"Prison makes bad people worse". Critically evaluate this statement in light of rising prison numbers.

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“Prison makes bad people worse”. Critically evaluate this statement in light of rising prison numbers.

At present there are almost 63,000 people living behind bars in British prisons today. A staggering number, which costs our society £3 billion a year to maintain, and one which is rising at an alarming rate (Home Office, 2003).

The Government and public opinions of prison has fluctuated over the years as we have moved swiftly through conflicting phases of beliefs which range from the firm conviction that “Prison Works!” to the opposing opinion that “Prison is simply an expensive way of making bad people worse”. As the populations continue to soar and the reconviction rates also, this is still an ongoing debate and one, which is showing no signs of any conclusive resolution.

The statement “Prison makes bad people worse” came from the 1990 Conservative Government White Paper, Crime, Justice and Protecting the Public which stated that, “For most offenders, imprisonment has to be justified in terms of public protection, denunciation and retribution” (Waddington, 1990, p.1). Its belief was that prison could work if used “ not as a mechanism for reform or rehabilitation but as a means of incapacitation and punishment that satisfies popular political demands for public safety and harsh retribution” (Garland, 2001, p.14). The Conservatives believed, at this time, that any other reason for using prison simply did not work and that the prospects of reforming offenders are actually much better in the community. The prison population fell under this government from 50,000 to 40,000 (Graef, 2000, p.1). The subsequent Criminal Justice Act of 1991 was similar in its conviction and ordered sentencers to use prison only as a “last resort” and to give reasons as to why it was necessary for “serious offences”. However, these orders did not combine well with the British public’s primordial love of punishment and required judges, magistrates and ministers to face up to this harsh reality which is so vividly expressed in our daily tabloids.

In contrast to this, 1993 saw ex-Home Secretary Michael Howard confidently assert at a Conservative Party Conference that: “Prison Works!” (Wilson, 2003, p10). The licence that Michael Howard’s statement gave to sentencers meant that the prison population, which was at around 40,000 at the time, had exceeded 60,000 by 1997. As a result our prisons are now overflowing and deteriorating and could possibly be holding as many as 90,000 by 2005 (Graef, 2001, p.1). The Home Office’s latest brief confirmed that Britain now has, next to Portugal, the highest rate of imprisonment in Western Europe.

In light of these staggering statistics there is no question that something needs to be done about the state of our present sentencing processes and our prisons alike. However, establishing what really does work effectively with offenders is no easy task and discovering whether “prison is simply an expensive way of making bad people worse” is something which is proving increasingly difficult to assess.

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An obvious place to start when trying to establish the amount of accuracy in this statement is by looking at reconviction rates, however this is neither simple or necessarily accurate either. Many studies have been carried out over the years in search of the most effective form of punishment but results have been relatively disappointing. Extensive reviews of such research carried out by Lipton, Martinson, Wilks and Brody (1976) have generally found that different penal measures have similarly unimpressive outcomes in terms of re-offending; with little variation being found between straightforward imprisonment and more intensive non-custodial measures in the community. ...

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