What is The Purpose of Prison?

It’s a Saturday night, around 8:30 p.m. I turn on the TV, and flip throughout the channels until I reach channel 23. ION Television. They usually play Law and Order; SVU. The show that brings crime, drama, and the criminal justice system to every single episode. However, at the end of each episode at least one person goes to prison. Throughout the episodes and seasons I have been watching, a thought has been stuck my head.


When I think of prison, I think of ¨The Slammer¨, ¨The Big House¨, ¨Hoosegow¨, I can go on and on. But what was prison really meant for in the first place?  

That question takes us back to the late 18th century, London, inside of Philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s mind. Jeremy Bentham was against the death penalty, so he created a concept for a place that would be used to hold criminals as a form of punishment. He later on drew up the plans for the facility, and he intended on having the people who were locked up never know when they were being watched by guards. A bit too concerning if you ask me. He did this for the sole purpose of saving money, because since the inmates wouldn’t know when guards are present, fewer officers would be needed to be hired. Yet, using a prison as long term punishment wasn’t actually the main concept. But it catched on in the 19th century. Prisons started to become filthy, dreadful, overcrowded hovels. Intending perpetrators to deter from commiting crimes, inmates at the time were forced to do hard labor while they were living in these harsh conditions and they were surpassing a whopping 30,000 inmates. Overcrowding, disease, and widespread abuse of convicts at the hands of both guards and fellow criminals plagued prisons and promisingly kept death tolls high. As I said earlier, Bentham’s prison design was based around observation and surveillance. Though John Howard, a Philanthropist and an early English prison reformer, had visited all prisons within England and Wales. Howard wanted to change the purpose of prison from simple punishment to the idea of punishment and rehabilitation. He also wanted the inmates to have an opportunity to benefit from moral guidance and education. However, Howard thought “A criminal had to be shown the value of working for a living and to have time alone to contemplate the error of their ways.” Ever since then, prisons we know now are drastically different. There are three additional purposes to prison. Retribution, incapacitation, and deterrence. Though these days in America, if it weren’t for John Howard, we probably wouldn’t have the same goal for rehabilitation as we did back in the 19th century.

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