Is Punishment In Prisons Just Fighting Fire with Fire?

Proposal By: Alex Dolan, Lucy Matthews, Willy Challis
Tutor: Dr Eleni Kalantidou


This proposal aims to identify gaps in the current system and provide suggestions for how these gaps can be approached. We need to ensure that whoever is reading and using this information is aware that the suggestions provided are not a fixed ‘solution’ to the problems the prison system not only endures, but also creates. This proposal is an experimental guide and an initial step toward an intervention of the problematic nature of prisons, to create change in the most effective way we have found, based on the findings of our research of academic and vocational programs within prisons.

Based on the findings from our literature review, the importance of education (including training programs, vocational and academic studies) within the current criminal system is severely overlooked. Education is a widely accepted and proven means in reducing recidivism rates and negative psychological effects on inmates in the criminal justice system, however this fact is not often genuinely considered or implemented in practice. Successful education, when used properly, can be a key to change. Through research, from academic and scholarly sources as well as invaluable experiential knowledge, we have found that access to education is severely and unnecessarily restricted to individuals in the criminal justice system, even to those who are proactive and willing to undertake study.

The priority of our proposed program is provide inmates with opportunities to participate in fundamental (basic and higher-level) academic, vocational, health, cultural and social education, while also providing support in order to empower rather than punish. We hope that the people and organisations involved, and eventually the wider community, will begin to consider inmates as adults in need of education rather than a criminals in need of reform. We feel that by altering this perspective, the stigma surrounding prisoners as subhuman, and ‘the other’, can begin to be broken down.

Though education is a key driver in addressing these current gaps and barriers, we would like to highlight that education must be viewed as a platform that can not stand alone. The complexity of the surrounding issues must also be addressed. We acknowledge our limitations in regards to time and lack of experiential knowledge. We have formulated three key elements that aim to address these gaps beginning with core and social issues, practical elements and further, ongoing education (such as training, vocational and academic).  

The designed elements intend to encourage personal growth and value, as well as self recognition. The program's objective is to gain and retain trust, and sincerely establish a sense of acceptance to counteract the current concept of rejection (the out of sight, out of mind theory doesn’t solve the problem of criminality). Through this one on one support, academic and other forms of education can be successful in teaching prisoners to be better, rather than worse. This can only happen when all three elements are implemented together, using a holistic approach. Most importantly, these elements don’t just assist the individual while incarcerated but aims to design a support network to ensure continued support upon release, not only for prisoners but for their families, friends and partners as well.

When using the word holistic it is critical that we define this in recognising the context of a prison can not be simplified. Our approach does not just address the subject matter of the prisoners specifically although treating prisoners on an individual basis is included. Additional aims are to investigate the complexity of the overarching issue that is the criminal justice system. The gaps and barriers identified are far reaching and affect the institution as a whole. This program is just a starting point.

As humans we strive for wellbeing in life, the core principle in a holistic approach is about enabling more opportunities to do so. Acknowledging, recognising and valuing cultural differences and way of living are a crucial part in this. In this context the commonality can be identified as “we are all humans” but we must still recognise a major difference as being cultural, inside prison compared to outside. By identifying  barriers in regards to social, cultural, political, environmental and economic factors, we have understood a balance in designing is essential.

Everything researched and suggested in this project proposal has been analysed and apprehended in a holistic way. By understanding that everything is intimately interconnected and that everything we bring into existence will affect someone else, we are able to recognise the important role played by prison supports and those within the  correctional system. On the basis of this understanding, our design aims to repair the damage systemically in the hope that this repair will have a rippling effect - flowing on to all those within and connected to the system.

A strong focus on education surrounding correctional officers, the government and society must be employed in order for our education programs, in particular the “elements” stages to be successful. Using a holistic approach our proposal aims to explore in detail the institutionalisation of prisoners, the effects of this institutionalisation on guards and the families of all involved.

Punishment in Prisons (fighting fire with fire)
The unanimous reality of prisons on face value is to remove ‘criminals’ from society via the means of rehabilitation. By definition rehabilitation is ‘to restore the health for an individual via training, or therapy after imprisonment, addiction and illness’. First of all it’s important to note that addiction and illness are implicit in most prisoners and thus prisons, so approaching the incarcerated via rehabilitation by its definition should work? In our findings we have come to understand that the true meaning of rehabilitation is lost and in reality, rehabilitation falls under what is actually defined as punishment. Punishment, by the Oxford definition, means ‘the infliction or imposition of a penalty as retribution for an offence’ – when breaking down the components of this definition we have a sentiment based on negative reaffirmations, as ‘infliction’ is the action of inflicting something unpleasant onto something or someone. ‘Imposition’ connotes a forced unfairness while the term ‘retribution’ takes on the act of inflicting vengeance. This shows us  that punishment by nature, is one that perpetuates a condition of criminality, with reasons for committing a crime aside, the same residual emotional damage inflicted by the crime, shares similarities of the act of inflicting punishment, hence using punishment as a means of rehabilitation is redundant and would only exacerbate criminality and does not serve as an appropriate treatment of addiction and emotional or mental illnesses.

Positive Affirmations (approaching the conditions of prisoners with empathy and value)
If we are to begin to actually see results in the reduction in recidivism, then we should begin by shifting to a the holistic approach. Any individual (not just the incarcerated) needs to be equipped with emotional, mental and practical skills and tools to have any chance of living a life with more opportunity to sustain health. Positive affirmations should include the opportunity to provide the is sustainment which include following – Access to emotional and mental support whether it be done through individual or group therapy, access to vocational and education programs aimed at providing the skills that reflect the outside world. Implicit in these programs need to include a framework of; Empathy – the ability to understand and share feelings of another. Value – to regard that someone is held to deserve; the importance, worth, or usefulness of something. These positive affirmations informing the program are focused to provide empowerment for any person. The position of the privileged aka in the position to provide support are presented with an opportunity to empower an individual via value and empathy.

Removal of punishment transitioning to positive affirmations
The removal of punishment may seem nonsensical – it’s crucial in remembering the main objective of prisons, is to ‘rehabilitate’ for ‘successful’ reintegration into society. As we have established that punishment is foreign to the true meaning of rehabilitation, this highlights the need for a call to action in transitioning from punishment to an approach informed by positive affirmations. We can begin to do this is by demonstrating the validity in pre existing and future platforms acknowledging the phenomenon of punishment over positive affirmations towards prisoners is ineffective and strive to work towards a new means dealing with problematic condition of prisons.

Short Term Objective: Element design prototype
The initial short term objective of the program is the immediate implementation of the first, core element, followed by the practical and ongoing education elements. To treat prisoners as individuals not a mere statistics, but as people with the ability to take control of their situation and make the informed choices. These informed choices are instilled by the following basics:

  • Human connection, first and foremost, and continued through to the long term
  • Access to someone that can facilitate emotional and mental guidance surrounding social issues (caused by the individual’s mental state and pre-incarceration habitus including environment, family, etc.)
  • A reduction of illiteracy to facilitate the ability for further study if that’s what the individual desires.
  • Encouragement of self-directed learning is supported through the mentoring program.

We have acknowledged that by institutionalising these steps it risks being rigid, we aim to tailor these steps of engagement to the individual. Placing importance on a ‘teething phase’ is essential to allow the program to be completely implemented and adapted, to change the platform immediately is idealistic.

Long Term Objective: Education for the incarcerated economic strategy
Due to our limitations within the proposal we suggest that more informed organisations (governmental and non-governmental) as well as trainer and mentor groups can come together to attempt to broaden accessibility, further the current platforms and consider the needs of prisoners and employers for post-release employment. In our research we’ve identified the lack of thorough execution in programs due to the prioritisation of punishment and economic gain. This defines how a prisoner will spend their time in prison, rather on facilitating an environment that enables effective reintegration where an individual has been equipped with the tools to face the challenges of being back in society. As a long term goal we aim to address the lack of interconnectedness amongst programs. Most programs stand on their own which again limits its success. We propose that by working together, with an overarching ideology, programs could have a further reaching more holistic affect.

The following proposal is a prototype, and should be read as a suggestion to the beginning stages of its design, able to be developed, adapted and expanded upon. At this point it should be acknowledged that the problem surrounding education amongst prisoners is both complex and far reaching.

Through our research process we have acknowledged that in order for change to happen it must be approached on a broad and multifactorial scale. The entry point for change must be the incarcerated themselves, however this proposal also extends to the multiplicity of groups and systems aimed at supporting prisoners (explored further below).

The experimental and designing nature of the project aims to challenge current ways of dealing with punishment, imprisonment and rehabilitation through education. In addition to this we aim to challenge how society currently defines these words with pre-existing associations. As part of the project we plan to look at how help from external organisations, communities and individuals can benefit the program, focusing on the individual rather than the institution. The following elements aim to represent the process through which prisoners and supporters are encouraged to become involved. A timeline has not been specified but instead an emphasis on personal development is the key focus. The label “elements” has been utilised to try and format the structure without using exclusive language or a hierarchy format that would in anyway deter the incarcerated individual.

This initial element is the foundation and entry point of the program and is mandatory prior to prisoners furthering their studies in the following phases. This element, and the overall process, is established on what we have labelled social educational programs. This element is based on Principle 6 of the United Nations Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners: “all prisoners have the right to take part in cultural activities and education aimed at the full development of the human personality”. The structure is created through a mentoring program where each prisoner is affiliated with a registered mentor in the program.

The first element of the structure entails a personalised assessment of the individual from a “mentor”. This mentor would be someone from the community and unrelated to the prisoner. Their role would be voluntary, yet all volunteers would be chosen on the basis of a skills audit and interview process. All mentors would receive training to initially inform them on specific behaviours and problems they may encounter when working with the prison population. The role of the mentor would be integrated so that their skills positively influence the prison environment, while providing guidance and support. Mentors may include, but not limited to:

  • ex-prisoners (who have used education in prison to be a driving force to succeed outside)
  • family members of the prison community but not related to or known by the prisoner
  • retired workers and people that are out of work due to long term illness or injury
  • victims of crime that feel they are ready to connect to this group
  • indigenous elders (specifically in prisons with high rates of incarcerated indigenous)
  • police officers (to contribute to changing the  stigma of this institution)
  • university students / honors students or graduates that would be interested in volunteering
  • lawyers (who can speak to prisoners about their rights inside and outside prison)
  • NGO’s and other organisations (to join forces and create an overarching powerful force of mentors)
  • efugees who are willing to share experiences and stories (under supervision, screening process to ensure people are matched to have maximum benefits)

Mentors would be required to attend a short seminar and training program, run by team leaders, that would assist them in mentoring. Mentors would also have access to team leaders for support at any time. Seminars would address the processes on how to establish and maintain trust from the prisoner in a respectful and professional manner. An example of how this can be achieved is by expressing respect, compassion, acceptance and trust via communication based on value with the acknowledgment of the social, economical and environmental circumstances that contribute to the problematic nature of the prison system.

The type of guidance and support of the mentor’s should incorporate the sentiment of a sponsor in the Alcoholic’s Anonymous Twelve Step Program as it embodies the short and long term plan that connotes support without a definite end. Examples of this support are facilitated by face to face meetings. In cases where face to face isn’t possible, a form of correspondence is implemented to maintain the integrity of the program. This is imperative in combating the disjuncture that prisoners face when a programs are cut short. The number of meetings and sessions would be increased in the lead up to a prisoner’s release to help cope with the disconnection between life in prison and life back in society.

Some of the core elements would include individual and group counselling and therapy, educational lectures and workshops, and programs focused on emotional and anger management, domestic violence support (for perpetrators and survivors) and drug and alcohol rehabilitation as well as family information sessions, discharge planning and aftercare. These services would be provided within an environment that is safe and supportive, allowing the process of treatment and healing to begin.

Through our previous findings in the literature review conducted we establish there was a great need to address the lack of literacy and numeracy in Australian prisons. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 26) states that “everyone has the right to education” as a universal entitlement, which includes basic primary education. The priority for this practical element is to significantly reduce illiteracy among prisoners. It aims to provide a program that can assess the individual’s current capability level and furthering this. Ideally the previous mentor that assisted the individual in the core element would continue support and teaching to nurture the existing relationship. This element has room for experimental growth with the possibility of encouraging prisoners to feel empowerment through activities and achievements.

An adaptation of the Brazilian book program is a highly recommended exercise. The book program has been recognised as successful. The incarcerated are encouraged to read a book from a selection and write a reflective essay upon completion. Mentors and team leaders are able to suggest a small deduction from the prisoner’s sentence by a certain number of days based on their reflection. What is positive, and successful, about this concept is that it empowers the prisoners and confirms the value in what they have achieved.

It is important to ensure that through this element prisoners gain empowerment. In order for this to be achieved it is essential that their empowerment must stem from the empowered. This directly relates to the importance of the mentoring program, as a means to guide the individual to work through barriers and emphasizing the fact that these prisoners have value.

To further this potential platform, our proposal would like the invite the possibility for the outside community to be invited to assist in this process by taking inspiration from the Common Justice program. The program, while monitored, encourages letter writing to the community, providing connections outside of prison.

In order for this element to be successful the disconnection between educational programs and systems across prisons needs to be recognised and addressed. This disruption between programs was highlighted in our literature review, recognising that the problems that arise when a lack of consistency is present. When an individual is initially incarcerated, transferred between, or released from prison, problems arise due to the lack of consistency regarding academic programs or degrees able to be continued. The United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders rule 77 of the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners states ‘the education of prisoners shall be integrated with the educational system of the country so that after their release they may continue their education without difficulty’. This is rule, according to our research, is not being followed by Australian institutions resulting in dramatically reduced access to education for prisoners.

This element of our proposal somewhat relies on the correction of the previously stated issue of inconsistency in prison education. It is a broader program that creates additional platforms that encourage the incarcerated to take what they have learned through the previous elements, furthering it in a practical (agricultural, training and/or vocational) and/or academic manner. We have decided to combine these different styles of education to ensure the opportunities and benefits that can be gained are not limited to those with scholarly abilities. We acknowledge that not all participants will be suited to an academic style of education, so this element is not compulsory, but efforts to encourage inmates to participate is essential.

The main objective and benefit of the ongoing education element is to create links with outside organisations that can possibly provide employment opportunities post-release. The skills and knowledge obtained during stage three can directly help the incarcerated increase their employability. We acknowledge that it also has the potential to help reduce stigma attached to a criminal record when applying for jobs post-release. We would like to recognise that the issue of stigma is an overarching and complex societal issue that needs to be researched and addressed in a more thorough manner.

Organisations, governmental and non-governmental, should collaborate (through incentives such as government funding) to attempt to broaden accessibility, further the current platforms and consider the needs of prisoners and employers for post-release employment. These aspects, along with our lack of experiential knowledge, are all limitations of our proposal that need to be addressed by informed organisations. There is potential for organisations, trainers and mentor groups to come together in a conference environment to broaden and share knowledge while promoting experiential education design programs nationally and internationally, possibly in conjunction with the Australasian Corrections Education Association. The conference should look at the successes and failures of the program and decide on what needs to be altered. In addition, informing external parties, including the community, of the program has the potential to address larger, overarching issues such as economic problems, overpopulation, stigma and social and behavioural impairments to encourage further support. This aspect addresses the problematic characteristics of the current platform while recognising the continuous nature of the overall process and the potential benefits it can have on not just the prison, but also the rippling effect on the outside community.

In conclusion the objective of the holistic approach is with greater understanding regarding implications in the conditions of prisons for all individuals, prisoners and prison workers ranging to society and how the removal of punishment and transition to positive affirmations via educational and vocational programs. The holistic approach is the backbone of the proposal, without it means that any individual in the position of privilege and ability to provide any form of support, whether it be academic or therapeutic. Are going in blind and without a framework that would enable them to provide an efficient response to the conditions of prisons and thus what prison workers and prisoners are dealing with. As we have established based on the ontology of prisons, that not only prisoners, but anyone working in prisons are experiencing emotional and mental trauma that impedes on their ability to experience work in an healthy and positive way.