The use of prisons within the United States is controversial due the fact that their benefit in terms of punishment, reformation, and prevention of recidivism has not been substantially proven. The two main opinions about prisons – we need to use them more, or that we need to use them less can cause conflict and argument between the proponents. Some writers state that prison serves a purpose in our society, and that this purpose exists in deterring people from committing crimes which is to discourage them, to commit crimes and reforming the ones who commit them. However, for this statement to be true, prisons must treat everyone equally and neutrally in order for it to be an unbiased institution. This paper will argue that prisons can be shown to neither deter possible criminals, nor to reform those who spend time in prison. The paper will first discuss the racial differentiation in prisons, then move onto discuss whether prisons prevent people committing crimes before moving on to an overall conclusion on the topic.
Perhaps one of the most important aspects of understanding the United States prison system is its racial differentiation. Currently in the United States, one out of every three African American males will spend time in prison during their life time (Knafko, 2013). This is more than five times the number of white men who will spend time in prison, which clearly demonstrates that the prison systems nowadays is not a racially equal institution. The imprisonment rates for African American and white males can reflect important social structures in which African American people exist (Frank B. Wilderson, 2010). It should also be noted that African American men are also subject to more violence in prisons than white prisoners (Knafko, 2013). This suggests that the overall population of prisons is disproportionately African American and this has an effect on how prisons are seen by society.

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It has also been suggested that people may stop committing crimes because they are either afraid of going to prison, or because they had previously spent time in prison. However, prison does not work as a deterrent in some cases where committing a crime is not a personal decision, it is seen more as a necessity. Those from low income areas, for example, are more likely to be part of the prison population, but this could be due to the fact that their crimes were due to financial need (Ihlanfeldt, 2007). This statement suggests that prison does not work as a deterrent because there is simply no other option for many individuals who commit crimes.

The research shows that prison sentences are not necessarily linked to reform. In many cases, those who have been sent to prison for more minor crimes may end up re-offending with a more serious crime at a later date (Onifade et al., 2010). This may be because time spent in prison has allowed them to learn criminal skills from other inmates, or simply because their time spent out of society has reduced their ability to engage with others. If one of the main aims of prison is to encourage the individual to feel punished for their crime and to prevent them to re-offend, the system is failing. There is currently a 56% re-offence rate in some states, which means that prisons are not serving to protect citizens from further crime and may actually be worsening the problem in many cases (Onifade et al., 2010). Prisons are, therefore, not serving their purpose and prison reform should be considered in order to improve the status quo.

On the other hand, new approaches to imprisonment have been suggested which are deemed to be more successful. The biggest new innovation in dealing with prisoners at the moment is the use of online education programs (Lipsey & Cullen, 2007). It has been shown that the use of these programs actually reduces the re-offence rate by up to 45%, which means there is promise for prisons in future to fulfill their purpose of protecting citizens from further crime (Lipsey & Cullen, 2007). The argument here is not that prisons themselves are wrong, but that the way that the United States deals with criminals in prison is not helping them to feel punished, fear of imprisonment, or to improve themselves during their time spent in jail. Furthermore, evidence shows that providing proper exercise facilities has a positive effect on reducing re-offence rates, but that prisons currently do not always offer the correct facilities to inmates. Overall, this evidence supports the thesis that prisons in the United States need to improve in order to offer their services successfully.

In conclusion, this essay has argued that the prison system in the United States is not useful as a power of deterrent or a cause of reform. This is argued because of the racial differences present nowadays within prisons. Of course, this essay has only dealt with the United States system, so further research is required, however, It is said that people who commit crimes commit them because they needed to, and they had no other choice. This shows that prisons mostly do not act as a deterrent when the criminal had no other choice to make other than committing the crime. Finally, criminal behaviour is high in almost all states nowadays, which depicts that the reforming aspects of prison are limited. In the future, if social equality existed, and the racial disparity started to decrease, it may be possible for prisons to reform criminals in the institutions themselves.

  • Lipsey, Mark W., and Francis T. Cullen. “The Effectiveness of Correctional Rehabilitation: A Review of Systematic Reviews.” Annu. Rev. Law Soc. Sci. 3 (2007): 297–320. Print.
  • Onifade, Eyitayo et al. “Truancy and Patterns of Criminogenic Risk in a Young Offender Population.” Youth violence and juvenile justice 8.1 (2010): 3–18. Print.