The Purpose of Prison – Punishment

What is the purpose that we perceive behind the incarceration of our citizens?

Most individuals tend to place the “reason” for prison into one (or more) of the following broad categories:

1.) Punishment

2.) Rehabilitation

3.) Public Safety

Today I’ll be looking a bit deeper into the first element, which is punishment. To begin, Webster’s dictionary defines “punishment” as:

1:  the act of punishing
2: a :  suffering, pain, or loss that serves as retribution
2: b :  a penalty inflicted on an offender through judicial procedure
3:  severe, rough, or disastrous treatment

In the American idea of justice, we feel that those who have committed criminal acts deserve to be punished for what they have done. This punishment is often administered through placing an individual into prison, where they are deprived of basic freedoms that most of us take for granted. There are steel bars, cement walls, regimented schedules, bad food, and the removal of our most common vestiges of autonomy.

Along with this, mother, fathers, sisters, brothers, grandparents, and children are removed from their families, missing out on weddings, funerals, births, and celebrations that carry on in their absence. In the ultimate loss, some parents will lose custody of their children during their sentence.

The 1st element of the definition of punishment is rather straight forward, with the primary question raised by the lack of a noun in its brief description. The “act of punishing” is being performed by whom, we may ask.

Is the sentencing judge performing the punishment? Is society? Or is it the nameless correctional staff? We understand, perhaps even embrace, the act of punishment itself, but perhaps we do not always comprehend who is behind the deed itself. This is a question we will be returning to, but for now lets just put it on a back burner to simmer for later.

Whether you think that someone “deserves” to be in prison or not, I think we can all agree that the loss of freedom and opportunity and communion with loved ones is a punishment that is real and unforgiving. This part of punishment, where we recognize what someone loses when removed from society, encompasses definition 2:a of Webster’s definition. We seem to have collectively accepted that the loss of these things is appropriate as a retribution for the loss that a criminal act forces an innocent party to experience.

More abstractly stated in definition 2:b, we assume that the punishment an offender experiences through the judicial process will be fair and relatively standardized. We vaguely understand that robed judges, suited lawyers, and panels of juries are hearing and deciding thousands of cases a day, perhaps failing to recognize that in our current times most cases are settled quickly through plea agreements or a judge with no jury, and that the legal system has actually been created with a great deal of lee way that may allow judges to practice a great deal of individual discretion when sentencing those found guilty. These discretions, designed to prevent a rigid system from unduly punishing too harshly the citizens it was designed to protect, may also allow for hidden prejudices or discriminations to hold more sway in sentencing than they should.

Finally, we most likely disregard the 3rd element of the definition, at least in regards to court sentencing. A punishment that is deserved, fair, earned – in a word, just – can hardly be simultaneously considered “severe, rough, or disastrous”. Certainly an advanced society such as our own could hardly accept or condone treatment described thusly. And yet, further examination may reveal that many inmates are treated roughly, enduring sexual, physical, and verbal abuse during their sentences. In addition, common additional punishments behind bars, such as solitary confinement that contain a person in a small room for 23 hours a day, with limited to no human interaction, may easily be described as severe. Last but not least, disastrous. Recidivism rates reported by the Bureau of Justice Statistics as resting at 67.5% of ex-inmates rearrested within 3 years of their release. Families broken to pieces that will never be reassembled. The difficulty of gaining higher education, gainful employment, or even housing if you have any type of criminal record. Societal stigmatism. Increased violence. Can we argue that we have not seen disastrous results from our methods of imprisonment?

When punishment is made to stand alone – with no rehabilitation, counseling, or programming to improve an inmates life or skill set – is it any wonder that many inmates are released with a healthy helping of anger, frustration, bitterness, and resentment towards “the system”, and no real plan for how to reintegrate into society or change the patterns that got them arrested and the first place?

Here are some additional thoughts on the issue, gleaned from interviews posted on (


Vincent Schiraldi, Founder and president of the Justice Policy Institute
“I think that we really have it backwards on this issue. We are missing a huge opportunity. We are warehousing people, punishing them and returning them to our society worse off than when we got them. I think our goal should be ultimately to help turn people’s lives around — but we are not treating our prisoners that way right now. There is a reason why America has incarceration rates that are seven times higher than our European allies and murder rates that are ten times higher. We are putting people in prison, many times, for non-violent crimes and turning them out more violent and dangerous than when they went in.

“The prison experience is an extraordinarily painful one and anything we can do to help people with that pain is a good thing. That includes art, writing and sports. If people spend their whole time in prison just bottling up that pain and watching TV, chances are when they come out they are going to burst.”


Robert E. Roberts

“What I would say is that the environment of a prison should model in every way how we want prisoners to behave upon their release. So what do we want them to do when they get out of prison? We’d like them to have respect and compassion for others and respect for the law. That means that while they are a prisoner, they have to receive respect and the prison has to be law-abiding. Today’s prisons are neither. What our prisons teach now is that it is normal behavior to hate your enemies and to harm them. Prisoners will answer with violence for the violence that has been perpetrated against them in prison. I don’t feel that, I know that. When you talk about reform, you talk about transforming prisoners’ lives in a positive way. But prisons offer anything but an environment for that type of transformation.

“The violence that is coming out of these prisons is a much greater threat than terrorism. The costs are astronomical. I would say that the most imprisoned population in America today is the general public, which is uninformed about the nature and consequences of imprisonment as it is practiced today. They are imprisoned in a mass delusion, which in the long run punishes society far more than society could ever punish a convicted criminal.”


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