Since the inception of the state and the written word, a mechanism has been needed to maintain social order and balance. Placing all those who broke the codified law in a singular location became attractive; a method of maintaining power and making society safer by removing the worst of us from impacting the others. Originally conceived as a form of retribution, the idea of reform was floated by Plato as an investment into an improved society long term. Although imprisonment lost it’s popularity between Ancient Rome and the 18th century, it re-emerged  and blossomed as objections to capital punishment and torture grew in the modern era.

Across the world, the impacts of the modern prison system are felt today. The United States currently has 1 in 70 adults either in prison, on probation or on parole. Private prisons have popped u[ and are being run with an eye towards efficiency and turning a profit; this doesn’t bode well for an industry based upon treating people with decency. An ideological split has also emerged in recent years. Modern conservatives and politicians tend to favour a “tough on crime” approach: one based upon punishment as a reaction to crime. Policies such as three strikes, zero tolerance and quality of life policing are all examples of programs that eliminate rehabilitation. A leftist approach has emerged that questions the effectiveness of the prison system entirely. Limited capacity, indications of systemic bias and the proven dehumanization of prisoners have all contributed to the argument.

Questioning prison effectiveness must be done in a fashion that answers the fundamental reason for their existence: how often do prisoners, once they have left prison, become repeat offenders? If the goal of a prison system is to punish those who commit crimes and prevent them from committing crimes in the future, then such a system must be measured by whether or not it accomplishes it’s base goals. Here are the recidivism rates for various forms of crime in the United States:

Figure 6.3 from Henslin's Intro to Soc - Recidivism of US Prisoners

A few key conclusions can be drawn from Figure 6.3. Crimes focused upon non-violent crime, such as theft or burglary, have higher recidivism rates then violent crimes, such as rape and murder. From this, we can infer that a punishment-focused system does reduce the likelihood that violent crime will reoccur from the same people. But it does not reduce the likelihood that crime will be committed on the whole.

Whichever portion of the political spectrum you find yourself aligned with, the facts are apparent: Prisons work. Sometimes.