Should prisons focus on rehabilitation or punishment of convicts?In America, there have been two schools of thought regarding the purpose of imprisoning offenders. The first belief is that prisons...

Should prisons focus on rehabilitation or punishment of convicts?

In America, there have been two schools of thought regarding the purpose of imprisoning offenders. The first belief is that prisons are for punishment. The second belief is that prisons ought to not only punish but also reform so that the person who committed the crime has reason to pursue a different lifestyle. Despite the efforts at reform, however, recidivism rates remain high. In 2011, the Pew Research center found that “more than 40 percent of ex-cons commit crimes within three years of their release and wind up back behind bars, despite billions in taxpayer dollars spent on prison systems that are supposed to help rehabilitate them.” Given these statistics, should prisons continue to focus on rehabilitation?

Expert Answers
carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The purpose of the prison system should be two-fold.  First, the prisons should protect the public from those who are a danger to society.  Secondly, the prison system should provide rehabilitation opportunities to those non-harmful prisoners who want to become productive citizens.

To better understand the success of the current prison systems in the United States look at the statistics.  According to a Justice Department study, the United States has 25% of the prison population in the world.

On any one day, there are more than two million people behind prison walls. At some time, 95% of the two million will be released. Within three years of their release or discharge, 65% of offenders will be rearrested; and 52% will be returned to prison with new charges.

Recidivism costs the public money. Obviously, something is wrong.

One opinion given is the criminal must pay his debt to society.  If the criminal spends his time in a prison cell doing and learning nothing, is society best served?  No, the prisons must do a better job of assisting the criminal to cope more effectively in life outside. Rehabilitation is the key!

Some prison systems are creating such programs. For example, today, more education courses are offered: a prisoner can not only get his high school diploma, but a college degree.  Technical training is also available.  Furthermore, programs which incorporate the use of dogs or other animals have been successful in encouraging the inmate to be more compassionate, caring, and responsible.  More programs like these must be encouraged for the costly recidivism rate to be reduced.

(Prison Commission Report, Vera Institute of Justice)

booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I believe that some people can be rehabilitated. With certain crimes, I believe that individuals can successfully turn their lives around. In my opinion, this would need to be decided on a case-by-case basis. For instance, if a man is convicted of child abuse, pedophilia, or rape, I do not believe this man can be rehabilitated. Some things are hard-wired in the brain, even brought on by traumatic events—their own abuse at another's hands, especially when a child. The rate of repeat offenders does not provide encouragement in this area. 

For petty theft or possession of small amounts of drugs, as long as there is not an addiction involved, I believe that rehabilitation can provide real benefits. If someone is an addict, especially to hard drugs, and the crime is committed to "feed the habit," I believe rehab. won't work: the statistics of heroin users (for instance) successfully beating their addiction is very low.

However, the other reality is that rehabilitation costs money: and when our prisons are so crowded that "small time criminals" are released, it seems unlikely that rehabilitation inside a prison is going to be able to function as it should when money is so hard to come by in this economy. Having the offenders put to work to offset the cost of their incarceration is definitely necessary, and may offer an opportunity at unofficial rehabilitation if that person can be taught skills to carry out work while they are in prison that will serve them on the outside.

Rehabilitative programs struggled in the 1970s under criticism from both the liberals and conservatives, and as recently as the 1990s, rehabilitation as a viable correctional tool seems to have fallen by the wayside.

Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Two things that strike me are these. While it is tragically true that criminals are often the neglected and mistreated children or our communities, they do things as adults that they must be held accountable for (this cries out for rehabilitation of community child rearing practices). If anecdotal reports are to be believed (as I have no eyewitness experience as mizzwillie does), then the environment in prisons is so dangerous that a criminal mind-set is deepened and rehabilitation seems an impossible dream.

If the danger to prisoners is in fact what it seems to be, then a primary consideration is to make it a safe place: government has the responsibility to mete out justice and/or punishment, not an imprisoned subset of society. The ideas expressed above by lentzk, about gainful employment and work skills, and by carol-davis, about educational opportunities, might fully flourish in a safe environment. [I wonder if prisons in, for example, England and Canada have the danger factor seemingly present in American prisons?]

California prison work program

California prison factories $150 million

Kristen Lentz eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I have a somewhat cynical view of prisons.  I don't think they should focus on rehabilitation or punishment.  My belief is that prisons should exist to be self-sufficient.  A prison should be a place where criminals are removed from society due to their crimes, and the prison itself shouldn't cost society one cent. 

Prison leadership should ensure that economically profitable activities exist within the prison structure and provide safety to those inmates.  During the time of their incarceration they can have opportunities to rehabilitate or better themselves once their "debt to society" has been covered by their daily activity.  I don't think prisoners should be exploited to turn a profit, but I think that with planning and insight they can run a zero budget.  This "chain-gang" mentality was largely abandoned in the past, but I think it could serve a much more valuable purpose. 

The extra benefit is that those prisoners could learn real world skills that could help their rehabilitation and perhaps prevent their return to a life of crime once they leave prison.  If prisoners were allowed to work meaningful jobs (within reason) that gave them a marketable skill versus just being punished with manual labor I believe the success rate of prison rehabilitation would skyrocket.

mizzwillie eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Remember that prisons hold prisoners who eventually are released back into the society from which they came.  Since I have taught in a prison, currently volunteer in a jail, and have a brother who teaches in a federal prison, I maybe hold a very different view.  Prisoners are generally people who have been discarded or ignored from youth on, have heard every dismissing word anyone cares to call them, have had very little encouragement or education, and yet, putting them in a prison where every move and word is monitored isn't punishment enough. We want to punish them in every possible way and expect them to turn out differently when they are released.  How can they?  I have no illusions about the claimed innocence of most prisoners, nor do I believe that all of them can be rehabilitated.  I only know that if we do NOT try, I can guarantee that they will return to society worse than when they went in to prison.  For our OWN sake, we must try rehabilitation as prisoners will live among us again.

literaturenerd eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The prison system has created a very curious environment for many of their prisoners. Those facing life sentences know that they have nothing to lose. Their behavior (for the most part) is defined by their sentence. Others, serving shorter sentences, understand the importance of rehabilitation. It is only through this process that they will be able to make parole.

Unfortunately, some prisoners can fake rehabilitation. They know that by putting on a certain face they will be able to get out. Others take their rehabilitationvery seriously (they desire a second chance).

The prison system, like many other systems in the world, are a problem. No one can define a person's true intent in rehabilitation. I think that prisons should try to scrutinize inmates better in order to understand their true reasons for rehabilitation.

litteacher8 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Prisons should focus on rehabilitation.  The recidivism rates for prisons are ridiculous.  In other words, too many people who get out are sent back in.  If we educate them and train them in a trade, and give them opportunities on the outside, prison can be more than a criminal apprenticeship.

shake99 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Rehabilitaton is a very expensive process that very, very often fails. A high percentage of criminals are recidivists. It is an idea that sounds great but probably does not justify the expense. We can use the money for other things, like putting food in children's mouths.

angel-girl | Student

There should be a balance between both. 

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