Is Prison Punishment Enough?

Assault, Criminal Law, Miscellaneous

Is Prison Punishment Enough?


It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside it’s jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats it highest citizens but its lowest ones”.[1] 


Prison is tough. There is no doubt about it. Once through those doors, it is clear that inmates are exposed to a myriad of physical and psychological burdens. The quote above by Nelson Mandela perfectly reflects the oppressive nature of our Criminal Justice System and offers a tiny glimpse of the realities of prison.


One of the main purposes of imprisonment is to punish. However, once out of prison the individual is subjected to the stigma associated with having a criminal record. This begs the question, is our prison system punishment enough?


A person entering prison goes through a long and often dehumanising process where they lose all sense of self. That person is now an inmate and with that connotation comes an array of precarious and unforgiving stereotypes. It is clear from historical literature that imprisonment is for those who wronged society and the consequence of this is to suffer while in prison.[2] The notion behind this historical approach to imprisonment is the ‘just desserts’ principle, which stipulates that we ought to punish those who deserved to be punished for their wrongdoing.[3]


Those who agree that the process should be part of the punishment stipulate that prisons are intended to be vulgar, cluttered, congested and unpleasant to deter offending.[4] The rationale behind deterrence is that it should discourage the offender from engaging in further criminal behaviour.[5] It would appear that the general view from the Australian public is that deterrence and retribution should be the main focus when sentencing an offender.[6]

What the general public may fail to consider is that this may not be enough to deter prisoners. This is because many offenders take up what is known as the ‘criminal lifestyle’.[7] They have chosen crime as a career and as a way of life.[8] As a result, many offenders, particularly those involved in gang crime, know that by choosing this lifestyle that imprisonment is an ‘occupational hazard or calculated risk’.[9]


Those who believe that punishment should focus on rehabilitation, argue that prisons should attempt to be clean, calm, and quiet environments to create a platform for therapeutic intervention and to reduce strain on inmates that may lead to psychological harm or reactionary aggression. For example, in Silverwater Correctional Complex seems to be focused more on a rehabilitative model of punishment. In fact, the facilities offered in the prison are actually surprisingly very good. They have doctors, nurses, and psychiatrists all readily available.


In many ways however, offering great facilities can act as a double-edged sword. It helps rehabilitate the offender by keeping them safe and off drugs but it in turn can work to keep the prisoner wanting to come back to prison because they are being treated better and getting the help and support in prison than they ever did out of prison.


Therefore, in reality these principles do very little in deterring or rehabilitating an offender because it fails to adequately address the social, economic, and cultural dimensions of pathways into and out of prison.[10]


Thus, I leave the question to you, is prison punishment enough?

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[1] Mark Findlay, Stephen Odgers, and Stanley Meng Heong Yeo, Australian Criminal Justice (Oxford University Press, 5th ed, 2014) 299.

[2] Shivani Tomar, ‘the psychological effects of incarceration on inmates: can we promote positive emotion in inmates?’ (2013) 16(1) Delhi Psychiatry Journal 66.

[3] Mark Findlay, Stephen Odgers, and Stanley Meng Heong Yeo, above n 1, 212.

[4] David M, Bierie, ‘The Impact of Prison Conditions on Staff Well-Being’ (2012) 56(1) International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology 82.

[5] Mark Findlay, Stephen Odgers, and Stanley Meng Heong Yeo, above n 1, 210.

[6] Ibid, 211.

[7] Beverly R. Crank and Timothy Brezina, ‘Prison Will Either Make Ya or Break Ya: Punishment, Deterrence, and the Criminal Lifestyle’ (2013) 34(10) Deviant Behavior 786.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid, 787.

[10] Mark Halsey, ‘Pathways into Prison: Biographies, Crimes, Punishment’ (2008) 20(1) Current Issues In Criminal Justice 98.