, Miller & Fritzler, 2015). Yet, the roots of the problem are deeper. For example, as far as families are concerned, inmates often lack even basic means of communication with their relatives, despite the prevalence of illegal phones in prisons. Because new penitentiaries are now customarily built in remote rural areas (Shelden et al., 2015), inmates enjoy fewer contacts with their family members. It should be noted, in an important aside, that the absence of a parent due to imprisonment can also have deleterious effects on the economic well-being and emotional development of children. According to some rough estimates, the income of families with an incarcerated member falls by an average of 22% annually (Haskins, 2014). Returning to former prisoners, they often find themselves unable to establish or reestablish meaningful social contacts once at large. The reasons for this could be attributed to the abuse, torment and violence that inmates experience at the hands of prison staff and other prisoners – the violence that frequently leaves an indelible mark on their psyche (Ermolaeva & Ross, 2012).
Regardless of what underlies the increased ostracism experienced by ex-prisoners at large, these ex-prisoners often become uncompetitive in various spheres of life compared to regular citizens without criminal record. An invidious comparison this is not. Indeed, unlike regular citizens, former felons have poorer chances of finding a legitimate job. Kling (2006), for example, has dissected the earning of Florida prisoners after their release to conclude that only 30% of his sample had any legitimate income within seven years after release. Of course, as mentioned earlier, part of the problem can be attributed to the fact that prisoners usually have little work experience even before they are arrested (Nieuwbeerta and Ramakers, 2018). Despite any reformatory efforts in penitentiaries, inmates’ short dalliance with vocational education is insufficient to prepare them for the highly competitive job market. In fact, however, many inmates refuse to receive any vocational skills or any education at all in prisons. But even those prisoners who have mastered a set of vocational skills in prison or had had excellent education before incarceration struggle to find legitimate employment and are relegated to perfunctory – nay, precarious – employment. Their hopes of finding a legitimate job are dashed against the wall of public suspicion and misunderstanding. A 2006 survey of over 3,000 employers in the US, for example, indicates that over 60% of employers have visceral or at least moderate aversion to hiring ex-offenders (Holzer, Raphael ; Stoll, 2006). Multiple other surveys and studies corroborate the idea that criminal record is damaging to employment prospects. In these circumstances, ex-offenders commonly relapse into crime. Some even reminisce about their prison milieu as the only acceptable milieu and commit crime on purpose to return to prison.
In juxtaposition to the counterargument saying that criminals can have an incorrigible genetic proclivity for crime, sufficient academic evidence exists to show that penitentiaries often have a deeply entrenched and all-pervading atmosphere of violence involving both prisoners and staff (Sabo, Kupers ; London, 2001; Homel ; Thompson, 2005; Specter, 2006). Homel and Thompson (2005), for example, refer to the deprivation theory to observe that the “prison environment and loss of freedom cause deep psychological trauma so that for reasons of psychological self-preservation prisoners create a deviant prison subculture that promotes violence” (p. 1). Although lethal violence in penitentiaries had declined from 60 homicides per 100,000 inmates in 1973 to 7 homicides per 100,000 inmates in 2012, Shelden and his colleagues (2015) assert, lethal violence accounts for only a small percentage of overall violence in penitentiaries. Sabo, Kupers and London (2001) and Specter (2006), for their part, agree that prisons not only fail to reduce violence but also contribute to its spread behind prison walls. After all, as Durose, Cooper and Snyder (2014) assess, 76.6% of over 404,000 state prisoners released in 2005 were arrested within the next five years and 55.1% ended up behind bars. All this evidence does not necessarily challenge the idea that genetics can contribute to violent and criminal behaviors by certain groups of individuals. Nor does it suggest that all individuals are amenable to correction. At the same time, however, this evidence does confirm the hypothesis that prisons aggravate the risks of recidivism, as they breed violence.
One important conclusion to be drawn from the analysis of the counterarguments adduced is that many individuals often enter penal facilities with little employment experience, poor lifestyle habits, undermined health and, perhaps, genetic predisposition for violence. In other words, prisons do not necessarily create these problems. At the same time, however, this essay has shown that prisons often exacerbate these unintended consequences of detention. Even when prisons do not compound these problems, they at least fail to address these problems, although not necessarily for lack of trying. While prisons indeed often have programs to rehabilitate criminals and prepare them for reintegration into society, these programs do not necessarily lead to expected outcomes. Overall, as individuals languish behind bars, they face increased risks of contracting infectious disease, acquiring drug addiction, experiencing violence at the hands of staff or fellow prisoners, losing contacts with family members – the risks that combine to hamper the reintegration of ex-offenders into their communities and heighten the risks of recidivism. Stigmatization is yet another negative unintended consequence of incarceration. Indeed, as society generally takes a jaundiced view of people with criminal record, ex-offenders find it difficult to establish meaningful relationships and find legitimate jobs.
Yet, simply because imprisonment has unintended consequences should not be interpreted as meaning that the enterprise of criminal punishment must be abandoned. After all, if criminals were not punished with prison terms, they would continue their troublemaking with impunity. The very possibility of serving a prison sentence discourages many from breaking law. Likewise, prisons serve other critical purposes, including retribution and deterrence. Hence, the positives outweigh the negatives.
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