Prison doesn’t work

Stuart Greenstreet on the abysmal failure of theories about crime and punishment.

Prison doesn’t work. Theories about the punishment of lawbreakers fail in practice because they disregard the real conditions of people’s lives.

The apparatus of criminal justice exists to secure a society in which everyone is free to do pretty well as they wish so long as they don’t inhibit others from doing as they wish – provided, that is, that we all obey the law. Nevertheless, prison does not work for the great majority of offenders because all the evidence shows that far from cutting the level of crime, prison actually increases it. I display some facts about offenders’ lives in the panels below. They are from a report called Reducing Re-offending by Ex-prisoners (2002) prepared by the Social Exclusion Unit (SEU) of the British government, but the pattern is similar all over the Western world.

The SEU’s research helps us to see why most criminals go on offending again and again. The empirical evidence it offers supports the hypothesis that entrenched criminal habits are strongly associated with the worst kinds of upbringing.

The typical prisoner seen in the SEU’s data was raised in a family used to crime and imprisonment. His school life was ruined by truanting, exclusion and being taken into care. (95% of the UK’s prison population of 94,000 is male.) He is too illiterate and innumerate for all but the most menial employment. His bad state of mental and physical health is aggravated by addiction to drugs or alcohol or both. He is poor, dependent on state benefits, and constantly in debt. He has no settled home-life.

Here is the SEU’s own conclusion:

“Many of those in prison come from the most socially excluded groups in society. Many will have grown up in backgrounds where serious violence, drug and alcohol abuse are commonplace experiences. Few may have known the security of a stable home or done well at school. Crime may be seen as a survival strategy, as inevitable, or the only means of getting the things that others have.” (para.11.1)

In large measure, then, prisoners are more sinned against than sinning. Is it right that they alone should be held responsible for offences they would probably not have committed but for their bad luck of being born into the kind of circumstances that dispose men to crime?

If an offender is not ultimately responsible for the way he is, perhaps he shouldn’t be jailed for what he does. But are character traits immutable? Perhaps someone with a bad moral trait should respond to reasons to change – should see why that trait is spoiling his life. But how realistic is it to expect hardened re-offenders to go straight? They were brought up in poverty and chaos, starved alike of love, order and discipline, some even mentally scarred by violence and sexual abuse. Recall the SEU’s conclusion: a career of crime is their ‘survival strategy’, or they see it as ‘inevitable’. Maybe these men in many cases really are incapable of change. Two out of three offenders are reconvicted within two years; each released prisoner who gets reconvicted commits at least five crimes while he is free. Do we need more evidence of this widespread incapacity? A childhood of abuse and neglect can leave a person psychologically damaged to such an extent that it is naïve to hold them morally responsible for their traits, or expect them to change their ways. Ill nurture tends to predispose men to crime, and imprisonment to make them persist in it. The SEU found that having a job, a home and a stable family are strongly associated with reducing the likelihood of ex-prisoners re-offending, and that a jail sentence actually weakens these protective factors:

“Too often a prison sentence does not cure the causes of crime, but aggravates them. Instead of helping prisoners to connect with jobs and become included in society again, it can take away the employment, housing and family links, and leave prisoners virtually destitute, on the road back to prison.” (para. 16.2)

One ex-prisoner told the SEU, “It’s true what they say: your sentence begins the day you get out.” It’s not irrational for a destitute prison-leaver to choose to return to crime if it is his only survival strategy.

Sing Sing Prison
At work in Sing Sing with the warden and friends
Sing Sing Prison Picture © Baines News Services

The disastrousness inherent in the failure to develop political and social theories based on a firm grasp of the real conditions of people’s lives is nowhere more plain than in the practice of punishing lawbreakers. It is clear that the quest for an ideal theory of legal punishment – a theory constructed without reference to such conditions – is futile. This futility is perhaps most highly evident in the social contract theory of punishment, which holds that punishment is justified not because it is either retributive or rehabilitory, but because it is a necessary means of defending freedom.

The Injustice of John Rawls

The American philosopher John Rawls defended this ancient doctrine in his classic work A Theory of Justice (1971). There could be no just society if lawbreakers were allowed to go unpunished, he argued, since it is a prerequisite of a just society that every citizen should be held responsible for their conduct. We must understand that “the principle of responsibility is not founded on the idea that punishment is primarily retributive or denunciatory. Instead it is acknowledged for the sake of liberty itself” (p.212). This may be right as a theory of punishment. But when it is applied to the real conditions of offenders’ lives, its defects are appalling, as we have seen in the statistics quoted.

Rawls is best known for a thought experiment he invented to try to establish the principles of justice which should govern a society. We must imagine ourselves in an ‘Original Position’ behind a ‘Veil of Ignorance’. This means that to establish the just principles for society, we have to imagine what principles we would choose if we did not know anything about the position we would hold in it – whether we were rich or poor, male or female, black or white, etc. Rawls says that until the veil is lifted we know nothing about how well each of us is fitted by natural endowment, health, education, or social position, or even gender, to achieve the best outcomes. We are disposed by a risk-averse nature to guard against the worst possible outcomes, he argues, so that our own rational self-interest drives us to choose principles of justice which would favour the worst off. Rawls is thus led to his ‘Difference Principle’: that unless there is an unequal distribution of income and wealth that makes both the most advantaged and the least advantaged better off, then an equal distribution of benefits is to be preferred.

According to the Difference Principle, the gains garnered by naturally gifted or socially privileged individuals do not belong exclusively to them, but should be treated to as a common fund, and available for redistribution. The Principle is in effect an agreement to treat the spread of the natural talents and acquired abilities among all individuals as collective assets. But here Rawls’ principles of justice clash harshly with his social contract justification of punishment. In Rawls’ own words, the Difference Principle would ensure that:

“no one gains or loses from his arbitrary place in the distribution of natural assets or his initial position in society without giving or receiving compensating advantages in turn… That we deserve the superior character that enables us to make the effort to cultivate our abilities is also problematic; for such character depends in good part upon fortunate family and social circumstances in early life for which we can claim no credit. The notion of desert does not apply here.” (A Theory of Justice, pp. 87 & 89)

Now contrast this passage with the following lines about crime, later in the same book:

“a propensity to commit such [illegal] acts is a mark of bad character, and in a just society legal punishments will fall only upon those who display these faults.” (p.277)

But if some people owe their ‘superior character’ to fortunate family and social circumstances, then isn’t it equally the case that others owe their ‘bad character’ to unfortunate circumstances? And if the fortunate do not deserve the advantages from having a good character, why should the unfortunate deserve the disadvantages from having a bad one?

Rawls actually grants that they do not deserve them. To lawbreakers “one can only say: their character is their misfortune” (p.504). It is their misfortune because they do not deserve punishment for offences which they were led to commit by a badness of character for which they themselves are not to blame. It is their bad luck to have punishment fall upon them, since none of us deserve our initial starting place in society, nor how we were raised. Unfortunately, however, offenders have nevertheless to be punished in order to preserve liberty in a just society.

The parties to the (theoretical) Original Position where the principles for society are chosen would surely agree that laws must be enforced. But if they agree to share one another’s fate for the distribution of income and wealth, shouldn’t they agreed to do so for the purpose of criminal culpability as well? The reasoning is entirely symmetrical. Behind the Veil of Ignorance no one can know if they will be born into the kind of circumstances that lead to a life of crime, so shouldn’t the parties behind the Veil apply the Difference Principle to punishments as well as to the sharing of assets? Shouldn’t they, logically speaking, agree to treat the distribution of natural and social defects as a collective liability, just as they treat natural and social benefits? Because character traits depend in large part upon family and social circumstances in early life, favourable or otherwise, for which we can claim no credit or deserve no blame, it is therefore unjust to let retribution fall exclusively upon persons of bad character. Rawls’ reasoning on punishment obviously contradicts the rest of his argument. Rather, the arbitrariness of talents and character undermines desert in respect of both the distribution of wealth and of criminal punishment. It would be just to share the misfortune of offenders. And since offenders are punished even if they don’t personally deserve it, imprisonment, especially, is unjust.

Rates of incarceration and re-offending (approx.) prisoners / 100,000 population

Solving Crime

The evidence in the SEU’s report points to an overwhelming conclusion: crime is largely the penalty of poverty and ignorance, just as typhoid is the price of foul drinking water. Imprisonment tinkers with the symptoms of crime, aggravates the causes of crime, and thus perpetuates crime.

It would be very foolish to suppose that poverty and ignorance could be wiped out in the lifespan of even several governments. That result would require a set of policies, consistently maintained over many decades, and purposely designed as a Grand Project to eradicate the conditions in which people feel driven into criminal careers as their only survival strategy. For such a project to be fulfilled it would need to be backed up by a binding compact between the major political parties.

One possible analogy is with a great flood prevention project in Holland known as the Delta Works. In January 1953, all of south-west Holland, from Rotterdam to Flushing, was covered by a North Sea flood that killed around two thousand people in one night. The South Holland coast region is home to four million people, most of whom live below normal sea level. The loss of life in a catastrophic flood here was very great because there’s hardly any warning time with North Sea storms, so mass evacuation wasn’t a realistic option. In response to the flood, the Dutch government decided to build a storm surge barrier that would reduce the length of coastline exposed to the sea by 700 kilometres (435 miles). This work was sustained until the work was declared officially finished nearly sixty years later in 2010. The Dutch people were politically committed to see the project through, no matter how long it took, or which government was in power, or what it cost. The Delta Works has been called one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World.

If imprisonment were the answer to crime we would be closing prisons not opening more. On the contrary, all the evidence shows that imprisonment tends to induce re-offending. It is absolutely evident from the SEU’s research that prison produces negligible impact on re-offending at enormous social and economic cost: in Britain the government has put the cost of crime by re-offenders alone at around £11billion a year to victims and the nation.

Men are sent to prison by judges not connected socially or even geographically to those they sentence, and who are thus insulated from the consequences of their decisions. ‘How to punish?’ is instead best answered where the offenders and their victims live. Every community should accept its share of responsibility, and work to eradicate local conditions that foster bad character and crime. Education, housing, healthcare and job programmes prevent offences and reintegrate offenders. It is on these things and on reparations that money should be spent, not on imprisonment.

© Stuart Greenstreet 2014

Stuart Greenstreet earned his living as a business manager and writer before taking up philosophy at Birkbeck College, London. After graduating from the Open University he did further philosophy at the University of Sussex.

Family Background of Convicted Prisoners

Prisoners are far more likely than the general population to have grown up in care, poverty, or an otherwise disadvantaged situation. Compared with men and women in the general population, prisoners were:

• 4 times more likely to have run away from home as a child.

• 13 times more likely to have been taken into care as a child.

• 2.5 times more likely to have a family member convicted of a criminal offence.

The latter two characteristics interact. Around 125,000 children in Britain are affected by imprisonment each year. Many are taken into care, fostered, or adopted as a result of a parent’s imprisonment, and this increases the likelihood of their becoming offenders themselves.

Nearly half of all prisoners say that they have lost contact with their families since entering prison. Many are sent to prisons far from their homes.

Education and Employment of Convicted Prisoners

Most prisoners have had their experience of school disrupted by truanting and exclusion, and leave school at the first opportunity, with no qualifications. Compared with the general population, convicted prisoners were:

• 10 times more likely to have been a regular truant.

• Nearly 25 times more likely to have been excluded from school.

• Nearly 3 times more likely to have left school at sixteen or younger.

• Nearly 4 times more likely to have left school with no qualifications.

• 23% of male and 11% of female prisoners attended a special school compared to only one per cent of the general population.

• 48% of prisoners have a lower level of reading ability than an 11-year-old; 65% have lower numeracy skills; and 82% have lower writing skills.

Low skills feed into low employability: only half of prisoners have the reading skills, less than one-third the numeracy, and one-fifth the writing skills necessary for 96% of all jobs.

Employment reduces the risk of re-offending by between a third and a half. But two-thirds of prisoners arrive in prison from unemployment. Unemployment in the general population is normally between 5% to 8%. Among prisoners (in the 4 weeks before imprisonment) it is 67%.

The same proportion have never experienced regular employment or having a job that was really worth having. Over one in seven say that they have never had a job at all.

The Crackpot Index

 John Baez

A simple method for rating potentially revolutionary contributions to physics:


  1. A -5 point starting credit.
  2. 1 point for every statement that is widely agreed on to be false.
  3. 2 points for every statement that is clearly vacuous.
  4. 3 points for every statement that is logically inconsistent.
  5. 5 points for each such statement that is adhered to despite careful correction.
  6. 5 points for using a thought experiment that contradicts the results of a widely accepted real experiment.
  7. 5 points for each word in all capital letters (except for those with defective keyboards).
  8. 5 points for each mention of “Einstien”, “Hawking” or “Feynman”.
  9. 10 points for each claim that quantum mechanics is fundamentally misguided (without good evidence).
  10. 10 points for pointing out that you have gone to school, as if this were evidence of sanity.
  11. 10 points for beginning the description of your theory by saying how long you have been working on it. (10 more for emphasizing that you worked on your own.)
  12. 10 points for mailing your theory to someone you don’t know personally and asking them not to tell anyone else about it, for fear that your ideas will be stolen.
  13. 10 points for offering prize money to anyone who proves and/or finds any flaws in your theory.
  14. 10 points for each new term you invent and use without properly defining it.
  15. 10 points for each statement along the lines of “I’m not good at math, but my theory is conceptually right, so all I need is for someone to express it in terms of equations”.
  16. 10 points for arguing that a current well-established theory is “only a theory”, as if this were somehow a point against it.
  17. 10 points for arguing that while a current well-established theory predicts phenomena correctly, it doesn’t explain “why” they occur, or fails to provide a “mechanism”.
  18. 10 points for each favorable comparison of yourself to Einstein, or claim that special or general relativity are fundamentally misguided (without good evidence).
  19. 10 points for claiming that your work is on the cutting edge of a “paradigm shift”.
  20. 20 points for emailing me and complaining about the crackpot index. (E.g., saying that it “suppresses original thinkers” or saying that I misspelled “Einstein” in item 8.)
  21. 20 points for suggesting that you deserve a Nobel prize.
  22. 20 points for each favorable comparison of yourself to Newton or claim that classical mechanics is fundamentally misguided (without good evidence).
  23. 20 points for every use of science fiction works or myths as if they were fact.
  24. 20 points for defending yourself by bringing up (real or imagined) ridicule accorded to your past theories.
  25. 20 points for naming something after yourself. (E.g., talking about the “The Evans Field Equation” when your name happens to be Evans.)
  26. 20 points for talking about how great your theory is, but never actually explaining it.
  27. 20 points for each use of the phrase “hidebound reactionary”.
  28. 20 points for each use of the phrase “self-appointed defender of the orthodoxy”.
  29. 30 points for suggesting that a famous figure secretly disbelieved in a theory which he or she publicly supported. (E.g., that Feynman was a closet opponent of special relativity, as deduced by reading between the lines in his freshman physics textbooks.)
  30. 30 points for suggesting that Einstein, in his later years, was groping his way towards the ideas you now advocate.
  31. 30 points for claiming that your theories were developed by an extraterrestrial civilization (without good evidence).
  32. 30 points for allusions to a delay in your work while you spent time in an asylum, or references to the psychiatrist who tried to talk you out of your theory.
  33. 40 points for comparing those who argue against your ideas to Nazis, stormtroopers, or brownshirts.
  34. 40 points for claiming that the “scientific establishment” is engaged in a “conspiracy” to prevent your work from gaining its well-deserved fame, or suchlike.
  35. 40 points for comparing yourself to Galileo, suggesting that a modern-day Inquisition is hard at work on your case, and so on.
  36. 40 points for claiming that when your theory is finally appreciated, present-day science will be seen for the sham it truly is. (30 more points for fantasizing about show trials in which scientists who mocked your theories will be forced to recant.)
  37. 50 points for claiming you have a revolutionary theory but giving no concrete testable predictions.

10 Mind-Blowing Theories That Will Change Your Perception of the World      

*The work below does not state any of the views of the blogger. It’s just an article the kid picked up, so show her some mercy 😉

“Reality is not as obvious and simple as we like to think. Some of the things that we accept as true at face value are notoriously wrong. Scientists and philosophers have made every effort to change our common perceptions of it.

The 10 examples below will show you what I mean.

1. Great glaciation.

Great glaciation is the theory of the final state that our universe is heading toward. The universe has a limited supply of energy. According to this theory, when that energy finally runs out, the universe will devolve into a frozen state. Heat energy produced by the motion of the particles, heat loss, a natural law of the universe, means that eventually this particle motion will slow down and, presumably, one day everything will stop.

2. Solipsism.

Solipsism is a philosophical theory, which asserts that nothing exists but the individual’s consciousness. At first it seems silly – and who generally got it into his head completely deny the existence of the world around us? Except when you put your mind to it, it really is impossible to verify anything but your own consciousness. Don’t you believe me? Think a moment and think of all the possible dreams that you have experienced in your life. Is it not possible that everything around you is nothing but an incredibly intricate dream? But we have people and things around us that we cannot doubt, because we can hear, see, smell, taste and feel them, right? Yes, and no. People who take LSD, for example, say that they can touch the most convincing hallucinations, but we do not claim that their visions are “reality”. Your dreams simulate sensations as well, after all, what you perceive is what different sections of your brain tell you to. As a result, which parts of existence can we not doubt? None. Not the chicken we ate for dinner or the keyboard beneath our fingers. Each of us can only be sure in his own thoughts.

3. Idealist Philosophy.

George Berkeley, the father of Idealism, argued that everything exists as an idea in someone’s mind. Berkley discovered that some of his comrades considered his theory stupid. The story goes that one of his detractors kicked a stone with his eyes closed and said, “There I’ve disproved it!” The idea being that if the stone really only exists in his imagination, he could not have kicked it with his eyes closed. Refutation of Berkeley is hard to understand, especially in these days. He argued that there is an omnipotent and omnipresent God, who sees all and all at once. Realistic, or not?

4. Plato and Logos.

Everybody has heard of Plato. He is the world’s most famous philosopher. Like all philosophers he had a few things to say about reality. He argued that beyond our perceived reality there lies a world of “perfect” forms. Everything that we see is just a shade, an imitation of how things truly are. He argued that by studying philosophy we have a chance of catching a glimpse of how things truly are, of discovering the perfect forms of everything we perceive. In addition to this stunning statement, Plato, being a monist, said that everything is made of a single substance. Which means (according to him) that diamonds, gold and dog feces all consist of the same basic material, but in a different form, which, with science’s discovery of atoms and molecules, has been proven true to an extent.

5. Presentism.

Time is something that we perceive as a matter of course, if we view it at the moment, we usually divide it into past, present and future. Presentism argues that the past and the future are imagined concepts, while only the present is real. In other words, today’s breakfast and every word of this article will cease to exist after you have read it, until you open it again. The future is just as imaginary, because time cannot exist before and after it happened, as claimed by St. Augustine.

6. Eternalism.

Eternalism is the exact opposite of presentism. This is a philosophical theory that says that time is multi-layered. It can be compared to a pound cake (however, unlike the time, a biscuit is not up for philosophical debate). All time exists simultaneously, but the measurement is determined by the observer. What he sees depends on which point he is looking at. Thus dinosaurs, World War II and Justin Bieber all exist simultaneously but can only be observed from a specific location. If one takes this view of reality then the future is hopeless and the deterministic free will is illusory.

7. The Brain in a Jar.

The “brain in a jar” thought experiment is a question discussed by thinkers and scientists, who, like most people, believe that human’s understanding of reality depends solely on his subjective feelings. So, what is the debate? Imagine that you are just a brain in a jar that is run by aliens or mad scientists. How would you know? And can you truly deny the possibility that this is your reality? This is a modern interpretation of the Cartesian evil demon problem. This thought experiment leads to the same conclusion: we cannot confirm the actual existence of anything except our consciousness. If this seems to sound reminiscent of the movie “The Matrix“, it is only because this idea was part of the very basis of the story. Unfortunately, in reality we have no red pills.

8. The Multiverse Theory.

Anyone who has not spent the last ten years on a desert island, has at least once heard of “the multiverse”, or parallel universes. As many of us have seen, parallel words, in theory, are worlds very similar to ours, with little (or in some cases, large) changes or differences. The multiverse theory speculates that there could exist an infinite number of these alternate realities. What’s the point? In a parallel reality you have already killed the dinosaurs, and you are lying under the ground at a depth of eight feet (because that’s what happened there.) In the other you might be a powerful dictator. In another you might never have even been born since your parents never met. Now that’s a memorable image.

9. Fictional realism.

This is the most fascinating branch of multiverse theory. Superman is real. Yes, some of you would probably choose a different story, for argument’s sake, Harry Potter might be real too. This branch of the theory argues that given an infinite number of universes, everything must exist somewhere. So, all of our favorite fiction and fantasy may be descriptive of an alternate universe, one where all the right pieces came into place to make it happen.

10. Phenomenalism.

Everyone is interested in what happens to things when we are not looking at them. Scientists have carefully studied this problem and some of them came to a simple conclusion – they disappear. Well, not quite like this. Phenomenalist philosophers believe that objects only exist as a phenomenon of consciousness. So, your laptop is only here while you are aware of, and believe in its existence, but when you turn away from it, it ceases to exist until you or someone else interacts with it. There is no existence without perception. This is the root of phenomenalism.”

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Critical Linking: May 19th, 2014