What part does a prison play in the punishment of offenders? Consider the notion of proportionality in creating a "just punishment" in terms of both time in prison and living conditions in prison.

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Imprisonment, especially of violent offenders, is more than simply the punishment of those offenders. It is also a means of protecting society from repeat offenses by those same individuals. Clearly, however, not all individuals sentenced to prison are violent or even necessarily guilty of transgressions against the greater good. In...

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Imprisonment, especially of violent offenders, is more than simply the punishment of those offenders. It is also a means of protecting society from repeat offenses by those same individuals. Clearly, however, not all individuals sentenced to prison are violent or even necessarily guilty of transgressions against the greater good. In these cases, and they number in the thousands, prison is a punishment—and too often a counterproductive punishment at that. Prison is a deterrent to some, but the number of inmates incarcerated in the United States—estimated at over two million—strongly suggests that the value of deterrence is seriously ineffective. The subject, however, is punishment, not deterrence, and it is here where we must confront the baser instincts of humanity. Prisons, especially maximum and medium security prisons, are violent, frightening places where brutality and primitiveness are the rule rather than the exception. The rules that are supposed to govern society outside of prison walls—those that seek to protect the weak against the strong—are nonexistent inside prisons.

Prison is an appropriate form of punishment for many offenders, especially the violent criminals mentioned above. As a form of punishment for nonviolent offenders, however, it is often inappropriate. Many inmates, like those convicted for minor drug offenses or those convicted for white-collar crimes, are essentially subjected to cruel and unusual punishment, which is a violation of the Constitution of the United States. For the violent and for some nonviolent offenders, prison is an appropriate form of punishment, but recidivism rates suggest that the punishment does not help prevent future offenses by paroled prisoners and by those who successfully complete their sentences.

With respect to proportionality, the nature of life in most prisons leads one to conclude that the task of determining an appropriate sentence is inordinately difficult. Murderers are relatively easy. Life sentences (and, for those who support capital punishment, execution) imposed on those convicted of taking another life are usually appropriate. The further one goes down the list of heinous crimes, however, the more difficult the decision on the most appropriate sentence. Again, an argument can be made that the multitudes imprisoned for "victimless" crimes, such as drug abuse, are the victims of an absence of proportionality.

Prisons play a large role in the punishment of offenders. Most prisons, however, are so dysfunctional that the merits of sentencing many offenders to terms in prison is dubious at best and harmful at worst.

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