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Source materials for teaching controversial issues

Prisons: do they work?

This resource provides information and arguments around the issue of prisons and penal reform. By Sam Hart, Smart Justice.

Correction: a misleading quote from a Sunday Times editorial has been removed from this resource; we apologise for the error.

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There is much discussion in the media about the perceived crisis in our prison system. In December 2003, 81 of the 138 prisons in England and Wales were overcrowded, according to Home Office figures for this period. The prison population has risen from 43,000 in 1993 to over 74,000 in February 2004. Home Office figures also show that the prison population could reach 88,700 by 2007.

Many people are in favour of the use of prison as a punishment and have little faith in the alternatives. They argue that prison is the only certain way of ensuring criminals can’t commit more crime.

Norman Brennan, Director of the Victims’ of Crime Trust states:

“The purpose of prison is to punish the offender and act as a deterrent to those who commit crime. The public, therefore, are protected from those criminals who are a threat to a law-abiding society.”

And research has shown that the general public have very little knowledge of or confidence in alternatives to custody (Home Office 2002).

However, others argue that although prison is necessary to contain dangerous and violent offenders, it is not the most effective way of dealing with crime because it does not stop re-offending.

Juliet Lyon, Director of the Prison Reform Trust, says:

“Holding the Western European record for jailing people is nothing to be proud of, particularly since most return to crime on release. Our prisons have become social dustbins and the only way to kick this costly habit is to invest in effective drug treatment, mental health care and community sentences.”

A report published in December 2003 by the government’s Strategy Unit states that prison should be reserved for dangerous and violent offenders, with tough community penalties for less serious offences and very low risk offenders being taken out of the court system altogether and punished in the community (Carter 2003).

These materials help pupils draw their own conclusions about the effectiveness of prison as a punishment .

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