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Is prison an effective form of punishment?

ULaw Criminology Lecturer Angela Charles completed her BA undergraduate degree in History and Criminology, followed by an MSc in Criminology and Criminal Justice. She is currently completing a PhD which explores the experiences of Black women in UK prisons through an intersectional lens. Her studies focus on the unique impact race and gender has on black female prisoners. Angela has worked within the criminal justice sector in a Secure Training Centre, the National Probation Service, and Youth Justice. Today Angela answers the question – is prison an effective form of punishment?

By Cara Fielder. Published 27 May 2021. Last updated 25 July 2022.

How do we assess the effectiveness of prisons?


Reform is arguably one of the most important reasons why prisons are vital. The website talks about providing the right services and opportunities that support rehabilitation to prevent a return to crime. Some of the areas they mention are:

  • Improving prisoners’ mental health and tackling substance misuse
  • Improving prisoners progress in maths and English
  • Increasing the numbers of offenders in employment and accommodation after release.

I would add that offenders should also be supported in learning about money and finance, improving their confidence, developing their understanding of supportive relationships, dealing with issues that may arise or previous traumas. Reform is about equipping someone with the tools to successfully navigate life’s difficulties without resorting to crime.

Life after prison is the final theme on the website and this is the support needed by prisoners once they are released. This includes working with probation services. They highlight the need for services that support prisoners from the transition ‘through the gate’. The main factors being employment and accommodation. When looking at the statistics for prisons achieving their target for accommodation on the first night following release, this is only 17.3%. When we look at employment targets within the first 6 weeks of release, this was at 4%, which is very low. These statistics raise concerns as to whether prison is successful in rehabilitation. Or is it merely a punishment that puts people’s lives on hold?


Real life examples of the prison being effective and ineffective


One woman I interviewed explained that none of the education options in the prison were suitable. She already had a degree, so did not need the English and maths classes that were provided. To her, the prison just wanted to tick a box to show people in prison were engaging in some form of education rather than helping black women progress and gain educational skills that were tailored to an individual’s needs and current level of education.

However, another Black woman said that being in prison had forced her to take level 1 and 2 English and Maths. She had been putting it off when she was in society but being in prison allowed her to take the time to do it. She passed and felt that she would have better prospects leaving the prison than when she came in. Additionally, she had been trained on how to clean up chemical spills and learnt all about the control of substances hazardous to health (COSSH). Again, she learnt new skills that she felt she would be able to use in the outside world.



Many women stated that they could speak to their loved ones regularly on the phone, which allowed them stay connected. However, some of the women complained about how costly phone calls were. Also, transport to the prison was an expense that many women’s families could not afford. Therefore, in some cases, relationships with families were put on hold.

One woman talked about her drug recovery and explained how supportive her drug worker had been. They helped her through her recovery and were a source of support and consistency during her prison experience. Even when she moved onto another wing, she mentioned how this staff member still came to check on her. She believes if she had not come to prison, she would still be addicted to drugs. In this case, imprisonment was effective and helped her to rehabilitate.

Another example came from a woman who said that her prison experience allowed her to improve herself, deal with previous traumas, and come up with ways to deal with this. She used the prison experience to identify what things triggered previous traumas and how to deal with this, as well as living in the moment. In this sense, sometimes prison can be used as a period of reflection and self-improvement.



The final example I want to give comes from several women that highlighted the systemic racism they felt was occurring in the prison. The women stated that many of the officers stereotyped them as aggressive, loud troublemakers because of their race. This had a knock-on effect because it affected how long it took for women to get moved from a closed prison to an open prison, be released for day visits, to work and see family. It also meant that they felt like they could not be themselves. For these women, prison was not effective because they were dealing with the disadvantage of being black and female. They had fewer opportunities for employment progression and they had few supportive relationships with staff. When we think about examples like this, we must determine how effective the prison would be for these women. It would be a punishment but would it help rehabilitate them or leave them bitter, angry, frustrated and no better off than before they entered the prison?


Criminological arguments for prisons

One argument for prison is that it is an effective deterrent. Prison can be seen as a tough type of punishment because it takes away your freedom, potential support networks and in many ways, it strips away your identity. The thought of prison is enough for some people to not even contemplate committing a criminal act.

Prison sentences are also a message to the wider public that this is what will happen if you commit a crime. Prison advocates would say this is a message to wider society about what is right and wrong and what will happen if you commit a crime. 

Additionally, prison advocates argue that prison is such a difficult time for people that the experience should then deter them from committing any further offences. However, we know that is not the case because many individuals who have committed an offence and go to prison then commit further offences. This makes us question, is prison a) effective and b) enough of a deterrence?

Another argument for prison is that by putting people in prison, we protect the public by ensuring these individuals cannot commit any further offences. Additionally, prison sentences provide a sense of justice to the victims affected by the crime and the public.


Criminological arguments against prisons

The first argument would be that prisons do not work. Those advocating for prison reform highlight reoffending statistics as an example of the ineffectiveness of prisons.

The adult reoffending rate for the October to December 2018 cohort was 27.5%.

Almost 101,000 proven re-offences were committed over the one-year follow-up period by around 25,000 adults. Those that reoffended committed on average 3.97 re-offences. [Source – Home Office – Proven reoffending statistics for England and Wales, published October 2020].

Research shows that long prison sentences have little impact on crime. Time in prison can actually make someone more likely to commit crime — by further exposing them to all sorts of criminal elements. Prisons are also costly, using up funds that could go to other government programs that are more effective at fighting crime.

Additionally, there are arguments that prison does not rehabilitate prisoners. While there are some opportunities in prison, this does not always meet the needs of the prisoners and does not help them on their release due to the views people in society have about imprisonment and criminal records. On release, three-fifths of prisoners have no “identified employment or education or training outcome”. If prison punishes people through the experience itself but then does not offer those individuals the opportunity to improve and change their lives once they are released, can we realistically expect people to be rehabilitated and not return to crime?

Some believe that the whole prison system is an oppressive institution governed by the powerful that cages the marginalised and powerless. They would argue that prison further damages people because it causes further trauma, exposes them to further violence, reinforces disadvantage and creates further crime and social harm. The prison also does very little to tackle the underlying causes of crime in communities. However, some have argued that by reducing the prison population, we are still widening the net and criminalising people, as community sentences and alternatives to custody would be increased rather than looking at some of the structural inequalities that may lead to crime and criminal behaviour.

Others argue that prison mainly holds those that are from lower socio-economic backgrounds and ethnic minorities, punishing poverty and disadvantage while protecting the crimes of the powerful. For example, where are the imprisoned individuals from corporations that cause widespread harm, such as those that need to be held accountable for the Grenfell Tower fire, multi-million corporations and so on?

There are many arguments for abolishing prison, and then there are arguments that recognise prison cannot be abolished completely but needs reforming.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime highlights some of the reasons why prisons need to be reformed. These are:

  • Human rights, as prison is a deprivation of the basic right to liberty.
  • Imprisonment disproportionately affects individuals and families living in poverty. From the potential loss of income from an individual going to prison, lawyer costs, costs to visit and communicate with that individual, the lack of employment opportunities when released, the marginalisation and so on.
  • Public health consequences – It is argued that many prisoners have poor health and existing health problems when entering the prison. These problems are exacerbated due to; overcrowding, poor nutrition, lack of exercise and fresh air. Then there are also the infection rates, self-harm and poor mental health. The argument is that staff will be vulnerable to some of these diseases, and so will the public once these individuals are released.
  • Detrimental social impact – Imprisonment disrupts relationships and weakens social cohesion.
  • Costs – The cost of each prisoner for their upkeep, but also the social, economic and health costs mentioned previously, which are long-term.

The Howard League for Penal Reform says on their website:

“The prison system is like a river.

The wider it gets, the faster it flows – and the harder it becomes to swim against the tide. Rather than being guided to safer shores, those in the middle are swept into deeper currents of crime, violence and despair. What began as a trickle turns into a torrent, with problems in prisons spilling into the towns and cities around them.”

In conclusion, when we think about the prison, and imprisonment as a punishment and reform option, there is a lot to consider. We need to assess the overall effectiveness of prisons and the need for justice against the harm imprisonment can have on an individual. We must consider the long-term impact the prison has on an individual, not just mentally, but also considering the impact it will have on their life chances and their ability to reintegrate into society.


If you have enjoyed reading this blog post, it is based on one of our Real World Lecture Series aimed at undergraduates. Book your place at our virtual undergraduate events now.