One of our fantastic Learning Together alumni, Megan Sharp, is now teaching at the University of Leeds and, in preparation for one of her modules, she has been reaching out across our Network to ask people’s views about whether imprisonment causes crime. In this blog post we share a submission from Ryan, one of our Butler Law Course students.
Does imprisonment cause crime?
This essay will assess the claim that imprisonment causes crime, drawing on the work of Gibbs (1986) to consider whether or not prison acts as a deterrent, and drawing also on the work of Hobbs and Dunningham to assess whether imprisonment seeks to further entrench criminals in more serious organised crime. Labelling and self-fulling prophecy theories will be explored to try and understand the relationship between social exclusion and further crime.
Crime, according to Clinard, refers to those activities that break the law of the land and are subject to official punishment.
According to the criminal justice system, ‘imprisonment is there to act as a deterrent’. Individuals found guilty of committing a crime can expect to be sentenced by the courts. The sentence is often considered to serve a primary expressive function; it conveys to the offender the public’s reaction to their conduct in the criminal offence. An intention that drives the sentencing process, in the case of custodial sentences, is that it should alter criminal behaviour by attaching negative consequences to it. This is the typical example of what is entitled utilitarian, on consequentialist, rationale for punishment as a result of crime (Walker 1991). It is founded on the idea that legal sanctions will have an impact on individuals made subject to them. These sets of expectations are often referred to as deterrence theory, Gibbs (1986) (cited in Davis and Beech 2012).
Furthermore, deterrent effects can be subdivided with respect to different sections of intended outcomes. One basic conventional distinction is that between specific and general deterrence. The latter refers to the wider effect this is expected to have on the others, and on the community as a whole if committing crime is known to be punished; the public should be less likely to do it, as they have observed that it will result in unpleasantness for them (Davis and Beech 2012).
I would argue that deterrence theory can have the adverse effect when individuals are leaving prison. For example, in working-class areas, individuals often have no means or opportunities to express themselves in relation to others; release from prison gives some individuals a chance to receive an element of notoriety or stardom amongst their like-minded peers. Because of this, individuals experiencing social exclusion, and those who cannot find ways to express themselves, can use prison as a platform to achieve recognition which they otherwise wouldn’t achieve.
Another way in which imprisonment may cause crime is explained by labelling theory. Once an individual has received a custodial sentence, they will acquire the label ‘criminal’. This label defines an individual as a particular kind of person. A label is not neutral: it contains an evaluation of the person to whom it is applied. If individuals are labelled as criminals, others see them and respond to them in terms of the label, and tend to assume they have the negative characteristics normally associated with such labels. Since individuals’ self-concepts are largely derived from the responses of others, they will tend to see themselves in terms of the label. This could produce a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Moreover, once an individual has received this label they are less likely to achieve success via conventional channels, and so there is greater pressure on them to deviate. Their educational qualifications are usually low and if they do receive a job, the job itself provides little opportunity for advancement. Merton expressed the problem as “they [ex-offenders] have little access to conventional and legitimate means for becoming successful. Since their way is blocked, they innovate, turning to crime which promises greater rewards than legitimate means” (Merton as cited in Haralambos and Holborn 2013).
The above concept rings true amongst individuals caught up in the system. Those who have received a custodial sentence will often dwell on the hardship they will experience, on release, of persuading an employer to give them a chance. This falls in line with the self-fulfilling prophecy; now an individual feels that they will not be given a chance they do not feel the need to work hard whilst in prison to receive qualifications. This of course decreases their chances of securing a job upon release. Once an individual is experiencing the hardship of not getting employment they could ultimately go back to what they know best, crime.
Hobbs and Dunningham (1990) examined how criminal careers are related to wider economic changes. They argue that organised crime increasingly involves individuals together in loose knit networks, who treat their criminal career rather like they would a business career. They are constantly on the look-out for new business opportunities. Prison gives individuals ample opportunity to encourage and reward criminal activity. When individuals are submersed into the custodial setting one could argue that they form a subculture, and may be subject to the subculture theory: this argues that certain groups, in this scenario the prisoners develop norms and values which are to some extent different to those held by other members of society. Subculture theories claim that crime is the result of individuals conforming to the values and norms of the social group to which they belong (Hobbs and Dunningham 1990, as cited in Haralambos and Holborn 2013).
Prison detains people from different walks of life. Experiences are shared, tips, tricks and networking occur. Individuals who are in involved in organised crime are regularly on the lookout for candidates who will be suitable for their empire. Sometimes these candidates are unaware that they are being targeted which, in turn, can lead to manipulation. Those serving shorter sentences can sometimes be encouraged to involve themselves in the criminal acts, whilst the leader is still serving time. Drugs are a classic example of this. For instance, some people are recruited whilst in prison to smuggle contraband back into prisons following their release. Had the conditions in prison not been present to enable the relationship to develop, the criminal act would not have been possible. Therefore, if an alternate form of punishment had been administered, the criminal act may not have occurred.
In conclusion, drawing upon a number of theories, including labelling theory, deterrence theory and subculture theory, this essay has argued that imprisonment can lead to crime. A testament from an individual serving time has also been used. The three theories used can ring true to many individuals caught up in the justice system; however, it should be noted that not all individuals fall victim of the above models.
My name is Ryan. Since I was sentenced, I have experienced 11 different prisons. I am now in a cat C prison and although I have argued that imprisonment causes crime, the prison where I am now is a brilliant testimony of how imprisonment might reduce crime.