Punish vs Rehabilitate: How Prisons Function

Correctional Medical Care Prison


The recidivism rate among United States prisoners is, in a word, appalling. In more than just a word, the approximately 75% US recidivism rate is one of the highest in the world, almost four times as high as that of Norway and a leading cause of the prison overpopulation problem plaguing US prisons.

Recidivism is one of the central tenets of the world of criminal justice and the prison industries. The goal, of course, would be to lower the recidivism rate as low as possible–the fewer people who reoffend means that prisons are having the desired effects across the country. A zero recidivism rate, while obviously out of the realm of remote possibilities, would be the goal: no prisoners reoffending, no readmittance to prison. This would mean that the prisons across the country would be having the rehabilitation effects that we’ve sought after for centuries.

Or, on the other hand perhaps it’s the punishment that’s working.

For years, the debate over whether prisons exist to rehabilitate or to punish has raged on. Some see prison punishment as a “scare tactic,” essentially. The belief works the same way as giving your child a time-out would: by putting them in the corner (or a prison cell) for a few minutes (or a few years), you’ll effectively teach them that they shouldn’t steal a cookie (or a car) again.

The issue, though, is that the “punishment” side of prison stays have been shown to be fairly ineffective.

What we’ve seen in other countries–those which prioritize humanizing and rehabilitating their prisoners, though, brings hope.

Norway’s famously successful prison system–a system that flaunts a world’s-lowest 20% recidivism rate, utilizes what they call “restorative justice.”

According to RestorativeJustice.org, the concept is “a theory of justice that emphasizes repairing the harm caused by criminal behaviour. It is best accomplished through cooperative processes that include all stakeholders.”

This process of reformative and reformative justice has been proven both successful and wide-reaching. And Norway isn’t the only country embracing the “rehabilitation, not punishment” concept of the justice system. Sweden, similarly, has made a point that the purpose of putting someone behind bar shouldn’t be to treat them as poorly as possible while they’re there, it should be to mold them back into the person that they can be: a contributing member of society.

Instead of putting a focus on punishment, the United States and other similarly developed countries should soon begin to stress rehabilitating inside their prisons. Proper programming and education within prison walls can help reduce the rates of recidivism outside of prisons, and violence within them.  

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