Prison – Does it work? Can it work?


‘Lock them up and throw away the key!’ is something that is often heard.  But does locking someone up for committing a crime really work to punish an individual? What about having them come back into society a changed person, asks presenter and producer Lee Millam in this podcast.

Prisons, why do we send people there?  Does it work?  Should it work?  This was the subject of a recent lecture at Gresham College in the City of London.  It is one lecture from a series on Law and Lawyers at Gresham College, presented by Professor Sir Geoffrey Nice QC.  He explains why we lock up criminals…..

Geoffrey Nice:  …..for a range of reasons, many of them not fully articulated.  You could look back and say thata there are some coherent lines of justification – deterrence, retribution, rehabilitation (those are the standard ones).  But does it really explain our attitude towards imprisonment.  I rather doubt it.

Not only are people complex, but our reactions to people are complex too.  Take those who, on some objective calculation, would be less culpable but get more opprobrium and heavier sentences than those who are in one sense guiltier but get lesser sentences.  The most obvious examples are those who really cannot control themselves because of their upbringing – such as sex offenders who have themselves been formed by childhood, have been victims of sex offences and may become sex offenders themselves. They draw the maximum opprobrium from society, and not the understanding that they themselves are victims.

So we are complicated in the way we respond to crime. There is no great political dividend in rehabilitating people, at least there doesn’t seem to be in our country.

Interestingly there are changes around the world. Norway is rather leading the way.  Its prisons are so shockingly liberal that people from America and England can’t probably recognise them as prisons at all!  Their purpose is to enable people to rejoin society.  And these prisons have a recidivist rate of 20% whereas the US and England have recidivism rates of about 70%.  Why aren’t we spending more time looking at that/

Lee Millam: If other countries are more successful at rehabilitating prisoners, then there must be lessons to learn from other systems in other parts of the world.  But there are some crimes where prison is the only answer.

GN: There are some people who are so dangerous they do have to be restricted so that is one justifiable expense – though whether it has to be done in this way, given modern technology, is another issue.

I think it is really a desire to punish people that justifies what we do.  I may not be on that wing of public opinion, but what is clear is that you have to carry public opinion with youon an issue like this.  Change from where we are to something more humane, or rather more liberal (as it would now be described) is going to take some time.

It is also going to be more difficult to do that in a society where so many of the other structures, in their own way, almost require punishment and offenders.  The rich need the poor, the good need the bad, the apparently lawful need criminals.

You could argue, in a rather nasty way, we don’t actually want to live in a crime free society.  So if you’ve got an aggressively capitalist society with great divergence of wealth, it is probably inevitable that you are going to want to punish, or will punish, those who offend the implied values of such a society.  Maybe as long as you’ve got a society that , since the 1960s has believed in all aspects of sexual liberalism, it is in some curious and perverse way particularly hard on those who transgress what is left of the law on sexual control.  Mary Whitehouse may well be shown, in due course, to have been right.  More and more people may be thinking it wasn’t quite so good to create a sexually liberal society, one of the consequences of which is that people had to do more thing to temper it.

LM: Many voters want criminals punished for their crimes, but perhaps there are other wasy of asking those who have committed a crime to  pay back to society.

GN: Politicians only get elected if they promise more prison, and everyone starts ratcheting each other up.  That is why the US has such a huge prison population – larger than anyone else’s.

LM: Many would argue that sending someone to prison doesn’t always work.  If prison isn’t the answer, what is?]

GN: Prison isn’t the right way forward.  There has to be not only a recognition of the utilitarian advantages of a more liberal system as in Norway.  But there also has to be an acceptance (which will be much harder) that it isn’t always necessary to punish people, however bad are the things they have done.

Our system [here in the UK] is not that different from China, North America, Australia.  You have to achieve recognition that other systems work according to the parameters you set, which would be utilitarian as opposed to retributive parameters.  And then you have got to get people to be willing to do without that element of condign punishment that is perhaps part of our national psyche, and part of the psyche of lots of other countries.  So it is a big shift and it would be a daring politician who let it!


The full lecture and transcript of Geoffrey Nice’s lecture can be found here.


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