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Prisons: we never used to have them. Will they exist in the future?

Prisons as we know them are relatively new and we can thank Jeremy Bentham’s philosophy of utilitarianism in the 19th century for the first modern prisons.  Previously people had been locked up, in gaols and dungeons, but these were typically holding areas for prisoners before they met their ultimate sentence or for political prisoners too important to kill and too dangerous to let free.  Bentham brought in the idea that prisons could be used as a place to reform prisoners before they were released back into society.

Prisons were typically holding areas for prisoners before they met their ultimate sentence.

Sentenced convicts had selection of punishments.  The death penalty was widespread for many crimes that appear petty today.  Public humiliation in the form of stocks was another form of punishment.  From the 1600s to the 1800s various European colonial powers used their colonies as dumping grounds for criminals and as a means to boost the population of areas that few people would freely migrate to.  The loss of the American colonies caused a crisis in England with many prisoners who would have been deported ending up in prison hulks – decommissioned ships.

What these punishments all had in common was that they did not involve locking people up for decades or for the rest of their lives.  Now it is possible to argue that it is better to lock someone up for a  crime rather than exile them to a far away country or leave them dangling in the gallows.  But these traditional punishments had another big advantage over the modern penal system: they were cheap.

Traditional punishments were cheap.

As of June 2012 the UK’s prison population was over 90,000 at a cost of £37,000 per average prisoner per year. This compares to a UK education budget of £5,000 per average student per year.

We are currently in an age of austerity. There are good reasons to believe that this age will last many, many years.  In an age of plenty we did not have to made hard choices to make: we could afford to pay for schools AND prisons AND all of the other services that make up a modern society.  In an age of austerity there are only hard choices:  is it right to be spending nearly 8 times more on a prison inmate than on a child’s education?

Is it right to be spending nearly 8 times more on a prison inmate than on a child’s education?

If the decision is that it is not right then what does society do? It is not a question of increasing the average spend per child, but reducing the cost of a prison inmate.  How do we think about this?

  • How long should prisoners be imprisoned for?  Shorter sentences will reduce the cost.  Will society accept shorter sentences?
  • How secure should prisons be? Would more open prisons where prisoners can work in society and then return to prison at night be viable?
  • Should prisoners be made to work and provide enough value to offset the cost of imprisoning them?

What do you think?



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