Why Have Prisons?

Seriously, “Why have prisons?” Knowing what the goals for incarcerating law breakers are should help to define the strategic and tactical policy that is carried out behind prison walls. Though I plan on discussing the Oregon Department of Corrections’ (ODOC) Oregon Accountability Model (OAM), let’s leave the OAM out of this particular discussion for the moment. Again, “Why have prisons?” If we are at least moderately honest with ourselves, then often enough this is a question for which we rarely seek specific answers. But those answers are most often the defining determinants of how politicians, policy makers, and management (policy wonks) create the strategic policy which correctional practitioners struggle to turn into tactical policy.

Unfortunately, this is often a political question that has too many possible answers. In fact, this myriad of possible answers is one of the most glaring problems with developing effective, coherent, and reasonably operational policy. Oh, and let’s leave out the matter of the price tag and effective training.

Why bring this up? Because I think a general discussion of the most common answers to the question, “Why have prisons?” at least starts not only corrections practitioners, but the general public, in a reasonable discussion of the purpose and goals of Oregon’s prisons (more to the point, the purpose and goals of ODOC). As a start, here are four of the most common reasons/answers to the question.

  1. Retribution – punishment, “just desserts,” getting what one deserves for a crime committed
  2. Rehabilitation – to change or alter inmates through treatment or education to make them productive citizens upon release
  3. Deterrence – this is generally understood to mean the punishment of criminals as an example in order to discourage others from committing crimes.
  4. Incapacitation – prevent criminals from committing more crimes by locking them up and isolating them from society

Knowing these, I’d be most interested in what others think the answer(s) to the question is/are. Without referring to the OAM, I’m interested in what Oregonians believe the purpose of the corrections element of our criminal justice system actually is. Whether by email (the link at right) or by comment, please, let me know what you think. Until next time,

Cheers!

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