The cost of not challenging our beliefs about prison

When we think about prison, what are the first thoughts that come to mind? What is its role in society and what are its goals? Does it succeed in meeting them?

For many people, the main role of prison is punishment. They want justice, for people to pay for their crimes. For others, prisons are meant to promote safety, by (usually temporarily) separating criminals for the rest of society. Some might believe that prison sentences are dissuasive. Or that, with time to think, prisoners might repent and change their ways. Some believe that prisons offer rehabilitation.

And what about the prisoners? What do we believe about them? Do we believe that they can do better? Or do we see them as ‘incurable’? What are our goals? Pure, impartial justice? A compassionate system? Do these lead to a safer society?

Our ideas and beliefs  are not necessarily good or bad. But they influence our attitudes and actions. Surely it is important to at least examine them, to see if they are helpful in achieving our goals.


The belief that prison is a deterrent for crime is common. It is at the root of many programs and laws. But do we have any proof that it works?

Some people think that it does because the high cost of prison is bigger than the benefits of a crime. But for that to be true, we must believe that humans make decisions rationally. Others think that it works through the behaviorist theory of conditioning. But that isn’t true either. Studies seem too show that in reality, prison has very little effect on rates of recidivism. Certain sociological theories even suggest that prison encourages recidivism. This could happen because of social learning from more experienced criminals, reinforcement of anti-social behavior, and loss of protective factors (like jobs and social support).

This doesn’t have to be an argument for or against the existence of prison. After all, separating potentially dangerous people from society can be important. But if we question the belief that prisons inherently prevents criminal behavior, we realize that there is far less being done for prevention of crime and recidivism than we might think.

So what kind of programs do we use to prevent recidivism? There are studies that have tried to see if they work. And one of the things they have shown is that there are certain common practices that actually increase recidivism.

sky-building-house-vintage-largeFor example, « Scared Straight » programs used to be very popular. These programs sent young, first time offenders to real jails for a day, in order to scare them. People thought that seeing the hard conditions of prison life would make them realize the consequences of their actions. Because most of the kids involved did not re-offend, people believed that this treatment worked. But when they compared this program to a control group, they realized that rates of recidivism were higher that if they had done nothing. The treatment actually caused harm.

Similar things have been found for boot-camp and military style programs, and even for threats of longer sentences. It seems that « getting tough » doesn’t work.

Research has shown other cases where well-meaning programs can cause harm. For example, intensive interventions for low-risk prisoners can increase recidivism. And programs that work on prisoner’s self esteem, physical activity, programs that respect anti-social thinking, or that work on insight and self-disclosure have little to no effects.

Prison reading groupSo what does work? In general, studies show that getting an education in jail helps. Also, programs that target substance abuse, problem solving skills, self-control, and that help avoid anti-social peers, tend to be more effective.  Finally, structured behavioral programs tend to be the most effective. These are the programs that focus on present circumstances and risk. They target actions and teach new skills and behaviors.

Our personal models of how the world should work are often biased, and can prevent us from achieving our goals. As we have seen, some treatments that seem like common sense can actually have harmful effects. If, as psychologists, we wish to help people in some way, we must collectively be willing to question our beliefs and evaluate our practices. How else can we avoid harmful or inefficient practices?

To learn more:

From theory to practice: What Works in Reducing Recidivism?
What works in young offender treatment: A meta-analysis
Scared Straight and Other Juvenile Awareness Programs for Preventing Juvenile Delinquency
The Effects of Prison Sentences on Recidivism
Prisons Do Not Reduce Recidivism : The High Cost of Ignoring Science
Evidence based corrections : identifying what works