Part of our Alternatives to Prison series by the Wellington Community Justice Project.
The Need for Rehabilitation
By James Beaumont
A key central theme in modern story telling is the idea of good and bad. In numerous crime dramas the hero will foil a criminal’s plot, with the ‘bad guy’ going to jail as a result.
Unfortunately reality is not always quite as black-and-white as this. It is easy for those of us fortunate enough to come from a privileged background to laud the penal system for the ‘just deserts’ it gives out to felons. However, it is rare that we actually think about life on the other side of the bars and the circumstances that lead to offending. It is easy to conceptualize prisoners as ‘bad guys’, when in fact many of them are regular people who have been forced into a life of crime by complex social problems.
Studies have found that a large percentage of prisoners suffer from drug or alcohol abuse. In addition to this, a majority have substantial literacy problems. What this illustrates is that prisoners are not necessarily bad people, it is more that they are individuals who are completely unequipped to function in society. Placing these individuals in prison only exacerbates the problem. Prisons are notoriously brutal environments, with strength and ruthlessness being the main prerequisites for survival. It seems unusual that we can carry an expectation that prisoners will be somehow reformed when they exit. How can they be expected to become law-abiding citizens when they have been placed in an environment that only adds to their problems?
The traditional counter-argument to this is that putting wrongdoers through prison will ‘scare them straight’. In other words the experience of prison is so horrific that convicts will never want to offend again and risk going back. What this ignores is that human behaviour is often moulded by experience rather than by any sense of logic. For example, as I can attest, many if not all students enter the year with lofty ambitions of top grades. However, it is only the few students who benefit from a strong work ethic that actually achieve these grades. One might be aware that it is the logical choice to prepare for class, but this does not mean that it will win out over the lure of a laptop or television. The mind of a prisoner works in much the same way. A convict might be aware that abstaining from drugs and alcohol is the correct choice but it is another thing entirely to actually avoid them.
Our current prison system gives the appearance of upholding the virtues of protection and justice. However in reality is simply a façade that gives the appearance of dealing with the problem. If prison is really meant to make society a safer place for law abiding members of the community, then why is there so little focus on the type of person that comes out of prison. We might argue the goal of prison is to punish but surely taking away a person’s freedom is punishment enough. If we are to create a prison system that actually enhances society then we need to think about how we can teach criminals good habits so that they have the ability to successfully integrate upon release.