Prisons, penitentiaries, reformatories or correctional institutions, are virtually the only form of legal punishment today. Those who overstep the laws of society are no longer deported, publicly humiliated, or inflicted with brutal corporal punishments, and rarely are they executed. They are shut away from society in prisons which, with few exceptions, provide a punitive, negative environment, in which offenders serve out their terms in a state of demoralizing idleness.
The traditional, reforming role of imprisonment is being increasingly questioned, and the morale of prison staff has suffered as a result. The initial ideal of rehabilitation has fallen prey to all the complexities of the modern crime problem. With the enormous increase in criminal activity, prisons are over-crowded. They are often little more than warehouses of despair where unhealthy and inhumane conditions erupt in violence, rioting and insurrection. With two or three people crowded into the space intended for one, there is little incentive for introspection and reflection. There are other conditions that militate against rehabilitation. For example, the deprivation of personal security, of mobility and of privacy. In some institutions there is never quiet. In others the lights are never turned off. The link with the outside world is often tenuous, with visits limited and correspondence censored, delayed, or sometimes thrown away altogether, according to the inclination of the current administering officials. These seemingly petty matters can cause extreme psychological damage.
In 2018, 25 percent of the world’s prisoners were in the USA, although it had only 5 percent of the world’s population
Known rates of incarceration in 1991 were highest in the USA with 426 prisoners per 100,000 population compared with South Africa (33 per 100,000), the former Soviet Union (268 per 100,000) and the UK (97 per 100,000). In 1992 figures reported were 76 per 100,000 in the UK, 89 in France, 129 in New Zealand, and 338 in Zimbabwe. One quarter of the inmates of the US federal prison system were serving sentences of over 15 years, one half over 7 years, more severe that an other industrialized country. In the former Soviet Union, only 10% of sentences exceeded 10 years, most were less than five years, and prisoners generally served only one third of the time in prisons, the rest on parole.
Prison is the great leveller; the mass murderer and the petty thief are often confined together. Prisons teach wariness, distrust and cynicism and put the prisoner on constant guard against the unexpected. Prison life is grim, violent and endlessly boring.
Rule 1 of the prison service reflects a specific ideal: 'The purpose of the training and treatment of convicted prisoners shall be to encourage and assist them to lead a good and useful life'.