Prisons and Imprisonment Research Paper

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Imprisonment is the principal form of punishment in most countries for people convicted of serious crimes. People charged with crimes are often held in pretrial confinement until the charges are resolved. The institutions in which convicted offenders and pretrial detainees are held are usually called prisons. In the United States, however, the word ‘prisons’ refers only to state and federal institutions for offenders sentenced to terms of a year or more. Pretrial detainees and offenders sentenced to shorter terms are held in ‘jails’ operated by local governments. This research paper examines the history of prisons, historical and comparative patterns of imprisonment, and the collateral and direct effects of imprisonment on prisoners, their families, and their communities, and on crime rates and patterns.

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1. Origins

The modern prison dates from the period 1780–1840, though recognizable precursors existed. Imprisonment as punishment for convicted criminals dates from classical times, but such incarceration occurred only intermittently and on a small scale. By the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, many Western countries had created debtors’ prisons and houses of correction for paupers, and gaols for holding people pending trial.

Development of the Penitentiary is usually attributed to American Quakers. Penitentiaries were to be places of solitude and introspection where, guided by religious instruction, convicted offenders would repent, realize their errors, and prepare for law-abiding futures. The earliest such regime was established in 1790 in the Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia. The first purpose-built American penitentiaries were in New York, and in Pennsylvania.

In its extreme form, the Quaker regime, known as the ‘silent system’ and associated with Pennsylvania prisons, required prisoners to live in solitary confinement with only limited contacts with staff and clergy. Later, work was permitted in the one-person cells. Because the silent system led to the mental breakdown of many prisoners, it was soon abandoned for the ‘congregate system’ associated with New York prisons, in which inmates lived alone but worked together in enforced silence.

Europeans including Charles Dickens and Alexis de Tocqueville visited America to examine the penitentiaries and to consider their feasibility. Millbank, the first national penitentiary in England, was built in 1816, although the first on the American model, Pentonville, was not built until 1842. The first French penitentiary, La Petite Rocquette, opened in 1836. Penitentiaries soon existed in every European country.

A second wave of innovation occurred in the late nineteenth century, exemplified by the 1877 opening of New York’s Elmira Reformatory. This prison, for male offenders up to the age of 30, was premised on rehabilitative ideas. It strove to reform offenders by providing a wide range of educational and vocational programs together with discipline and religious instruction. These rehabilitative ideas led to the first parole release systems, since there was no point in holding prisoners after they had been reformed. They also precipitated creation of indeterminate sentencing systems in which judges, prison managers, and parole boards exercised broad, standardless discretion over the lives of offenders.

Historians point out that the bursts of enthusiasm were short, that even in their own eras the innovative institutions were atypical, and that most prisons at most times have been brutal, inhumane places. Marxist accounts tied the development of the prison to the emergence of the industrial economy and portrayed the prison as a mechanism for labor discipline. Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish (1978) argued that the prison, like public education and the army, was a reaction to the breakdown of the ancien regime and served as a socializing institution, producing disciplined individuals suited to bureaucratic and conformist roles provided by the modern state. David Rothman, in The Discovery of the Asylum (1971), described prison developments in Jacksonian America as an attempt by philanthropic reformers to respond to social dislocation and rapid change by trying to reform the by-products of a disordered society: the deviant, disorderly, and deranged. In Conscience and Conenience (1980), Rothman considered why new Progressive Era institutions were created and why they endured. ‘Conscience,’ an idealistic wish to improve the lives of troubled people, explains their creation, and ‘convenience,’ the autonomy and flexibility given managers by indeterminate sentencing, explains their durability. Michael Ignatieff, in A Just Measure of Pain (1978), emphasized the humanitarian intentions of prison reformers but, like Foucault, saw the penitentiary as a product of a series of nineteenthcentury social crises and the emergence of the modern state.

During most of the twentieth century, researchers, the media, and the public knew little of life inside prisons. The laws, traditions, and rehabilitative rationale of indeterminate sentencing gave prison and parole officials broad authority over the day-to-day lives of prisoners. In the United States, a ‘hands-off doctrine’ led courts to refuse even to consider prisoners’ complaints, reasoning that prisoners were ‘slaves of the state’ and that courts should defer to the professional expertise of prison administrators.

Developments in the 1960s and 1970s undermined indeterminate sentencing and transformed American prisons. The prison’s rehabilitative rationale lost credibility. Reviews of rehabilitative programs concluded that there was little credible evidence that correctional treatment programs reduced recidivism. The civil rights movement and social ferment of the 1960s led prisoners, especially minority prisoners, to become more assertive. This resulted in high-visibility prison riots, most famously in New York’s Attica Prison in 1971, and led to abandonment of the handsoff doctrine. Conditions in many American prisons were then racist, squalid, and brutal. By the late 1970s, federal courts declared conditions in many jails and prisons to be unconstitutional. Prisons in more than 40 states came under federal court control in the 1980s.

Beginning in the 1960s, crime and punishment became central political issues in the United States. Many politicians ran for office on ‘law and order’ platforms, and supported harsher policies. Fifteen states abolished parole release. Many states enacted laws to make conditions in prisons less comfortable, including reducing or eliminating access to televisions and recreational facilities; others eliminated recreational and treatment programs. In the 1990s, nearly 30 states enacted ‘three-strikes-and-you’re-out’ laws requiring mandatory life sentences for people convicted of a third serious crime. Most prosecutors requested harsher penalties, most judges imposed them, and most parole boards released fewer prisoners.

Other changes affected prisons. By the late 1990s, private corporations operated hundreds of institutions and provided comprehensive services, such as medical care, to others. Efforts to build new facilities before 1980 were often stymied by not-in-my-backyard movements; communities thereafter competed for new prisons as local economic development initiatives. In the 1960s, there were no labor unions for prison guards; in California in the 1990s, the guards’ union was a major campaign contributor and an active lobbying group.

Most developments affecting American prisons also occurred elsewhere. Compared to the USA, prisonguard unions developed earlier and were stronger in Australia, England, and France. Prison privatization occurred extensively in Australia, New Zealand, and England, though nowhere else in Europe. Riots precipitated by prisoners’ complaints occurred in many countries. In England and in some Australian states, conservative legislators in the 1990s enacted harsher laws and mandated more Spartan prison conditions, but nowhere as harshly as in the United States. Prisoners’ rights movements arose in many countries but, because US constitutional traditions give more legal protections to citizens than are recognized in most countries, no other courts intervened extensively in prisons. The exception is in Europe, where prisoner grievances can be redressed under the European Convention on Human Rights, and where the European Convention Against Torture and Inhuman Treatment influences improvements in prison conditions.

In 2000, prisons outside the Western countries were typically inhumane, unhygienic, overcrowded, and understaffed, with notable exceptions in a few Asian countries, especially Japan. The United Nations Declaration on Human Rights pertains to prisons, but no international body has authority to enforce such provisions. As a result, reform pressures must come from local groups, with occasional support from human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

2. Imprisonment Patterns

Countries vary widely in how they use imprisonment. In the United States, from 1925 to 1972 the incarceration rate fluctuated between 90 and 130 per 100,000 residents (state and federal prisons only), leading some scholars to argue that self-balancing processes maintained relative stability over time in the incarceration rate. However, since 1972, American incarceration rates have increased every year, quintupling by the century’s end. Trends in other countries vary widely, though generally the 1990s were a period of rising incarceration rates. In Holland, the incarceration rate increased continually after 1976, although the 1998 rate was still only 80 per 100,000. In Finland, however, the incarceration rate dropped continually after 1975 and in 1998 was around 60 per 100,000, only 40 percent of the rate in the mid-1960s. In Japan, the incarceration rate fell rapidly in the 1950s and then fluctuated around 35 per 100,000. In Southern European countries, including France, Italy, and Spain, incarceration rates varied erratically with sharp rises and declines.

National incarceration rates vary greatly. The United States’ rate in 1998, 680 per 100,000 (prison and jail inmates combined), was among the highest in the world. Only Russia had a comparable rate (685 per 100,000 in 1998). As a region, Eastern Europe had the world’s highest rates in the late 1990s, typically varying between 200 and 500 prisoners per 100,000. England, Ireland, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand had rates of 100–130 per 100,000. Most Western and Southern European countries had rates between 50 and 100 per 100,000, and most Scandinavian countries incarcerated approximately 60 people per 100,000. With the notable exception of Singapore (465 per 100,000 in 1997), most Asian countries had incarceration rates of 20–50 per 100,000.

Very different penal strategies can lie behind incarceration rates. Some Scandinavian countries, notably Sweden and Finland, have low absolute rates (55–60 per 100,000 in the 1990s), but large percentages of convicted offenders receive short-term prison sentences. In Germany, a much smaller percentage of offenders are sentenced to prison, and sentences shorter than six months are disapproved. In most European and English-speaking countries, only 1 to 3 percent of prison sentences are for 2 years or longer. In the United States in 1991, 56 percent of state prisoners were serving sentences of 10 years or longer. In part, these differences result from different penal ideologies. Many American policy makers believe crimes are primarily the product of wrongful moral choices of criminals, that punishment policies can affect crime rates, and that prison sentences should be harsh to provide deterrent disincentives, or lengthy to incapacitate incorrigible offenders. Many European policy makers believe that decisions to commit crimes are powerfully influenced by social conditions and inadequate socialization, and that punishment policies are unlikely to influence crime rates.

Imprisonment is used in most countries primarily as a punishment for violent crimes, serious property crimes, and drug trafficking, and seldom for white collar, regulatory, or environmental crimes. In many countries, prison sentences for violent and drug offenders are getting longer, and populations of drug offenders are increasing. Most prisoners in every country are young, male, unmarried, and economically and socially disadvantaged, and have extensive criminal records. Large percentages are drug dependent and committed their crimes under the influence of alcohol or other drugs. Women constitute only 3 to 8 percent of prisoners in most countries but their numbers and percentages are increasing faster than men’s. Disadvantaged minority groups are disproportionately present in most prison systems, though the identity of the minority groups varies widely. Relative to population, blacks in the USA and Afro-Caribbeans in England are eight times more likely than whites to be in prison. In Australia and Canada, the aboriginal nonaboriginal differences are as high as 15 and 20 to 1. Similar disproportions affect North Africans in Belgium, Holland, France, and Italy, Turks and Eastern Europeans in Germany and Scandinavia, and Koreans in Japan.

3. Collateral Effects Of Imprisonment

At least five kinds of collateral effects can be identified. First, what are the effects on prisoners’ later lives? Economic and ethnographic literature in the United States and Europe show that imprisonment reduces ex-offenders’ subsequent incomes and employment. In the United States, state and federal laws deny exoffenders the right to vote or to hold office, the opportunity to engage in certain occupations, and the right to receive various public benefits and services.

Second, what are the effects on offenders’ spouses or partners, and their children? The relevant literature is thin and fragmented, and the most pressing task is to pull together existing knowledge in order to formulate plausible, testable hypotheses. Hypotheses would address the effects of imprisonment on the financial and social stability of prisoners’ families while they are in prison and afterwards, on the maintenance of prisoners’ relationships with families, and on the short-and long-term well-being and social functioning of prisoners’ children. Sometimes families and partners benefit from the removal of abusive, disordered, or dysfunctional parents and spouses. However, given the strong negative effects on children’s well-being of being raised in disadvantaged, single-parent households, the major effects of imprisonment on spouses and children are often likely to be negative.

Third, what are the effects on prisoners’ later physical and mental health? Controlling for age, sex, and social variables, suicide rates are higher in prison than elsewhere. Psychological literature on coping and adaptation concludes that even long-term imprisonment has few lasting mental health effects, although some researchers doubt this. It would be surprising if established adverse effects on income, employment, and family functioning were unrelated to former prisoners’ mental and physical health. However, a long-term, multiple-measure, longitudinal study is needed to answer such questions, and none has ever been done.

Fourth, what are the effects on prisoners’ later crime involvement? The negative effects on ex-prisoners’ incomes, employment prospects, and family involvement are predictive of increased offending probabilities. At least since the time of John Howard, the eighteenth-century prison reformer, the proposition has been put forward that prisons are ‘schools for crime,’ that inexperienced prisoners are socialized into antisocial and oppositional attitudes and leave prison more likely to commit crimes than when they entered. Sociologists refer to this as ‘prisonization.’ No informed person doubts that this process sometimes happens, and at least partly offsets any crime-reductive effects of imprisonment achieved through deterrence, incapacitation, and rehabilitation. Many European scholars accept as proven that prison is criminogenic. They contend that for crime-prevention reasons, prison terms should be avoided whenever possible. Such arguments explain why German and Austrian policies impose prison terms only for serious crimes and discourage imposition of short sentences (under six months).

Fifth, what are the effects on the larger community? Plausible hypotheses can be offered about effects of American prison expansion on the diversion of public resources (from higher education particularly, and from other public services, to prisons), on economic development (from inner cities where most offenders and victims live, to rural communities where prisons are built), and on community cohesion (in disadvantaged minority communities, large fractions of the young men are or have been in prison and are thereby disabled from working, parenting, marrying, or otherwise contributing to the community). In some disadvantaged communities, imprisonment is so common that it may no longer carry meaningful stigma, and it may have lost whatever deterrent effects it once had.

4. Crime-Control Effects Of Imprisonment

The literature on crime control effects is inconclusive, small, and for the most part old. First, has increased imprisonment reduced crime rates? Most people probably assume that a quarter-century’s quintupling of the American prison and jail population has reduced crime rates. There has, however, been relatively little research in recent years on deterrence and incapacitation effects. Most authoritative reviews of the subject, including the famous 1978 report of the National Academy of Sciences Panel on Research on Deterrent and Incapacitative Effects, conclude that such effects exist, but are modest (Blumstein et al. 1978). Similar conclusions were reached after an exhaustive survey of deterrence research carried out in 1998 by Andrew von Hirsch et al. for the English Home Office.

Second, can prison treatment programs reduce recidivism rates? The pessimism associated with the ‘nothing works’ findings of the 1970s and 1980s has passed, and there are grounds for cautious optimism about the positive effects, under some conditions, of some cognitive-skills, drug-treatment, vocational training, educational, and other programs in adult prisons. The conditions, however, are stringent: program eligibility must be carefully matched to prisoners’ needs and risks, programs must be well implemented and adequately funded, and compatible aftercare programs in the community must sustain treatment.

Third, without distinguishing among deterrent, incapacitative, and rehabilitative effects, does increased imprisonment reduce crime rates in general, and have the increases of recent years done so? The prevalent answer appears to be yes, but the literature, much of it by economists, is technical and inaccessible to nonspecialists. Moreover, research mostly dates from the 1970s and suggests that effects are more modest than is widely understood.

Fourth, in cost-benefit terms is increased imprisonment worth it? This is the smallest and most primitive of the prison effect literatures, and provides few policy-relevant findings. The work to date is useful mostly for methodological reasons, by showing how not to pursue such inquiries. For example, the most widely publicized recent work greatly exaggerates the costs of crime by means of inflated imputed costs of victim ‘pain and suffering,’ and takes no account of suffering by offenders or pains of imprisonment borne by their partners, children, or communities. It may be, as Franklin Zimring and Gordon Hawkins (1991) suggested, that cost-benefit assessments of the effects of imprisonment require weighing of inherently incommensurable values and have reached a dead end.

5. Prisoners And Prison Staff

In 1970, a sociological literature on prison and prisoner subcultures was the best known body of prison scholarship. Since then, prisons have changed a great deal, as have inmate and staff subcultures and interactions between them, and the learning of earlier times may no longer be valid. American prisons are much larger, inmate populations and staffs are more disproportionately black and Hispanic, more line and management staff are women, gangs are larger and their influence more pervasive, more prison staff are unionized, a large and growing fraction of prisons is under private management, and judicial oversight and intrusion are greater. Because larger fractions of prisoners are serving very long sentences, we have witnessed increased need for medical care and geriatric services.

Behavioral, cultural, and social changes in the larger society impinge on life inside prisons. AIDS and HIV, for example, are more prevalent inside prisons than outside. The proportions of mentally ill and mentally defective prisoners increased as a result of the 1960s and 1970s movement to deinstitutionalize the mentally ill. The civil rights and women’s movement have affected prisons, as has the political conservatism of recent years. Programs premised on restorative justice ideas are beginning to appear inside prison walls.

Studies of women prisoners and life inside women’s prisons are conspicuously underdeveloped. There is a small quality literature, but a paucity of research on life inside prisons since 1975 has had an especially impoverishing effect on traditionally under-studied subjects.


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