We may know where one is, we may regularly pass by one, but most of us will never go to prison. Dark Islands of Confinement, existing in a space separated from the rest of society, where men, women and youths are locked up, often poorly treated, seldom rehabilitated.
Black men and people from Asian and minority ethnic groups including tribal peoples, make up a disproportionate percentage of the prison population in many countries. In America, where incarceration based on race is routine, Prison Policy found that “Black Americans make up 40 percent of the incarcerated population despite representing only 13 percent of U.S. residents.” In Britain, Government statistics show that, “people of minority ethnicities made up 27 percent of the prison population compared with 13% of the general population.” This figure increases further in young offenders’ institutions (YOI), where about 51 percent of boys aged 15–17 and young men, aged 18–21, are from black minority ethnic backgrounds, nearly four times the BAME proportion of the wider UK population. In addition between 2018/19, black people were eight times more likely than white to be stopped and searched, and police are five times more likely to use force against black people than white people.
Globally there are around 10.35 million people in prison (World Prison Population List), half of who are held in just three countries—the U.S., China and Russia. With 2.2 million people behind bars America has the highest number of prisoners in the world; 655 people per 100,000, in Russia its 615 per 100,000.
At the other end of the scale is Norway, a world leader in prison reform. The total prison population is 3,207, equating to 60 people per 100,000—over 10 times lower than the US and Russia and five times lower than Britain (87,900 behind bars – 148 per 100,000). Norway also has among the lowest re-offending rates in the world at 20 percent—by comparison in the U.S. 76.6 percent re-offend and are re-arrested within five years; in the UK it’s almost the same.
These stark statistical differences reflect alternate approaches, in the judicial system the prison environment and in the nature of the society, the values and ideals. As well as levels of wealth and income inequality, which are much lower, and the overall atmosphere in which people live.
Prison officers are well-trained professionals, not merely ‘guards’. The Governor of Norway’s maximum security Halden Prison told the BBC “We make sure an inmate serves his sentence but we also help that person become a better person. We are role models, coaches and mentors.” Staff and inmates take part in activities together: “they eat together, play volleyball together, do leisure activities together and that allows us to really interact with prisoners, to talk to them and to motivate them.”
Prisons are well designed, well resourced and properly maintained, humane places in which inmates can study, learn skills and prepare themselves for a new life on release; centers of rehabilitated and education, rather than hostile places in which retribution is sought and punishment meted out. This rather crude, but widespread approach is based on the misguided belief that tough sentencing and a rigid penal system will act as a deterrent.
Is fear a deterrent?
The idea of prison as punishment posits the power of fear to change behavior. It is part of a broader ideological approach that believes in competition, together with reward and punishment as effective means of motivation, of manipulating behavior to achieve the goal, whatever that may be—obedience and conformity for one thing. It is a common technique in the world of business, is widely employed by parents and to a lesser degree teachers when faced with ‘difficult’, children, usually meaning children who won’t conform.
It is an approach that ignores, disregards or has no time for underlying causes—social, psychological and behavioral, and determines, that criminals should be punished. And while this approach appears justified, and commonly has public support, all the evidence suggests that not only does this method not deter criminals or, as re-offending rates show, change behavior, but it feeds into a societal atmosphere of intolerance and judgment, strengthening embedded divisions.
Instead of institutions of retribution, prisons should be refashioned as Therapeutic Centers for Change in which the criminal takes responsibility for their actions but is not made to feel guilty, or despised. An approach that looks at the range of influences that lead a young person into crime and to joining a criminal gang. Communities in which inmates are offered educational and therapeutic support; the whole focus of activity should be to rehabilitate, educate and heal, with the aim of releasing people back into society better educated and (psychologically) better equipped to deal with the demands of life. As in the Norwegian model, prisoners need to be shown respect and compassion and prisons need to be well resourced, funded by the state—private companies have no place in prisons or anywhere else in the criminal justice system—and staffed properly with trained personnel.
Wealth, crime and confinement
The underlying causes of crime and anti-social behavior are complex, but study after study shows that poverty, poor education and lack of parental guidance (specifically a stable father), are key factors. Education is consistently hailed as key to release from poverty and social deprivation, and therefore crime. The education a child/young person receives however, including extra tutoring, access to the Internet, parental support, exposure to the arts, freedom to travel, is conditional upon their social/economic background. Varied levels of opportunity are one aspect of a world defined by inequality.
Inequality is an issue of social justice. It is not simply a financial issue. It is inherent in the socio-economic order and impacts on all areas of life (including political influence—with wealth goes power), enabling broader social imbalances to prevail. Restricting social mobility, condemning those born into poverty, to, by and large—there are always exceptions—remain there. Interestingly there is a correlation between levels of inequality and crime. Homicides, suspicion and fear of others are higher in countries where differences in wealth/income/opportunities are most pronounced, as are child pregnancies and mental illnesses in addition to a range of other social issues.
Operating under the same socio-economic model all countries suffer from inequality. Comparing levels of inequality is not straightforward. South Africa often tops the list, with China and India close behind but according to inequality.org the U.S., is the “most top heavy, with much greater shares of national wealth and income going to the richest 1 percent than any other country.” America is also the prison capital of the world and has more people serving life sentences than anywhere else: 30 percent of the estimated global number.
All is interconnected; prisons and crime are consequential elements within a societal structure of injustice and prejudice, which requires fundamental change. The current outdated, habitual and in many cases shameful methods need to be reviewed, the interconnections revealed and alternate approaches developed.
Such an examination must seek to understand the psychological impact that certain habitual methodologies and relentlessly promoted values have; the widespread use of competition, reward and punishment; the impact of fear, its relationship with desire and comparison; the reductive construct of the self. It must also examine the social conditions people are exposed to. Education and housing, the lack of access to the arts and the impact of materialistic values relentlessly promoted by corporations and governments, as well as the behavior such ideals encourage and the focus on material success. Probably not everyone can be rehabilitated, but many can and all deserve the chance.
A radical shift is needed, rooted in the recognition that humanity is one, that prejudice has no place in our consciousness or society and that the seed of all that is good rests within each and every human being. In order for that to flourish the creation of environments free from competition, judgment and hatred is required; stimulating spaces (home, school/university, the workplace, prisons and society as a whole) built on compassion, understanding and tolerance.