Historically, prisons were not used as punishment per se, but as ‘warehouses’ to confine criminals until corporal or capital punishment could be administered. The modern penal system has evolved considerably, and now has a differentiated approach. From the criminological perspective, prisons are typically understood as an approach to offending that has the following purposes:
- incapacitation of the offender (i.e. by removal from society)
Political and academic debate about the viability of these respective aims has surrounded the penal system for years. One thing that remains certain is that the majority of offenders sentenced to imprisonment will eventually be released. In many cases the damage done by prison leaves the offender less able than before to participate positively in society: employment may be more difficult with a criminal record; housing and contact with family may have been lost; and their healthcare needs, including mental health treatment and addiction treatment, may not have been met. It is clear, then, that the decision to imprison must be taken seriously, thoughtfully, and with regard to its likely impact.
In cases where offending has taken place and alternatives to imprisonment are used, offenders can be filtered away from the prison system, which is an increasing financial burden. In providing alternatives to imprisonment, member states have the potential to dramatically reduce the rate of offending in their country, which in turn reduces the prison population and the cost of detecting and sanctioning crime.
There needs to be greater consideration given to a combination of appropriate punishments and rehabilitative programmes, so that the offender can be successfully reintegrated into society. It is important that offenders are not sent to prisons and forgotten about until the day of their release. In doing this, the likelihood of reoffending is high and the causes of offending behaviour are left unaddressed; this benefits no one.