Penitence, Punishment, Prevention, and the Purpose of Prisons 2

Our prisons are failing in all three purposes.

In the first article in this series, we addressed a post from a reader who was horrified at the idea that prison might be unpleasant.

Are you proposing the horrific prisons in the US should do this. Are you not aware that guards in our prisons are forcing women to have sex with them in exchange for a bar of soap and a towel...

No, we do not think that prison should be quite that unpleasant.  Nobody thinks American prisons should resemble the Hanoi Hilton.  The trouble is that all too many of our modern prisons are closer to the Waldorf Hilton in London; they often cost more per bed-night.

In order to figure out what prisons ought to be, we need to first look at what they're for.  Traditionally, Americans have expected three things from the prisons they pay for: punishment, penitence, and prevention.

Too posh a prison?


Early America was a pretty religious place, and local government believed strongly that there was an inherent justice in punishing malefactors.  The mere fact of misery in prison to some extent balanced the misery inflicted by the criminal; the sight of prisoners straining under the lash made onlookers feel that theirs was a just and moral world.

This view of prison has gone seriously out of style.  However, there still remain logical reasons why you might want to intentionally make a prison wretched: make it bad enough, and any sane individual will do almost anything to avoid going back there.  Both "deterrence theory" and "exchange theory" suggest that rational individuals will want to minimize bad outcomes and seek to avoid jail.

The deterrent value of prison is one of the justifications "Sheriff Joe" Arpaio of Arizona cites for housing prisoners in tents way out in the desert.  He told his inmates, "It's 120 degrees in Iraq, and the soldiers are living in tents, and they didn't commit any crimes, so shut your mouths."  His tent jails save a lot of money which helps get him re-elected.

Although his drug avoidance program is a success - only about 10% of the 2,000 men and women who passed through it reoffend as opposed to the usual 60-70% - his other prisoners reoffend at pretty much the same rate as prisoners in more expensive jails.  Adherents of the punishment school of penology would argue that Sheriff Joe's tent cities simply aren't unpleasant enough, though it would be hard to beat them for cost-efficiency.

Other countries are less squeamish.  The Guardian described a Chinese inmate's experiences:

As well as backbreaking mining toil, he carved chopsticks and toothpicks out of planks of wood until his hands were raw and assembled car seat covers that the prison exported to South Korea and Japan. He was also made to memorise communist literature to pay off his debt to society. ...  [emphasis added]

"If I couldn't complete my work quota, they would punish me physically. They would make me stand with my hands raised in the air and after I returned to my dormitory they would beat me with plastic pipes."

The Russian Communists, like their Chinese descendants, always claimed that their "Re-Education Camps" were intended to persuade inmates to re-orient their thinking away from unacceptable capitalism towards doing right.  They recognize the painful fact that prisoners cost money instead of paying taxes; Russian Communists agree with Sheriff Joe in wanting convicts to change their thinking so they can be released to support themselves as rapidly as possible.

One suspects that the more entrepreneurial Chinese might have a bit less recidivism than we do.  They also have less reason to let inmates go because they work them hard enough making Christmas tree lights and seat covers that their jails show a profit overall.

The American Constitution bans "cruel and unusual punishment" so there's limited scope for making American prisons unpleasant enough that inmates really won't want to go back.  We lean towards the view that the Constitution bans "cruel and unusual" punishment, such that it's OK if a punishment is cruel so long as it's common enough as not to be unusual, but one supposes that few constitutional lawyers and judges would share this position.  On the other hand, Delaware didn't abolish public flogging until 1972.  The book In Defense of Flogging argues that ripping families apart for long periods of time is so damaging that flogging instead of jail would be societally beneficial in addition to being a lot cheaper.


If we can't punish prisoners severely enough to make them want to stop, all we can do is try to persuade them to repent.  Inmates can make a profit/loss calculation as well as anyone.  If the consequences of getting caught aren't so bad, the "loss" part of the equation may not be persuasive enough to affect behavior.

The goal of achieving penitence is widely recognized.  The very word "penitentiary" means a place where inmates are supposed to repent, to turn from their evil ways, to "go and sin no more."

Most prison systems fall under something called a "Department of Corrections" as if correcting behavior was the entire purpose of the prison-industrial complex.  On that basis it's failed utterly.  Estimates seem to center around claiming that 60-70% of all inmates who're released commit a similar crime within a year or two.

Given that they aren't allowed to punish prisoners sufficiently to be persuasive, jails try to teach courses in "life skills" to help prisoners cope.  There are classes in "anger management" for violent offenders, and classes which try to help sex offenders control their impulses.  None of these well-meaning efforts can be shown to do much good.

There is a further problem.  It turns out that many inmates weren't served particularly well by our horribly inefficient education system.  Even if inmates decide to turn over a new leaf while in jail, the argument goes, how are they going to avoid crime if they don't have skills to get a job?  That's why many prisons, including Sheriff Joe's, try to offer high-school equivalency classes.  The hope is that better-educated inmates will find jobs and not come back.

Some do.  Most don't.  Every prisoner who reforms is a victory, but the two-thirds which don't are a never-ending burden on society.  Is there any way to increase the rate of repentance and reform?

Actually, there is: religious conversion.  A good many scientific studies have found that religion-based programs can reduce recidivism by as much as 80%.  Often these are Christian programs, but not always: reportedly, the Nation of Islam's prison reform programs work just about as well.

Alas, the ACLU is burning the midnight oil ensuring that rapists and murders are protected from the deadly threat of faith and guilt; for political reasons, as a society we have mostly denied our prisoners access to the one path to penitence that actually works.


There is one remaining reason for prisons, and it's the most fundamental: prevention of further crimes.  It is simple logic that a thug behind bars is not out attacking citizens.

Voters get shirty when felons are let out only to offend again.  Massachusetts Governor and would-be President Michael Dukakis learned this the hard way, when convicted rapist Willie Horton was released under a "furloughing" policy only to rape and murder another innocent girl.  If he'd stayed behind bars where he belonged, there'd have been no more victims and Mr. Dukakis might have become President instead of Mr. Bush senior.

Various studies and statistics have proven what is intuitively obvious: a criminal behind bars can't commit any more crimes, at least not ones that affect civilians.  The ultimate example is the death penalty, which by removing a depraved barbarian from this earth permanently rescues the innocents he would otherwise have victimized, as well as potentially setting an example to other would-be murderers to think again.

First, each execution, on average, is associated with three fewer murders. The deterred murders included both crimes of passion and murders by intimates.

Second, executions deter the murder of whites and African-Americans. Each execution prevents the murder of one white person, 1.5 African-Americans, and 0.5 persons of other races.

Third, shorter waits on death row are associated with increased deterrence. For each additional 2.75-year reduction in the death row wait until execution, one murder is deterred.

Alas, once again, the ACLU is working overtime to deny society the ability to protect itself from monsters by sending them to meet their Maker.

The ability to prevent criminals from committing more crimes by locking them up, albeit at vast expense, is the only aspect of our penal system that actually works.  In recent years, we've seen huge increases in the number of people who're incarcerated for longer and longer periods of time; at the same time, crime rates have dropped.

Less crime is obviously beneficial, but prison costs huge amounts of money and wastes many lives.

We may be about to get an object lesson in this principle: the Supreme Court recently found prison overcrowding to be unconstitutional, and has commanded the released of tens of thousands of dangerous California felons.  The crime wave about to hit that state will be something to behold.

Simply sentencing the worst of the felons to death and actually executing them would have avoided this problem; but it's too late now.  California will have to wait until they commit more horrible crimes and work their way through the justice system all over again.

Not every felon is a murderer or rapist.  Our prisons are full of criminals that nobody wants to be around, but whose crimes are not wicked enough to justly deserve death.  Burglars, bank robbers, and drug dealers should be punished, but as a society we've decided that they haven't forfeited their lives.

So what can we do with them?  In the next article in this series, we'll talk about how to address the simple fact that most criminals in jail will, one day, be released back onto the streets.

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Law.
Reader Comments

"The trouble is that all too many of our modern prisons are closer to the Waldorf Hilton in London"~Offensicht

It is believing in mythical twaddle such as this that makes you champion Torquemada's such as Arpaio.

"Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities."~Voltaire


July 8, 2011 12:22 PM

I have asserted before that 'Crime' is used by the state as a 'strategy of tension' to keep the population in a state of perpetual imbalance. Many of the programs of the "Great Society" were in fact dialectically geared towards opposit goals to those stated. It is a matter of Design masquerading as Diagnosis.
The following is direct evidence of this assertion:

It is now a widely-reported fact that under the Obama administration, U.S. federal agents actively placed over 30,000 fully-functional weapons into the hands of Mexican drug gangs, then halted all surveillance and tracking activities of where those weapons were going.

This is not a conspiracy theory, nor a piece of fiction. It is now an openly-admitted fact that this was pulled off by the BATFE (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, more commonly called “ATF”) under orders from Washington. The program was called “Fast and Furious.”

Even Reuters is now covering the news and reporting how members of Congress are outraged to learn that this happened (…).

Details are also starting to leak about the cover-up inside ATF, which was led by the U.S. Attorney in Arizona, Dennis Burke, an Obama appointee
But what could be the reasons for Washington initiating such a program in the first place? Why would the Obama administration actively send 30,000 sniper rifles, assault weapons and firearms into Mexico even while claiming to follow an anti-gun stance back in the USA?

To answer that question, you need to understand P.R.S — Problem, Reaction, Solution. It is the “playbook” that governments use to get what they want, which usually involves: 1) Disarming their populations, 2) Taking away all their rights and freedoms, and then 3) Ruling over their people as tyrants with complete power.

July 8, 2011 1:36 PM

I like this series - it's an important topic to think about - but I'm having difficulty agreeing with your nomenclature.

Punishment isn't "society wanting to feel good that the person was hurt". That's called vengeance. Punishment is merely a penalty inflicted for offense or fault.

Punishment isn't one of the points of prison - it IS prison. For instance, one goes to prison as a form of punishment whereas someone else may be fined as a form of punishment.

Traditionally, there are only two purposes to punishment (whether that punishment is prison or otherwise) - retribution and deterrence. Retribution repays the victim for whatever was taken or harmed. Deterrence demonstrates to onlookers that they'll have to do the same if they don't behave.

Prison only meets deterrence. In the article, you call deterrence "prevention".

You say that the third purpose of prison (the punishment) is "penitence". That's an interesting idea, but I don't think I agree. Prison cannot bring about penitence, only the criminal can do that himself

Penitence is shame or sorrow for one's action. In fact, many criminals come out of prison much more angry and vicious than when they went in. It's certainly true that there are those that reform themselves (those that "come to Jesus") but that is usually the work of a Chaplin or prison worker or spiritual conviction itself. Prison itself had little to do with it other than trapping the person in one place long enough for them to hear the message.

Thanks for such an interesting series. I look forward to number 3.

July 8, 2011 2:11 PM

Well Ifon,

I agree with your proposition that prisons cannot bring about penitence.
However The Calvinist crusaders that began this system held that view, thus: Penitence as the root to, the Penitentiary System that is still a term in use.

What gives me a sense of wonder is that none here seem to grasp the Panopticon, as a form of prison it was an architectual design used for many modernised prisons at the beginning of the 20th century.

This idea of panopticism is now extant in the social engineering circles and is now being applied as a general operating template for the whole society.
In otherwords the Penitentiary has been expanded to include the entire population within a Panoptic Maximum Security State, under the state strategy of Full Spectrum Dominance.

For myself, this makes the subject matter of these articles quite quaint and backwards looking, rather than forward looking into what we all face in this Brave New Future, that we already inhabit.

July 8, 2011 6:59 PM

guards in our prisons are forcing women to have sex with them in exchange for a bar of soap and a towel...

"No, we do not think that prison should be quite that unpleasant."

What??? Are you a dentist Offensicht?

July 9, 2011 12:29 PM

The Times argues that Texas' experience proves that the prison model isn't always the best or most cost effective. It hires the most Democrat voters, though.

Texas's Progress on Juvenile Justice
The state has reformed its juvenile system in impressive ways, including moving away from the prison model.

July 10, 2011 2:50 PM
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