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Behind Bars - Is Prison the Best Option?

Stephen is an online writer and former English teacher who is interested in sociology, economics, and literature.

Justice is blind but is it deaf too?

Justice is blind but is it deaf too?

Incarceration Epidemic

The figures are startling. The Sentencing Project tells us that if you are a man who was born in 2001 in the United States, there is a 1 in 9 chance that you will spend time in prison at some time during your life. If you are black, the chances are 1 in 3.

There are some 2 million people in prison or jail at any one time in the United States. A 500% increase in 40 years and a figure that makes the United States the world's biggest jailor of its people.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in a 2007 report states in its introduction:

"... the overall use of imprisonment is rising throughout the world, while there is little evidence that its increasing use is improving public safety. There are now more than 9 million prisoners worldwide and that number is growing. The reality is that the growing numbers of prisoners are leading to often severe overcrowding in prisons. This is resulting in prison conditions that breach United Nations and other standards that require that all prisoners be treated with the respect due to their inherent dignity and value as human beings."

(See link at end of this article to the full report.)

Some who take a hard line on crime might question whether some prisoners have lost their right to be treated with "dignity and respect." Be that as it may, I think few will doubt that the current system is flawed in many countries.

Should we take a more serious look at alternatives to locking people away?


Throw Away the Key

If there's a violent offender in your neighborhood who is making life miserable and dangerous for the community, most of us would feel nothing but relief to hear that this person has been locked away.

In an ideal world, an offender would only be sent to prison after a fair trial to serve a sentence that reflected the nature of the crime. Having served the sentence, the inmate would return to society as a productive citizen who understands that the system has treated him fairly and is armed with the skills necessary to get on in the outside world.

This is not what happens in most countries. In the United States, for example, nearly 70% of released prisoners are rearrested within three years. Within five years of release, the figure rises to over 75%.

Clearly, prison isn't working.

That imprisonment takes offenders out of society is the strongest argument for locking people away. However, there are various arguments against applying this blanket approach to all lawbreakers.

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Is Prison the Answer?

Perhaps the only argument in favor of prisons is that people on the outside feel safer. But there are various reasons why courts should think twice before locking people up.


The cost of imprisoning someone in the United States varies depending on the type of prison and the state. At the low end of the scale, we are talking about $14,000 a year. This can rise to an annual cost per prisoner of around $70,000.

In Canada, the figure is well over $110,000.

In Britain, the annual average cost comes to around $54,000.

Prisons have to be maintained. They have to be staffed, and inmates have to be cared for, and this for 24 hours a day, every day of the year. Necessarily, this costs a considerable amount of money.


The philosophy that underlies the idea of incarceration is that an offender's crime is sufficiently serious to warrant a term away from society at large. During their time in prison, offenders will come to understand the errors of their ways and re-emerge ready to take their place in the community.

As we can see from the rearrest rates, this simply doesn't happen.

And, once a prisoner has a record, it can be difficult to find a job in the outside world.

A World Within a World

In society, we all have responsibilities. Once we agree to meet the demands that our society imposes upon us, we are, to a greater or lesser degree, free to do as we like.

Prison is different. A prison operates under two parallel jurisdictions. One is imposed by the authorities. Under this system, all aspects of a prisoner's life are carefully controlled and monitored. A prisoner is told when to get up, when to eat, when to exercise, and when to go to bed. At the same time, the prisoners themselves impose a code of conduct that all prisoners are expected to follow.

Of course, the loss of individual liberty is an integral part of the punishment. But I would argue that it has two unintended consequences:

  • Because a prisoner lives in a prison culture a "university of crime." Prisoners learn from other prisoners.
  • In a prison, all aspects of life are controlled. A prisoner's basic needs are cared for. For some, this can be comforting. Those who find it difficult to cope with life may become institutionalized.

A Simple Twist of Fate

Fate Vincent Winslow was homeless in Shreveport, Louisiana, when two undercover policemen approached him and asked him to find them a girl. Winslow refused so the two cops asked him to get them $20 worth of marijuana instead. He was promised $5 for his trouble.

Perhaps Winslow should have realized something was amiss, but the $5 would buy him a meal—not a good one, but enough to get him through the night. In the end, this $5 would buy him free meals for 12 years but he had to eat them in the Louisiana State Penitentiary.

That Winslow was guilty was obvious and this wasn't his first offense; he had committed three others. None of them involved violence.

In 2008, because of his record, Winslow was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Life? For acting as a middleman on behalf of cops?

The Innocent Project New Orleans took on Winslow's case. A change in Louisiana's Habitual Offenders Law allowed a judge to retry Winslow. This time, he was sentenced to the 12 years he'd already spent behind bars. He was released the next day.

(Unfortunately, Fate Vincent Winslow was murdered in a drive-by shooting in 2021. He seems to have been an innocent victim.)


The Scandinavian Model

In The Atlantic magazine's September 2013 issue, Doran Larson wrote:

".. throughout Scandinavia, criminal justice policy rarely enters political debate. Decisions about best practices are left to professionals in the field, who are often published criminologists and consult closely with academics. Sustaining the barrier between populist politics and results-based prison policy are media that don't sensationalize crime - if they report it at all. And all of this takes place in nations with established histories of consensual politics, relatively small and homogenous populations, and the best social services networks in the world, including the best public education."

(See the link below for the complete article)

In Scandinavia, guards tend to have a dual role. They guard the inmates but they also act as contacts who help the inmates transition from prison to freedom. Each prisoner is assigned an officer who looks after the prisoner's general welfare.

In Norway, the percentage of prisoners who re-offend after their release stands at around 20. This is not perfect but compares very well with the figures for the United States and most other countries.


Helping Not Punishing

There is a world of difference between a vicious thug and a parent who shoplifts to feed a family. Yet both end up with a criminal record and both could end up in prison.

In many countries, we need to concentrate on helping prisoners to become useful members of society. This will require more investment in education and psychiatric care. It will be expensive but may well save money in the long run.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

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