Prison is defined (by Encarta World English Dictionary) as “a place where prisoners are confined.”
We speak generally of jail as detention for those waiting trial (not yet convicted and in some cases not even charged) or for those serving short terms. Penitentiaries are prisons for those who have committed serious crimes. The term prison can include both terms.
The Encyclopedia Britannica and other encyclopedias point out that prisons grew up in the 19th and 20th centuries as places of confinement, replacing previous practices of corporal punishment, execution and banishment.
Various reasons are offered for prisons. Goals or reasons for imprisonment include the following:
1. Vengeance, Retaliation or Retribution for the victim or victim’s family, and related to this, the idea of Repayment to society.
2. Deterrence or Removal from society to secure the threat of further harm or violence.
3. Reform and Rehabilitation bringing about modification of criminal behavior and establishing positive social values.
Tension and controversy exist between those who emphasize the need for Punishment /Deterrence (1&2) and those who stress the opportunity for Rehabilitation.
There would seem to be several difficulties with the American prison system.
1. The U.S. seems to have an inordinate number of prisoners. Its prison population topped 2 million in 2002 (Bureau of Justice Statistics) . Of the world’s estimated 9 million prisoners (World Prison Population List, Home Office, UK, 2003) that gives the U.S. the largest prison population of any country in the world in absolute terms. One in 142 US residents are now in prison-the report says. Private prisons have sprung up as profit-making businesses.
2. High rate of Recidivism. Of 272,111 persons released from prisons in 1994, an estimated 67.5% were rearrested with a felony or serious charge within three years. (Bureau Justice Statistics) The arrest charges in the recorded careers of these 272,111 released prisoners reached a total of 4, 877,000.
3. Black and Hispanic prisoners are a disproportionate representation of the total population. There are more Black men in prison than in colleges and universities. A PBS documentary, “The Lost Children of Rockdale Country” is not about the criminal justice system (but a sexual epidemic). A white youth, son of a policeman, plots to kill as many people as they can, and while drunk stabs another youth seriously and tries to kill him, before being pulled off. Yet no charge was made against him and he served no time. Meanwhile a black friend of his is filmed in jail, where he has served a series of sentences “for petty offenses.” No comment is made as to the double standard of justice in this documentary. Wynton Marsalis’ album title, “From the Plantation to the Penitentiary” evokes feelings from the channeling of young black males through the criminal justice system.
This site is just beginning to develop this topic. We hope to have voices from prison as well as from other perspectives.
Not enough study has been done regarding the affect of religious conversion upon recidivism. Malcolm X was transformed from a street hustler to a “puritan” Muslim through a prison conversion. The ministries of Prison Fellowship and Straight Ahead Ministries have stories that need to be told here.
Many lives have been turned around in prison for the good. On the other hand prison can be a graduate school for gangs and crime. Its culture, in fact, has influenced hip-hop’s drift toward “thugism” and “ghetto,” been commercialized, and disseminated around the world.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
1. What do you think we need to deal with in developing this topic?
2. What are you opinions as to why the U.S. has so many of its citizens incarcerated?
3. How do you explain the great disproportion of minorities in the prison system? What consequence does this have for the communities from which they come and for society in general?
4. How would you applaud or reform the criminal justice system?
5. How would you change what is going on in our prisons?
1. Individual and cultural responsibility as well as systemic flaws must be taken into account when we think about crime.
2. Most would agree that crime prevention is more important than criminal enforcement-though both are needed.
3. We are also probably agreed that there must be ways to prevent the high amount of prison violence, rape and suicide, and that society can improve in its attempts at rehabilitation even though some criminals will be permanently resistant to change.