Why do we put people in prison? We all know why people go to prison: they have committed a crime. We generally have an idea of what prison is: a place where such a person's freedom is withheld. But what is its purpose? The desired outcome of this institution? You might have an idea, but if you asked your neighbour you might be surprised to discover that they have a very different idea than you.
In general, there are four different – sometimes overlapping, sometimes conflicting – reasons offered for prison. And in practice, depending on the country – sometimes depending on the prison – the purpose of prison, and therefore the outcomes of prison, are very different.
One argument for prison often used is deterrence. If you make an example of a person – show them the consequences of their actions – they will be dissuaded from committing such a crime in the future. It is such a common argument it sounds like common sense. Except the evidence doesn't back this up. The latest figures on recidivism – which is when a convicted criminal reoffends – show that almost half of people who come out of prison in Ireland have reoffended within just three years. Even more striking is that if you don't go to prison – for example if you go through the probation service instead – the recidivism rate is lower. You are more likely to commit a crime if you have been in prison than not.
Perhaps instead of deterring the individual, the purpose of prison is to deter society. We see the consequences of someone else's actions, and we are dissuaded from taking that path. Except the evidence doesn't support that either. Prison populations in Ireland, and in many other countries, are increasing. The prison population in Ireland increased by 400% from 1970 to 2011. Prisons are getting bigger and they are often overcrowded. If prison worked as a societal deterrence, surely the prison population would naturally reduce as we all learned from others' mistakes.
A second reason for prison is incapacitation – we imprison those who are dangerous to society to ensure that society is safe. This reasoning falls somewhat when we remember the non-violent crimes that people are imprisoned for. In 2016, almost 9,000 people were put in prison in Ireland for not paying fines. If prison was purely for society's protection, we would never imprison people for non-violent offences. It is an incredibly expensive institution – in 2015 the average cost of an available, staffed prison space was almost €70,000.
So perhaps the reason for prison is the most straightforward one – retribution. Someone has committed a crime, they have done something unjust, and prison is a way for them to pay for these crimes. This is the only theory of prison that is backward-looking. Rather than looking at the consequence of prison in the future, it instead remembers what was done to warrant it. The story goes that prisoners deserve what happens to them in prison. Sometimes, depending on the crime, the conditions of Irish prisons are too good for them. Why should a murderer be given a tv in their cell? What right does a rapist have to complain about the food given to them? There are awful people in the world who have done awful things.
But even here, there is one fact that makes this instinctive reason for prison falter: almost every person who is put in prison will be released back into society. 75% of sentences to prison in 2015 were for less than three months. A life sentence will mean, on average, 20 years spent in prison. Even violent offenders serve their sentence and are released. With this in mind the question becomes: what kind of person do we want prisoners to be when they get out of prison? If we are focused on punishment we will be releasing a person with the same view of society, with the same intentions towards others, with the same thoughts and feelings as when they went into prison. Often they will be released with a drug problem, homeless and unemployable.
This is why I believe in the final purpose of prison: rehabilitation. Since these people will eventually re-enter society, and since prison is already a huge draw on the state's resources, we should focus those resources into ensuring that people are more valuable to society when they leave prison than when they enter.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, we can look to our Nordic brothers for a clear model. In the 1940s Finland had one of the highest rates of imprisonment in Europe. It has since reduced its prison population by two-thirds with no disturbance in crime trends. The recidivism rate in Finland is now the lowest in Europe at just 35%. People are much more likely to come out of prison in Finland as productive members of society. Finland discovered that prison should be used as little as possible, and where it had to be used should focus on preparing the person to re-enter society. Open prisons are used extensively – one in three prisoners are in open prisons in Finland, compared to just 2% of Irish prisoners. And, they claim, this costs less as open prisons have far fewer guards and security measures to pay for.
I won't say that we could – or should – adopt the Finnish approach wholesale. However, I believe it is time for an honest look at our prison system, at what it is doing and what we want it to do. Some programmes for rehabilitation exist, but these are often piecemeal and underfunded. We need to shift our thinking as a society on the purpose of prison. It should not be a backward-looking, punishment-driven institution, where we ignore the facts due to an instinct towards retribution. Instead we should look forward towards the society we want to see, where we put our resources towards making every person in our society better than before – even our criminals.